Japanese players get slice of Americana at FIBI
A week ago, Yoshiro Yamahara and Wataru Ito boarded a Greyhound bus near Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in the middle of the night, bound for Pittsburgh to play in the Freeport International Baseball Invitational.
After a 16-hour airplane ride that started in Tokyo and featured a layover in Hong Kong, the pair hoped to rest on the ride, but with music blaring from the headphones of some of the passengers around them, they were relegated to looking out the window.
Staring at the streetlights as cars and trucks raced by the bus as it barreled down the interstate, Ito got his first slice of Americana.
“The Greyhound bus was so crowded, and some people liked to play music loud, so we didn't get to sleep much,” Ito said. “Everybody was driving so fast. The bus was really moving around.”
Ito, who goes by the nickname “Water” — greeting everyone he met at Monday's Tri-Con Roos practice by gesturing like he was drinking from a glass — is playing in the FIBI for the first time during his maiden visit to the United States.
Outside of the noisy bus, Ito is enjoying his trip, taking in new experiences big and small surrounding him.
Even the insects.
“It is the first time I've ever seen lightning bugs,” Ito said. “They are pretty cool to see.”
Yamahara, who goes by the nickname “Yoshi,” is playing in the FIBI for the second consecutive year.
He first met Ito a year and a half ago while playing baseball at International Christian University in Tokyo. Yamahara, 20, grew up in Kagawa Prefecture, which is a few hours south of Tokyo, where he lives while in college.
He compared Kagawa Prefecture to a rural area like Freeport.
Ito, 20, has lived in Tokyo his entire life.
The pair arrived a week early to spend time with their host family, the McKinigan's, and take in activities before the FIBI started. They went to Pittsburgh Zoo and Sky Zone Trampoline Park in Monroeville, where they played dodgeball on trampolines.
In Yamahara's last visit to Freeport, one thing that stood out to him was the food, which is much different than food in Japan.
“One thing I was surprised about in the United States was that American people eat a lot of hamburgers, hot dogs and nachos,” Yamahara said. “In Japan, the main food is rice.”
Laura McKinigan hosted Yamahara last year and said he took a liking to American cuisine. The menu will be similar this time around.
“He asked for hamburgers and hot dogs, and we'll have taco Tuesday,” McKinigan said. “That's what we had last year, and that's something (Yamahara) loved. He wanted to have taco Tuesday again.”
One area where McKinigan tried to help Ito and Yamahara understand is the sometimes sarcastic and joking nature that bleeds into the nature of Americans.
An aspect that stood out to Yamahara was a general openness he feels Americans have toward one another even if they don't know each other well.
“In America, a lot of people will say hello to people they don't know, like strangers,” Yamahara said. “It's a little bit weird for Japanese. We usually say hello to friends or family, but we might be a little more reserved around strangers.”
While Ito and Yamahara are getting to know the subtleties of American culture, McKinigan has learned from the Japanese players she's hosted the last couple of years.
The main takeaway has been the respect they show, especially toward those close to them.
“Every boy we've met from Japan has been super respectful and very appreciative,” McKinigan said. “I know that's a part of their culture and the way they've been brought up. They take care of the younger kids. I have an 8-year-old son, and when he's eating and making a mess, they're right there to help clean up. That's how they are. They take of their younger siblings. It's been great. We really love having them here.”
After the FIBI concludes Saturday, Ito and Yamahara will board another bus and head back to Chicago, where they will spend a week as tourists before departing to Japan.
For this week, they relish the opportunity to play a lot of baseball and meet new people.
“I heard that there is going to be a game every day,” Ito said. “I've never played baseball every day for one week. That will be different, but I'm looking forward to it.”
“I'm looking forward to playing with these guys again,” Yamahara said. “I know many of them from last year. I've kept in touch with them on Facebook.”
Jerin Steele is a freelance writer.