TOKYO, June 11 (Reuters) - Beer vendors are a common sight at Japanese baseball games as they hurry up and down the terraces with sloshing containers strapped to their backs, and rugby fans will also be able to enjoy a taste of the country’s unique sports viewing culture in September when the ‘uriko’ are unleashed at the World Cup.
Uriko have been a feature at Japanese sporting events for decades but are synonymous with baseball, the country’s most popular sport.
Under the concourse of Meiji Jingu stadium, nestled in the shadow of the under-construction Olympic Stadium and home to the Tokyo Yakult Swallows baseball team, 160 beer vendors, all female bar one, are getting ready for a busy shift.
Among them is 20-year-old Ririko Saito, who makes her final preparations as the first groups of supporters file into the stadium.
Saito shares a laugh with her colleagues as she applies the finishing touches to her make-up and gulps down cold tea, crucial hydration on a late afternoon when temperatures reach almost 30 degrees Celsius.
There is camaraderie but also tension here. Earnings are based on commission so competition between vendors is fierce, with speed and efficiency the order of the day.
On a good day, the top vendors will expect to sell over 200 cups of beer during the game, with beers going for JPY750 ($6.96 USD) a cup.
Top performing vendors such as Saito have regulars, usually season-ticket holders, they can quickly pick out in the crowd but when looking to attract new customers, little details can make all the difference.
Saito wears earrings in the shape of foaming glasses of beer, while another vendor sports a badge indicating she speaks English.
Uriko may portray an image of calm and control when gliding swiftly through the baseball-watching crowd but beneath the terraces there is a whirlwind of action.
In the refilling station, likened by one of the vendor organisers to a Formula One pit-lane, workers aim to refill each vendor’s beer backpack and send them out into the crowd as soon as possible. The record is 13 seconds.
The stadium’s operations manager said the whole beer delivery apparatus, including mini-keg, gas canister and sprayer, weighed as much as 17kg.
“It is very hard, so hard that I usually get sore muscles the day after and sometimes I cannot stand up,” says Saito.
“I have that especially at the beginning of the season. But I am getting used to this.”
The uriko are well-loved in Japan and many young fans grow up wanting to be one.
“Since I was small, my family liked baseball and we often went to baseball at a stadium,” said 19-year-old Ami Maeda, who has been working at Meiji Jingu for two years.
“When my parents bought beer, the smiles of the uriko were very pretty so I knew I wanted to be a uriko when I grew up.”
With the bulky, beer-filled bag on their backs and armed with a quick-action beer spray, the ‘uriko’ resemble ‘Ghostbusters’ as they deliver drinks to fans.
“I couldn’t imagine watching baseball without them,” said Swallows fan Hiroshi Takeda.
Perhaps after their introduction at the World Cup, rugby fans too will be unable to watch their sport without uriko.
Japan 2019 organisers have made it a priority to keep the beer flowing during games, with World Rugby officials visiting various host cities to hammer home that message.
They expect foreign fans to drink more than four times as much beer as Japanese fans during games and so have turned to uriko to help meet the demand.
“We have various unique methods of selling beer in this country,” said Hiroki Matusaki, sales director at Heineken-Kirin, the official beer suppliers of the World Cup.
“As often seen at baseball and soccer stadiums, we have uriko, which is truly unique in Japan.
“So organisers are working on this but I think it would be a good surprise for non-Japanese spectators to see the unique way of selling beer.”
Over 400,000 foreign fans are expected during the Rugby World Cup, which runs from Sept. 20 to Nov. 2. (Editing by Peter Rutherford)