It may not be well-known, but the biggest urban area of Japan’s northern Tohoku region packs a punch. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise
Date: Wednesday, March 7th, 2018
Location: Sendai, Miyagi prefecture
Venue: Yurtec Stadium Sendai
Match: Vegalta Sendai versus Albirex Niigata (Levain Cup, Group A)
I still remember the reaction from the hotel receptionist. I was checking out of my hotel in Tokyo, and in passing told her my next destination.
“Sendai?! Why are you going there?!”
At that time, I didn’t have a good reason to be visiting Sendai. Two and a half years later, I do. And I want to explain why everyone should make the journey to this city in the northern Tohoku region.
But this trip has a lowkey start, in the draughty Shinjuku highway bus station at 7am on a nondescript Wednesday morning. And it is these far from salubrious surroundings that have set her question rattling around in my head.
If I could answer her question this time, I would begin confidently. “I’m going to watch football!” Then somewhat trailing off. “Vegalta Sendai v Albirex Niigata.” Mumbling. “In the Levain Cup.” In an apologetic whisper. “Group A.”
But random football games aside, why would someone be so shocked to hear a tourist was heading to Sendai?
The city has enough about itself to make a visit worthwhile. It’s only an hour and half from Tokyo on the bullet train. Or if you find yourself at the bus station, expect a cheaper journey, albeit one that takes six hours.
And when you arrive, you’ll discover that Sendai has history. A rich culture. Distinct cuisine. And it’s pretty, dubbed ‘the city of trees’.
But these images aren’t seen so often. Yet you will likely have seen footage of Sendai on TV. And you probably looked on in horror.
Strength through sport
Japan changed on March 11, 2011. The magnitude 9.0 earthquake that struck off the country’s east coast violently shook its structures. But the worst was to come. The devastating tsunami that followed claimed 15,894 lives and left 2,546 missing.
Tsunami waves reached six miles (10km) inland, causing significant damage to Sendai’s coastal areas and airport.
But it was the towns and villages on the Tohoku coast that suffered the most, where entire communities were washed away. The rebuilding process continues, and Sendai can act as a point from which to support the recovery effort.
In the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, as the region struggled to return to normality, Tohoku’s sports teams came into their own. Including Vegalta Sendai.
The club joined the J-League in 1999 at the second division level, but their history goes back further. They started out in 1988 as Tohoku Electric Power, choosing their current name when they became a member of the league.
Promotion to J-League 1 came after only three seasons in the second tier. But two seasons at the top table preceded a six-year spell back in J-League 2.
They returned to J1 in 2010, with a 14th place finish. But it was in 2011, as their home was suffering, that Vegalta came to the fore. They battled to a fourth place finish, their best league performance to date. And even better was to come, though it was to be a bittersweet season.
In 2012, they led the table for the majority of the year, but fell away towards the end, ultimately finishing second to Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
However, the Tohoku sports story didn’t end in disappointment. The Rakuten Golden Eagles, Tohoku’s baseball team, were forced to play their home games 500 miles (800km) away in Kobe after the tsunami. Two years later, they were celebrating a first Japan Series title, the top prize in Japanese baseball.
So for Vegalta, it’s been a case of so close yet so far. But could silverware come in 2018? The J-League title might be out of reach, but on a cold night in March, a strong opening result in the Levain Cup might just get everyone believing.
And that’s what I’m here to see. After first paying a visit to some of Sendai’s sightseeing spots.
Walking in the steps of Date Masamune
Historically, this is one of Japan’s most important cities. Feudal lord Date Masamune, a legendary figure in Japanese history, founded Sendai in 1600. His distinctive image – he had only one eye and wore elaborate armour – is evident throughout the city, and many of the sites from his era have maintained a presence.
Including Aoba Castle. Repeated raids during the turbulent feudal years destroyed the building many times over. A fire in 1882 added to its woes. And carpet bombing during the Second World War finished it off. Today it’s only ruins of huge stones that survive. But its location 100m above the city makes it the perfect vantage point from which to take in Sendai.
Especially on this crisp day in March. Under an unspoilt blue sky, the city spills out along the banks of the Hirose River, filling the plain between snow-capped mountains and the vast Pacific Ocean.
And as the sun begins to set, casting a shadow over the statue of a horse-riding Date Masamune in all his Edo splendour, it’s time to follow his one-eyed line of sight back to the city.
Vegalta Sendai shine bright
The temperature has dropped even further by the time I reach Sendai Station. The bullet train from Tokyo glides past behind the glass front of the building and commuters spill out of the entrance, bracing themselves against the biting cold.
It’s a relief to take the escalator down into the relative warmth of the subway station, the temperature increasing with each descent to another subterranean floor. The cold has completely seeped from my clothes by the time I’m sitting on the Namboku Line train to Izumi-Chuo.
Flashes of Vegalta Sendai yellow brighten up the otherwise austere carriage. A grinning Vegatta, the team’s cheerful mascot – or, if we’re being technical and killing the magic, an anthropomorphic eagle – smiles out from the posters.
The Namboku Line stays underground, until we’re a couple of stops from the final destination. And then out of the suburban gloom appears the Yurtec Stadium, the home of Vegalta Sendai. A group of schoolboys crane their necks to look out the window, chatting excitedly about the upcoming game.
And this is something that sport can do. Even on a frigid winter night, a stone’s throw from a mundane shopping centre, on the outskirts of an overlooked city, there’s a buzz of excitement that can only be created by a live match.
Match night at the Yurtec Stadium
I arrive with an hour until kick-off and the stadium is slowly filling up. The Yurtec is a squat, compact ground, with an undulating roof that catches the noise and sporadically flickers to life through a colourful light show.
But with the start approaching, the atmosphere is taken up a notch by the well-drilled pocket of Albirex Niigata fans. Vegalta’s opponents for the night are fired-up for this one, with the drum-banging, flag-waving ultras cheerleading their army through a songbook of chants.
Not to be outdone, Vegalta’s hardcore start up from the other side of the stadium, and as the game kicks off we have a buzzing cup game vibe humming along.
The first half ticks along in the manner of two boxers sparring and looking for each other’s weaknesses. Vegalta’s more direct approach centres around their strong Brazilian forward Rafaelson, while Albirex try to conjure up pretty pattens on the pitch, orchestrated by skilful midfielder Yuta Ito.
Half time is reached with the game goalless. Fans spill out into the exposed concourse, where a bone-chilling wind whips off the shallow river that flows lazily over icy rocks under the lights cast by the stadium. Hot drinks and steaming bowls of ramen are the main orders from the catering stands.
Wrapped up in scarves and shivering under blankets, the Vegalta fans watch on nervously as Albirex start the second half brightly. But it’s soon the hosts in the ascendency, and they take the lead through a well crafted move of tight passing in the box, finished off by Takuma Nishimura.
A winning start to the Levain Cup looks in sight for Vegalta. They’ve edged the game. Been the better side for the majority of the 90 minutes. But in the 91st it’s another case of so close yet so far for Vegalta. A high ball is lifted into the box, Albirex’s forward Thalles chests it off and Tatsuya Tanaka smashes home a powerful shot.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s a minor blow. The Levain Cup, a competition for J-League 1 and two J-League 2 teams, allows for mishaps with its group stage format. So as the Vegalta players tour the stadium to warm applause, and the Albirex support serenades Ito with his personalised chant, this can be chalked off as any other game. It’s unlikely it will live long in the memory.
But Sendai – a city of natural beauty, historical importance, cultural relevance and strength in the face of adversity – is a place that deserves more than a passing thought.
And the next time someone asks me why I’m going to Sendai, I know what I’ll say.