03/24/12 10:12 AM ET
A's touring party takes in sights of Japan
Traveling contingent views many of country's top spots
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
The wife of Oakland A's starter Brandon McCarthy handed over 320 yen, or about $4, and soon McCarthy and Sogard, the wife of A's infielder Eric, were digging into a local delicacy: grilled, marinated cuttlefish squid on a stick.
Salty because of the soy glaze, both women agreed, but not bad at all and certainly worth trying on a memorable day packed with natural beauty, eye-opening culture and the open warmth of the natives of this spectacular country.
While the Oakland A's and Seattle Mariners worked out in the Tokyo Dome in preparation for two days of exhibition games against Japanese teams and then the two-game Opening Series Japan on Wednesday and Thursday, a sightseeing tour was arranged for various A's officials, broadcasters and players' wives, girlfriends and families. The Mariners will experience a similar tour later in the week.
This tour was all about getting back to nature. The buses rolled through serious Tokyo gridlock -- yes, even on a Saturday -- and traveled more than two hours to the resort area of Hakone, a mountainous region that offers views of the iconic Japanese landmark of Mount Fuji. The location also features active volcanoes, a shimmering volcanic crater lake, historic shrines and resorts with high-end hotels, restaurants, golf courses and amusement parks.
On the way up the snaking mountain road, the sun peaked out from the clouds and Fuji followed. The tour guide said the traveling party was witnessing a bit of a miracle, since the area is usually so cloudy and often rainy that the fickle mountain is visible only 30 percent of the time.
"She is welcoming you to Japan," the guide said.
The first stop was at the Hakone Ropeway, a ski gondola that sits on the banks of Lake Ashi and glides more than two miles to an observation deck where one can view Fuji (if the mountain cooperates) and the surrounding volcanic peaks with steam rising from their sulfuric pores.
The A's contingent braved ripping winds and cold temperatures at the top, but many were smiling and quick to note how special it was to be visiting such an awe-inspiring land.
"Seeing Mount Fuji for the first time, it looks completely different from what I thought it was going to look like," McCarthy said. "It's almost like an iceberg, with a massive base that just goes up slowly, snowy peaks ... it's really beautiful."
A's radio broadcaster Vince Cotroneo visited Japan when Oakland came over to play the Red Sox in Opening Series Japan 2008, but this was his first trip to observe the wonders of Hakone. He said he felt fortunate to be back in the Land of the Rising Sun.
"It's been a great experience," Cotroneo said. "You get an opportunity, when you come to Japan, to witness culture and witness centuries of history, and to hear from our guide about the scenery and the countryside and the different parts of the country that we've gone to, it's just been amazing.
"The vistas have been dramatic, a lot of the pictures have been stunning, and we've seen some things that certainly make you feel that this has been a worthwhile trip and it's great for us to be a part of it and great to be able to bring Major League Baseball here."
After the gondola descended, the buses rode over to a restaurant on another nearby shore of Lake Ashi, where the decorative replica man-of-war pirate ships that take patrons on tours came into clear view. As legend has it, a nine-headed dragon lived in the lake until a human sacrifice was made and the dragon became a deity called Kuzuryu Daimyojin.
No dragons were seen, but the A's party did get to hop on a pirate ship of its own, an ornate green ferry bedecked with gold topmasts. The ship cruised over the glassy water surrounded by green mountainsides covered with cedars, offering an inspiring close to an active day that will lead to four more in the loud, baseball-crazy Tokyo Dome.
"Coming in 2008 and enjoying that experience for the first time was amazing," Cotroneo said. "The energy in that building ... the stands are full, there's a lot of energy, there's a lot of noise, there's a lot of cheering back and forth.
"And I think, even though the Mariners have Ichiro [Suzuki] and the A's have become more popular over here, I think it's going to be a split in terms of the crowd, but they're going to have a lot of fun going back and forth, and I'm anxious to see the kind of show these teams are going to put on. It's going to be a lot of fun."