- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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WAKKANAI, Japan -- This little fishing town of 41,000 residents is the northernmost city in Japan, a town so remote that it is much closer to Russia than to Tokyo, so cold and windswept in the winter that high barriers line the highway to keep the snowdrifts from blowing across the road. The Lonely Planet guidebook to Japan describes Wakkanai as a "quiet town whose economy depends on kelp fishing and tourism" and lists the kelp-drying yards as one of its most interesting sites. These fascinating kelp-drying yards, the guide goes on, "look like gravel covered carparks if they're not covered with kelp."
At least, that's how the current edition reads. The next edition should have another Wakkanai site to highlight: the Daisuke Matsuzaka museum that opened one month ago. The museum demonstrates two things. One, how outrageously popular and revered Daisuke Matsuzaka -- who starts Tuesday's season-opening game between the Red Sox and Athletics in Tokyo -- must be in this country to have an entire museum dedicated solely to him.
And two, just how determined Wakkanai must have been to come up with a more powerful tourist attraction than kelp-drying yards.
Actually, museums to individual players are not unheard of in Japan. Among others, there is a Hideki Matsui museum in Ishikawa Prefecture and an Ichiro museum in his hometown of Nagoya (conveniently located across the street from the airport). Dice-K grew up in Tokyo, one of the most densely populated greater metropolitan areas on the planet and home to more than 35 million people. So why is the Dice-K museum in Wakkanai, a town so far north you can see Russia from it on a clear day? There is some logic involved. His father was born here. His grandfather lived here. His grandmother still lives here. Matsuzaka occasionally visited the town to get pitching advice from his grandfather.
"People say Daisuke's grandfather had a great arm and that Daisuke's arm comes from his grandfather," said Shinya Nakata, the museum's owner. "So his roots as a player are here."
And if Dice-K needed any further incentive than locating near the famous kelp-drying yards, 8,000 of the city's residents signed a petition asking him to pick their town for the museum site.
Nakata, a local developer who owns a small, but smart shopping center next door, says he hopes the museum spurs tourism in the town, which offers some terrific seafood dining (the succulent crabs are Mothra-sized). He says 5,000 people have visited the museum in the first month, though there were only four other people in the museum during my one-hour visit. Admission is roughly $2. Nakata said we were the first Americans to visit, but it's only a matter of time before Red Sox Nation invades and annoys residents with endless tales of how many years they suffered and how passionate they are and how the Sox absolutely rule and how, by the way, the Yankees still suck.
Nakata says he drew ideas from the Ichiro and Matsui museums. The Ichiro and Dice-K museums certainly share a Cooperstown standard in their meticulous display of memorabilia. Unlike the three-floor Ichiro museum, which houses such historic personal items as the outfielder's old dental retainer, his grade school essays and childhood Nintendo game cartridges, the single-level Dice-K museum limits itself to mementos from Matsuzaka's baseball career.
Apparently, unlike Ichiro's father, Dice-K's family did not carefully shrink-wrap every item from his childhood, beginning with his umbilical cord.
One display case holds Matsuzaka's many medals and trophies from his youth league days, with a full description of his performance in the Koshien national high school tournament when he became a national hero by pitching 17 innings (250 pitches) one day, pitched in relief the next and pitched a no-hitter the next game. Another is filled with his shoes, caps and plaques commemorating his games in the Olympics and the World Baseball Classic. A wall is covered with the jerseys he has worn, from that of his Yokohama high school team to the Red Sox.
There also is a carefully preserved (and "major league-authenticated") cork from the bottle of champagne Matsuzaka enjoyed after winning Game 3 of last year's World Series. Although perhaps not on par with Ichiro's dental retainer, it does beat a kelp-drying yard.
The museum's most striking feature, however, pays homage to Fenway Park and runs along the entire back wall of the museum. The area is trimmed in Fenway green paint, with Red Sox logos and chairs from the Monster seats lining a 60-foot, 6-inch "pitching cage" that simulates what it's like to face a Dice-K fastball. You can stand behind the cage and peer through a catcher's mask and wait for a 95-mph fastball -- or, as it is also listed, 156 kilometers per hour -- to burst from an image of Dice-K and buzz to the catcher.
The display is well done and gives you a very good idea of just how quickly a major league fastball reaches home plate regardless whether you measure it in miles or kilometers per hour.
(Clearly, the museum would face extensive remodeling expenses if Matsuzaka ever left the Red Sox.)
"I have a lot more stuff, but I just need to get it organized," Nakata said. "In the future, I want to expand the museum with more items." One item he would like to add is a Cy Young Award, although Matsuzaka will have to do something about that.
There is even a small gift shop selling everything from Matsuzaka caps and jerseys to No. 18 cookies and Dice-K dice. In other words, there is just about everything to satisfy the most devout fan, other than, of course, officially licensed Dice-K dried kelp.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.