Tokyo - Baseball is supposed to be the quintessentially American game, calling to mind images of sunny summer afternoons and overpriced hotdogs.
But don't tell that to the Boston Red Sox fans cheering the arrival of pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, aka Dice-K. And the fans cheering for the Swallows at Jingu Stadium here in downtown Tokyo won't buy it, either.
I'm munching on sushi and rice crackers and drinking cheap Asahi beer bought at a nearby convenience store, while cheering the Swallows as they play game 4 of the Japan Series.
My Japanese friend swore I would never get tickets, but I was lucky enough to stumble upon a kiosk with a few left, albeit for seats in the wrong section of the stadium. So here I am, my skeptical friend in tow, surrounded by fans of the rival Kintetsu Buffaloes, who've made the trip by bullet train from Osaka.
Imported to Japan in the 19th century by an expat American, baseball was encouraged by the Allied forces after the second world war as a means of restoring the morale of the war-weary Japanese. It has remained enormously popular ever since.
The duel between pitcher and hitter, with its balance between the physical and the mental, appeals to the Japanese in the same way sumo wrestling does, and in the summer months the game is everywhere, in parks, on the shores of rivers, even under elevated train tracks on a rainy day.
Japanese baseball has never had a higher profile internationally. From Dice-K to the Beastie Boys rapping that they've "got more hits than Sadahara Oh" to the successes of Japanese major leaguers like Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui of the Yankees and Ichiro (a speedy lead-off hitter so famous he goes by only one name), the widespread appeal of the Japanese game is no secret.
In fact, Bobby Valentine, manager of this year's series-winning Chiba Lotte Marines and former major league manager, claims that "the level of play is equal" to that of the major leagues in North American. Biased, maybe, but the calibre is certainly the highest outside of North America.
I spent a few years in Japan and never tired of their take on America's national pastime. You can learn a lot about a people by the sports they enjoy and the way they enjoy them - look at Americans with football, Canucks with hockey or British soccer fans.
Emphasizing teamwork over individual statistics, Japanese baseball is refreshingly devoid of the oversized personalities and steroid scandals that mar the American game. And the Japanese game has none of those tediously long commercial breaks between innings or blaring corporate promotions on the Jumbotron.
Game 4 features each of the league MVPs, Tuffy Rhodes and Roberto Petagine (now with the Boston Red Sox), both Americans who failed to make an impact in the majors.
It takes a few innings for the game to get interesting. Buffaloes slugger Rhodes belts a homer in the fourth inning, and the home team finally scores a run in the fifth. North Americans celebrate with high-fives and beer-drinking, but Swallows fans are a different breed.
In one swift movement they produce blue plastic umbrellas that they wave in unison while dancing and singing a song about their glorious Swallows. Surreal.
Fans of the visiting team, not to be outweirded, wait till the seventh inning to show us their moves. With machine-like precision, everyone simultaneously inflates and releases pink-and-white balloons, filling the night sky with a riot of gaudy colour. I'll take thousands of flying balloons over the seventh inning stretch every time.
The Swallows go on to win a close game 2-1, then clinch the series four games to one the next night. As 30,000 fans cheer the final out, I remember what I love most about baseball - the cool night air in an outdoor stadium, the roar of the fans, a closely fought game.
But now I have to add cheap plastic umbrellas and pink balloons to the list.