Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) team Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters has officially opened what many are touting as one of the best ballparks in the world.
ES CON Field Hokkaido opened the 2023 NPB season yesterday (Thursday) as the home team fell to a 3-1 defeat against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in front of a 31,092 crowd at the new state-of-the-art stadium.
The 35,000-capacity ballpark, designed by US architecture and design firm HKS, is intended to be the focal point of a luxury mixed-used development that sits on an 80-acre greenfield site in Kitahiroshima, Hokkaido.
“This is the first new ballpark to open in Japanese baseball in two decades and it will quickly establish a new bar for fan experiences and amenities,” said Mike Rogers, a principal with HKS.
“The materials we used and specific design details are representative of historic Sapporo architecture and a tribute to the community that loves this team. It is a homecoming for the franchise to once again be playing games in Hokkaido and we’re proud to have created such a beautiful venue for the Fighters’ return.”
The Fighters have moved into their new home after playing at Sapporo Dome from 2004 to 2022. It is focused on making full use of its new facility, playing all home games at ES CON Field Hokkaido this season and even forgoing the tradition of staging some games at Tokyo Dome. NPB teams historically take some games to venues around their prefecture.
The Fighters selected HKS to design the stadium having been impressed by another of the company’s projects – Globe Life Field, home of MLB franchise the Texas Rangers, However, the team wanted to create more than just a stadium, with the creation of an associated ‘small city’ that would look and feel like Hokkaido, with multiple partners who were willing to form a creative entertainment capital for the region.
A retractable roof, only the second in NPB joining PayPay Dome, home of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, has satisfied the requirement to protect fans and players from the elements. Hokkaido is one of the world’s snowiest places and the roof can hold up to 14 feet of frozen precipitation.
The retractable roof, which will usually remain open, also allowed the team to use a natural grass field, another rarity in NPB, while the team’s clubhouse is the second largest in the world behind Globe Life Field.
For fans, ES CON Field Hokkaido Ballpark and the development around it, Hokkaido Ballpark Village, is designed to be a unique experience and destination. The stadium is asymmetrical to offer variation and different experiences, with HKS utilising an array of glass to maintain transparency and augment the inside/outside connection.
The development’s greenfield site provides various elevations that allow fans to always enter the ballpark at concourse level, regardless of their entry point, while landscaped terraces at the stadium provide access to the outdoors, both visually and literally. In addition to the glass, two large doors on the ground floor allow fans to be outside during an event to enjoy the natural atmosphere.
In order to deliver stadium bowl intimacy, the main entrance lobby is only 18 rows from the field, and the Home Plate Club is 14 metres from home plate. The twin 86x16m video boards are located left and right of centerfield so that fans have an unobstructed view of the mountains.
In addition to the stadium, the development will also feature a museum, hotel, restaurant, resorts, brewery, and sauna — all with views of the field. The sauna, or Onsen, of which Hokkaido is famous, was created by digging 1,300m into the earth to reach the hot natural spring water.
Plans also call for the opening later this year of a new child care centre, as well as a senior living residence on the site by 2024, along with a medical mall.
“It’s thanks to everyone that we are standing here,” team owner Nobuhisa Ikawa said yesterday, according to the Japan Times. “This is the beginning of a dream. Together, we will create a place that makes Hokkaido proud and display it not just to Japan but to the world.”
In November, the Fighters apologised after an agreement was reached that allowed it to commence the 2023 season in its new ballpark, despite the venue not conforming to league rules.
The problem emerged earlier in the month as it was revealed that part of the field at ES CON Field Hokkaido fails to meet the standard set out by the official baseball rules in Japan. Under the official baseball rules, it is stipulated that 60 feet is required from the home plate to the backstop, and from the base lines to the fences, stands or other obstacles in the foul territory.
Following a November 14 meeting of NPB officials and representatives of all 12 teams, an agreement was reached on the matter. At the meeting, Koji Kawamura, president of the Fighters, was backed when proposing a plan to carry out repair works at the stadium in the close seasons of 2023 and 2024 so that the venue will be up to standard for the 2025 campaign.