How Shohei Ohtani has brought a new wave of Japanese tourists to LA

Her nails are painted blue and white. There’s a Dodgers logo on one nail, the number 17 on another. Takayo Hizume had gone to a nail salon at home in Japan to get them done, then flew about 10 hours to Los Angeles, spending a great deal — considering the weak yen — to stay several days in California.

The effort is all for one person: Shohei Ohtani.

The six-foot-four star hitter and pitcher has been drawing fans from across the Pacific for years. But with his historic Dodgers contract, the influx of Japanese tourists has reached a fever pitch in Los Angeles for Ohtani’s first season with the team.

And he’s not even pitching yet.

Ohtani, who is recovering from elbow surgery, is hitting this season but not expected to start pitching for the Dodgers until 2025.

Still, a major Japanese travel agency told CNN it’s now booking up to 200 clients from Japan at every Dodgers home game.

And with 12 new Japanese sponsors, Japanese-language stadium tours and new Japanese menu items, the Dodgers are making the most of the Ohtani effect.

A mural showing Los Angeles Dodgers player Shohei Ohtani is painted on the side of the Miyako Hotel in Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles. - Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
A mural showing Los Angeles Dodgers player Shohei Ohtani is painted on the side of the Miyako Hotel in Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles. - Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Japan’s ‘son’

When asked why she traveled halfway across the world to see a baseball game, Hizume said Ohtani feels like her own son.

Hizume spoke in Japanese, while the general manager of the Miyako Hotel – where she was staying in Los Angeles – stood next to her and translated.

Hizume explained that she felt a connection because her son played baseball, and she feels Ohtani is like Japan’s son.

Akira Yuhara, the general manager, said that this is a common sentiment among those in Japan, feeling as if Ohtani is representative of the best of the country’s young men.

“People like Shohei’s heart. He’s [a] very honest person,” Yuhara said.

His honesty seemed cemented in fans’ esteem after federal investigators cleared him in a recent sports betting scandal, in which his former interpreter pleaded guilty of swindling Ohtani out of $17 million.

“He’s just a phenomenal individual, right?” said Judy Clow, who brought her brother from Japan to a Japanese-language tour at Dodger Stadium. “Wait till he starts pitching for us! My gosh!”

Shohei Ohtani warms up before a preseason game against the Los Angeles Angels at Dodger Stadium on March 24, 2024. - Harry How/Getty Images

Some Japanese fans said they had traveled abroad to see him play before. Some had gone as far as South Korea, while others had made it to Southern California within the last few years when Ohtani played for the Los Angeles Angels, who are located southeast of LA in Anaheim.

Some of the six new Japanese-language tour guides at Dodger Stadium actually worked at Angels Stadium previously, serving the same fans.

Even when there is no home Dodgers game, groups of Japanese visitors gather at an empty Dodger Stadium for the chance to see the dugout, the field, the press box and championship trophies. Japanese-language tours are offered four days a week.

Global flair for America’s pastime

In addition to Japanese-language tours, visitors find familiar flavors and ads as well.

Christine Gerriets, executive chef at Dodger Stadium, said that the stadium offers all the traditional ballpark eats like Dodger dogs, as well as some new items, like chicken katsu sandwiches, sushi, Kurobuta pork sausages, and takoyaki, which are Japanese round fritters filled with octopus.

“We had to put a little bit of LA flair to the takoyaki,” Gerriets said, pointing out traditional and tempura flavors, alongside one with salsa and cheese, and another covered in guacamole.

Kay Ponak leads a Japanese language tour of Dodger Stadium. - Norma Galeana/CNN
Kay Ponak leads a Japanese language tour of Dodger Stadium. - Norma Galeana/CNN

Mihana Hayashi, an Ohtani fan from Nagoya, Japan, said the guacamole and cheese takoyaki had great “American taste,” perhaps symbolic of how being American often means blending global cultures.

And celebrating “America’s pastime” involves welcoming throngs of global fans.

Hayashi and her sister had traveled to see Ohtani before. When asked why they were such fans, her sister Nanoha said, “He’s [a] good baseball player and so cute!”

The frenzy at home games begins long before the game starts. Groups who are part of special VIP tours, along with a gaggle of Japanese and American media, gather behind ropes on the field, as they watch Ohtani emerge from the dugout to warm up.

In early July, the Dodgers hosted “Japanese Heritage Night,” featuring performers and giveaways sponsored by Japanese retailer Daiso.

In the distance, the ad boards along the sides of the stadium are covered with signs from Daiso and other new Japanese sponsors, like Toyo Tires and probiotic beverage company Yakult.

Stan Kasten, president and CEO of the Dodgers, said the ad real estate was sold out at home, so sponsors are now buying space at other stadiums when the Dodgers play away games.

“We were expecting a spike but truly nothing like this,” Kasten said. “This is good for everyone. This is good for all of baseball. And I think all of baseball is really proud at what we are experiencing opening this up in a much bigger way to our international fan base.”

‘LA Rising’

Kasten said there are tour buses dropping off fans from Japan at Dodger Stadium “morning and night.”

Many of those tour buses are also stopping in Little Tokyo, where these visitors can see the 150-foot-tall Ohtani mural that has made headlines in Japan.

The artwork, entitled “LA Rising,” was painted freehand by artist Robert Vargas, on the side of the Miyako Hotel.

Fans stop at the street corner, point their phones at a QR code on the sidewalk, then raise their phones to the mural to see an augmented reality where Ohtani swings, then pitches, before they hear the sound of announcer Vin Scully saying, “It’s time for Dodger baseball!”

Vargas said he painted this piece in nine days at the beginning of the season, to bring everyone together at the crossroads of Los Angeles’ Asian American and Latino American communities.

“This area’s been hard hit during Covid, and I really felt like as a long-time resident of downtown LA I wanted to be able to contribute to the AAPI community and support that,” Vargas said. “Ohtani represents how to do things the right way on and off the field. And I wanted to celebrate that.”

Impressive stats

Businesses like the Miyako Hotel, Mr. Ramen, and Far Bar, among others, say their foot traffic has doubled compared to this time last year.

“In 2023, LA welcomed 230,000 visitors from Japan which was a 91.7% increase from 2022,” said Adam Burke, president and CEO of Los Angeles Tourism. “Our goal with this market would be to bring more Japanese to the city and certainly have them experience LA’s sports teams, but also expand their horizons to experience other authentic and diverse LA neighborhoods and encourage longer lengths of stay.”

While the organization says international tourism has been improving with pandemic recovery, a 91.7% increase in visitors specifically from Japan far outpaces the overall growth in international tourists during the same year.

Additionally, LA Tourism estimates that 80% to 90% of visitors from Japan go to Dodger Stadium at least once during their visit to Los Angeles.

Hiroko Hinata, whose family owns Mr. Ramen, poses for a photo holding a bowl with Ohtani's Dodgers jersey number on it. - Natasha Chen/CNN
Hiroko Hinata, whose family owns Mr. Ramen, poses for a photo holding a bowl with Ohtani's Dodgers jersey number on it. - Natasha Chen/CNN

Yuhara sees that in practice, when at 3 p.m. on any home game day, Miyako Hotel’s lobby is full of guests from Japan, wearing Dodgers gear, ready to head out the door. He said rooms are fully booked during home game series.

In a search for downtown Los Angeles hotel rooms, CNN found higher hotel rates during Dodger home games. This difference of hotel rates per night can sometimes be upwards of $100. However, for some game days all the way into September, hotels like the Miyako are completely sold out.

Across the street, Mr. Ramen, which has been serving up noodles for more than 30 years, offers a 50% discount on the first 17 bowls of ramen the day after any Ohtani home run. Far Bar offers a free shot after each Ohtani home run.

The owner of Far Bar, Don Tahara, said it’s a unifying moment: “When Shohei comes to bat, that’s when the conversations stop.”

Whether fans are from Japan, Japanese American like Tahara, or have no connection to Japan at all, the craze continues in full swing.

CNN’s Shania Baweja, Norma Galeana and Jason Kravarik contributed to this story.

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