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Originally published March 22, 2012 at 10:02 PM | Page modified March 23, 2012 at 11:07 AM

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Ichiro museum opens window to Japan's baseball icon

Run by his mother and father, the Ichiro Exhibition Room in his hometown of Toyoyama, Japan, has everything from his baseball awards to the desk where the Mariners star studied in elementary school.

Seattle Times staff reporter

M's in Japan

The Mariners are spending a week in Japan, playing two exhibition games against Japanese teams before opening the Major League season with games Wednesday and Thursday against the Oakland Athletics. All four games will be played in Tokyo.

Exhibition games

Saturday: vs. Hanshin Tigers, 8:06 p.m. (Seattle time)

Monday: vs. Yomiuri Giants, 3:04 a.m. (Seattle time)

Regular season

Wednesday: vs. Oakland Athletics, 3:10 a.m. (Seattle time)

Thursday: vs. Oakland Athletics, 2:10 a.m. (Seattle time)

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Sounds very cool! Hope I can visit someday. MORE
Note to Japanese people- get a life. MORE
Wow. A Times' reporter has such a bad relationship with one of the local sports stars... MORE

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TOYOYAMA, Japan — One of the first clues that this is no ordinary museum is that all the treasures lining the walls and locked behind glass cases have something to do with Ichiro.

And things turn surreal when Ichiro's mother steps from behind a partition near the museum's entrance to say hello. Yoshie Suzuki has spent a decade helping her husband, Nobuyuki, run The Ichiro Exhibition Room in Ichiro's hometown just outside of Nagoya. One of them is usually here on any given day.

She is gracious and welcoming, inviting a visitor to head up to the third floor of the four-story brick building and begin viewing some of the 2,000 or so keepsakes gathered in the name of the Mariners right fielder, one of the greatest hitters and fielders in baseball history.

At one point, Ichiro's mother confides in translated Japanese that Ichiro's favorite displayed items are his awards from his days playing professionally in Japan for the Orix Blue Wave.

"But he cherishes his Major League awards as well and takes very good care of them," she adds.

Ichiro's Mariners arrive Friday in Japan to play two exhibitions, open the Major League Baseball season against the Oakland Athletics and do some sightseeing. They're not likely to see anything as curious and captivating as this storehouse of sports, pop culture and photographs that have one thing in common: Ichiro.

Most of his major awards are displayed on the second level of the building, on a quiet residential street not far from the house where Ichiro grew up.

But all visits begin with an elevator ride to the third level to view the life that came before he became an international celebrity. And it's here that the fanatic in any fan of Ichiro will be seriously indulged. His parents appear to have saved every childhood item of significance.

There are family photographs of 1-month-old Ichiro Suzuki being held by his grandmother, of Ichiro on a sixth-grade field trip, of Ichiro pony riding with his father at a local racetrack. And then, there is the desk Ichiro used to do his homework in elementary school.

The desk has been set up with a mannequin — depicting a younger Ichiro — sitting at a chair with a jacket with a Men's Vache Club label tossed over it.

"That was his jacket, yes," says Mariko Saike, one of a handful of museum employees available to answer questions and in the best English she can muster.

Saike points out the tiny alloy action figures on the desk's shelves and says Ichiro used to play with them. On the left side of the desk the blue jacket with a baseball and the words "Chunichi Dragons" embroidered on it was stitched by Ichiro for a class project.

"He was a big fan of the Dragons," Saike says.

So much so that 12-year-old Ichiro stitched a banner reading "Get Back Tao" after the Dragons traded boyhood idol Yasushi Tao to the Seibu Lions in 1985. That banner hangs across the desk, right next to an Ultraman clock that Ichiro favored — having been a big fan of the popular cartoon superhero, known as Udutoraman in Japan.

Ichiro star of this show

The abacus Ichiro did arithmetic with and a pianica keyboard instrument he played are on top of the desk, alongside the calligraphy set used for his daily writing assignments. Some of the essays he wrote are on display, discussing his dreams of playing baseball professionally.

There are baseballs, bats, uniforms and shoes from seemingly every level of competition Ichiro played, along with photos of Ichiro from every stage of his life.

In some, he's at the plate in the nation's celebrated Koshien high-school baseball tournament, where tens of thousands show up to watch games. A container of sand from the celebrated stadium where the tournament is held each year in Kyoto is next to the photos.

One photo shows Ichiro chatting with President Obama at the 2009 All-Star Game. Another shows him seated in the office of former Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in the 1990s, watching as the country's leader takes practice swings with one of Ichiro's bats.

Other notable souvenirs include an autographed basketball from Patrick Ewing, sneakers from Michael Jordan and a Snoop Dogg poster autographed by the rapper.

But that celebrity stuff is kept largely to the side. More front and center is the bicycle Ichiro rode to high school, a silver Kamakiri hanging from the wall with its big plastic basket attached to the front. One of the handlebars is scraped, damaged when Ichiro was hit by a car as a teenager.

The room is littered with Transformer dolls and the Bruce Lee action figures Ichiro used to collect. There's a model TIE fighter from the "Star Wars" movies as well as all the video games Ichiro used to play.

And if none of that is personal enough, visitors can see the training sweatsuit and undershirt Ichiro wore while playing baseball for Meiden High School. It's in a glass case next to the gym bag Ichiro used to carry those clothes to and from workouts.

The personal stuff extends beyond the museum displays. Ichiro built the large brick house just behind the museum so his parents could have a bigger place to live year-round.

The house where Ichiro grew up was just a few streets over, but has since been demolished. Ichiro stays at the new house when he returns to Japan each offseason. He put in a custom-designed indoor gymnasium that can be seen on the first level of the museum through a locked glass door.

"He built that so he could train," Saike says.

A look at his life

But his father built this museum dedicated to his son. It opened in November 2002 and charges 900 yen — about $11 — per visitor.

Saike says the museum had about 30 visitors per day last weekend, but gets no more than 10 most weekdays. One particularly busy day last summer saw 100 visitors pass through, she says.

No other visitors are in sight during this two-hour visit Thursday afternoon. It's clear Ichiro's father is running the museum for something other than a profit.

A sign translated into English explains that Ichiro's father built the museum so "you can see the life he has lived each day" and know the story of how Ichiro got where he is. His father writes that Ichiro would never be where he is today without his "unwavering passion for baseball" and the love of family and friends. The museum's aim is to "share our joy with all of you who also cheer for Ichiro."

Photographs aren't allowed inside the museum, and Ichiro's mother and Saike decline to pose for any. It's as if they're trying to maintain the mystery and enhance the surprise for anyone making the trip.

Where else in the world can someone walk in off a residential street and view a glass case with four Rawlings Gold Gloves in it, as well as seven Mitsuni Golden Gloves from Japan?

As personal as the items on the third level can get, the second level of the museum has some serious hardware that any baseball fan visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., would want to see.

But of all the displays at the museum, the most memorable comes at the start of the tour.

A large photograph just inside the third-level entrance shows Ichiro winding up as a pitcher for his Toyoyama Little League team at age 11. Right next to that is a shot of Ichiro from 2001 with the Mariners about to heave a ball in from right field.

Saike leaves no doubt the juxtaposition of the photographs is intentional.

"They are the same picture," she says, noting Ichiro's near identical arm slot, body positioning and facial expressions. "Except he is a boy in one and a man in the other. But in both, he is the same."

That is indeed the ongoing theme of the only museum in the world dedicated to all things Ichiro. That no matter how big his baseball fame has grown, the fire of his youth that got him there hasn't changed one bit.

And in this building in a faraway corner of the world, it never will.

Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or gbaker@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @gbakermariners. Read his daily blog at www.seattletimes.com/Mariners.

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