Kofu: A day-trip from Tokyo where history, nature and football co-exist

Surrounded by mountains, the capital of Yamanashi prefecture is beautiful and fascinating. Even on a freezing day for an early season J.League 2 game

Date: Wednesday, March 21st, 2018  
Location: Kofu, Yamanashi prefecture
Venue: Yamanashi Chuo Bank Stadium
Match: Ventforet Kofu versus Tokushima Vortis (J.League 2)

Water has a way of getting everywhere. The snow that collected on my poncho has been melted by the rain and is running in rivers from my head, down my body and legs to the ground. It’s half-time. It’s Ventforet Kofu 0 Tokushima Vortis 0 in J.League 2. I’m starting to regret this decision.

But it’s amazing the effect a back-flipping racoon can have. I hear some whoops and cheers from the fans to my right. And there it is. Vorta-kun – the away team’s mascot, no less – is doing back-flips along the concourse in front of the stand. I get up and start clapping, which brings back some feeling to my weather-numbed hands. It’s a surreal sight. Vorta-kun bows and walks off, like this is something that just happens.

And for the first time today I notice the mountains that surround Kofu. The sky is brightening up. The rain is easing off. And the players are out for the second half, which will pack in a lot more action than the first 45 minutes.

But let’s rewind the clock a little. Today is March 21st. It’s officially the first day of spring. Yet no-one seems to have told Mother Nature that.

A winter wonderland

Tokyo is cold and damp at 7am as the highway bus trundles through the deserted streets of Shinjuku and Hatsudai on this national holiday. We climb up on to the elevated motorway leading out of the city, revealing a shadowy view of apartment buildings and factories in the early morning grey.

The Chuo-Expressway carries traffic out of the capital and into the mountainous regions of Kanagawa, Yamanashi, Nagano and Gifu prefectures. My destination today is Kofu, the capital of Yamanashi prefecture.

Along the way we stop at desolate bus stops clinging to the side of the road. Shivering passengers emerge from wind-battered and rain-lashed shelters. The view slowly changes from urban sprawl, to huge industrial estates and eventually tree-covered mountains and deep valleys spanned by vertigo-inducing bridges.

But it’s up here at higher altitude that the weather takes a turn for the worse, or better, depending on whether you prefer getting soaked or getting frozen. Wintry gusts hurl clouds of snow against the bus window. Last week I was in a Reds Wonderland, but today it’s very much a winter wonderland.

We climb the peaks and fall into the troughs, past the white-capped tops of distant mountains and trees bending in the wind, buckling under the weight of snow collecting on their branches.

On the approach to Kofu, the Chuo-Expressway winds its way down to lower ground and back into the rain. We join smaller roads that cut through barren, muddy fields. Faded signs beckon passing motorists with the promises of fruit picking. Yamanashi is one of the major fruit producing regions of Japan, in particular grapes, peaches and plums. But not today. Dirty pools of water fester and skeletal trees sit marooned in churned up expanses of sodden earth.

It becomes more industrial the nearer we edge to Kofu. Bedraggled cherry blossom trees – tricked into life by last week’s warm weather – shake in the freezing breeze. Gaudy hotels with plastic turrets, worn out statues and faux stonework suggest an increase in population, and it’s only a matter of minutes later that we’re pulling into Kofu.

A thousand samurai

I get off the bus to be greeted by a statue of Takeda Shingen, a legendary feudal lord who ruled this region from 1540 until his death in 1573. If you want to learn more about Shingen, then head to Kofu from April 6th to 8th this year for the annual Takeda Shingen Festival. Reenactments documenting momentous occasions in his life take place around the city. This festival also holds a Guinness World Record for the largest gathering of samurai, when more than 1,000 people dressed up in the historical warrior gear.

Takeda Shingen statue Kofu Yamanashi Japan
Feudal lord Takeda Shingen is a big deal in Kofu. He even has an annual festival

But today there aren’t any samurai around. Only people with umbrellas rushing to and from the train station, hiding from the rain that increases in ferocity with the occasional gust.

I traipse through the bus station, over a pedestrian bridge and into the grounds of Kofu Castle. Only ruins remain today, but here you could imagine samurai lurking behind dark corners, hurrying up the huge stone steps and patrolling this vantage point that looks out across the city.

Kofu Castle Yamanashi Japan
A snowy day at Kofu Castle

Prepared for the worst

There are three hours until kick-off as I descend from the castle and back towards the bus station. Ventforet Kofu organise a shuttle bus to get fans to Yamanashi Chuo Bank Stadium, which is about a 30-minute drive away. I join the queue, missing out on a place underneath the bus shelter. My umbrella is struggling under the weight of the snow that is collecting on top.

Thankfully the wait is short. The bus pulls up and I shuffle on board with a small group of Ventforet fans. As we depart, I wipe the condensation from the window for a view of the city. It’s a low rise, sprawling place with plenty of open spaces, that today are turning white under the continued wintry weather.

I notice some of my fellow passengers have come prepared. A man up front is pulling on waterproof trousers over his jeans. He adds a heavy duty jacket. He wouldn’t look out of place on a trawler out in the Pacific. Other fans are wearing ponchos. Everyone looks ready for the conditions. I have a broken umbrella complementing my averagely warm winter coat, thin jumper and pair of jeans. My right shoe has a hole in it, which was breached by an icy puddle at Kofu Castle.

Yamanashi Chuo Bank Stadium has one small roof over the main stand. The rest of it is exposed to the elements. Fine on a bright and sunny summer’s day. Not so fine when the first day of spring is playing a practical joke on you in the form of a blizzard.

The bus drops us off at Kose Sports Park, the complex that’s home to the stadium. And my first port of call is Ventforet’s official shop, which is a temporary stall in front of the main stand. I’m not a Ventforet fan – this is the second week in a row that I’ve had to deny allegiance to a J.League team – but I’m left with no choice but to buy a fetching blue poncho emblazoned with the home’s sides name and logo. It’s either this or pneumonia.

Battle of attrition

The weather has inevitably had an effect on the pitch. As I enter the stadium there are patches of white amid the green grass. The ground staff are still shovelling snow off the surface with less than an hour to go until kick-off.

Yamanashi Chuo Bank Stadium snow Ventforet Kofu Tokushima Vortis Kofu Yamanashi prefecture Japan J.League 2 football
Ground staff clear snow from the pitch before kick off

All of the seats are covered in snow. I brush off the slush, flatten down my poncho and sit down. There is a healthy smattering of fans in attendance, considering the conditions. A respectable 3,130. Among this number are the loyal ultras. Ventforet’s are already working through their repertoire of chants, and jumping up and down with purpose. It’s one way to stay warm.

It’s still snowing as the game kicks off. And the first half isn’t a classic. Today’s opponents, Tokushima Vortis, start off the brighter, attempting to quickly move the ball, but they’re hindered by the surface. Yet they still create the best chances of the half.

Taro Sugimoto surges through the snow, feeds the ball to the lively Hiroto Goya, who drags his shot wide across the goal. Not long after, the ball drops to Yatsunori Shimaya on the edge of the box, who sees his cheeky lob drift just over the bar.

Yusuke Tanaka thinks he’s scored for the hosts mid-way through the half, but his bundled effort from a corner is disallowed for offside.

There’s still time for one more chance, and again the visitors threaten. Ken Iwao’s whipped cross from the right is glanced just wide by Goya.

Half time comes. I’m cold and wet. There seems little point in getting any food or drink.

Ventforet Kofu Tokushima Vortis Yamanashi Chuo Bank Stadium Kofu Yamanashi prefecture Japan J.League 2 football
Spot the orange ball

A game of two halves

And this is where the acrobatic Vorta-kun steps in to save the day. Spirits lifted somewhat, I peel off my sodden gloves, wipe the excess water from my poncho and settle down for a second half that provides plenty of action.

Again, it’s Vortis in control. Second-half substitute Ryogo Yamasaki smacks Yuto Ichida’s left wing cross against the woodwork, before he comes close again minutes later. This time he takes Shimaya’s through ball and fires it across goal, denied only by the base of the post.

On a soggy pitch, slide tackles are inevitably going to fly in. And it was only a matter of time in this game before one such challenge went too far. Ventforet’s Masato Yuzawa, who came off the bench in the second half, loses the ball, charges after it and lunges wildly at Uchida. It’s a straight red.

And the damage isn’t just limited to the number of players for the home team. From the resulting free kick floated in by Iwao, Ryohei Arai’s header only succeeds in directing the ball into his own net. An own goal with five minutes to go. A cruel blow for the home fans who’ve sat through the snow and rain, but a warming finish for the hardy away fans from distant Tokushima.

Ventforet Kofu fans Yamanashi Chuo Bank Stadium Kofu Yamanashi Japan J.League 2 football
The Ventforet Kofu fans singing in the rain

Reasons to visit

As I stumble away from the stadium, slightly unsteady on cold, numb feet, it still feels like a worthwhile excursion for the day. It’s unlikely I would have visited Kofu if it wasn’t for football. And it’s a place I want to see more of, preferably when the sun is shining.

The two-hour bus ride back to Tokyo retraces the tyre tracks from earlier in the day. We file out of Kofu, past the tacky hotels that are now shining through the rainy haze, and alongside the empty fields, now just expanses of black nothingness. We’re soon in the mountains again, where the snow has gathered in dirty mounds next to the road. And finally back into Tokyo, guided by the dim glow of orange street lights under buzzing neon signs atop blocks of flats that stretch as far as the eye can see into a misty March night.

If you’ve never been to Kofu before, or if you’ve never seen a J.League 2 match, I recommend both. Kofu is historical and surrounded by beautiful mountains, while the quality of J2 is evident, even on a pitch that resembles a ploughed field. And you never know, you might even see a racoon do a back-flip.

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