Hiratsuka: A day out by the sea to visit a vibrant football club

A journey that takes in Kamakura and Enoshima makes a trip to watch Shonan Bellmare a must while in Japan

Date: Wednesday, April 4th, 2018 
Location: Hiratsuka, Kanagawa prefecture 
Venue: Shonan BMW Stadium Hiratsuka
Match: Shonan Bellmare versus Vissel Kobe (Levain Cup, Group D)

Time moves slowly by the sea. A seagull floats lazily over the station. It’s the fastest moving thing I’ve seen since getting here.

Ten minutes. It’s not long when you think about it. But this morning began with a frantic transfer at Shinjuku; the world’s busiest train station, where ten minutes is a lifetime.

We’re past ten minutes now. But then I hear it. At first there’s a dull clang. Like a distant cow bell. It’s followed by a low-pitch buzz. Now an alarm is going off, but it doesn’t sound urgent. Two smartly attired guards walk calmly to the ends of their respective platforms and blow their whistles. The barriers on either side of the road slowly drop into place.

And from around the corner rolls into view the early 1900s.

The Enoden Line began operating along this scenic seaside route 118 years ago. And at first sight not much has changed since that first journey in 1900. Clacking and banging to a stop at the platform is a train from a period drama.

It’s not the fastest way to travel. But I’m not in a hurry. There are seven hours until kick-off.

Welcome to the Shonan coast.

An Enoden Line train rolls into Hase Station

Drama by the beautiful sea

It’s easy to settle into the laidback seaside way of life. As the train gentle rolls between quaint two-platform stations on a line along a route amid white-washed houses, the patient watcher is rewarded with fleeting glimpses of the glimmering Pacific Ocean, lapping against a wide expanse of sandy beach.

If the years roll by at a leisurely pace here, time moves faster further down the coast in Hiratsuka, home of Shonan Bellmare.

Despite being one of the smaller teams currently in J.League 1, Shonan Bellmare have the history and pedigree to live with the big boys.

Shaking off the sleepy seaside attitude, Bellmare quickly made an impression in the J.League. An initial slow start left the club 11th out of 12 after the first stage of the 1994 season, but instead of sinking they rose all the way up to second in the second stage.

And they weren’t done. Riding on the crest of a wave, the club won the 1994 edition of the Emperor’s Cup. This meant they qualified for the Asian Cup Winners Cup in 1995. And you know what? They only went and won that, too.

This period coincided with the club reeling in the major talent that was Hidetoshi Nakata. The talented midfielder began his professional career down on the Shonan coast and played 85 games for Bellmare. He departed in 1998 to join Italian team Perugia.

As a club with the ocean at the heart of its identity – Bellmare is a combination of the Italian words ‘bello’ and mare’ meaning ‘beautiful sea’ – it’s no surprise that they’ve had to endure choppy waters.

Nakata leaving in 1998 marked the sinking of the club into financial difficulties. Other star players to leave included Nakata’s fellow Japanese international Wagner Lopes and South Korean legend Hong Myung-Bo. With no money and a squad shorn of its most influential players, relegation to J.League 2 in 1999 was no surprise.

It took ten years for Bellmare to resurface back in J1. And over the last eight years they’ve bounced between the two top divisions. Life in Hiratsuka is anything but plain sailing.

One of the serene gardens amid the complex at Engakuji

Time to relax

As I have plenty of time until kick off, I’m content going with the flow. Tourists flood this route along the Shonan coast, and with good reason. There are few journeys to a game more scenic than this one.

It’s possible to travel directly to Hiratsuka from Tokyo. But doing that would mean missing out on Kamakura, one of the most beautiful places in Japan.

This peaceful corner of Kanagawa prefecture is often mentioned in the same breath as Kyoto. And it’s easy to see why. Silent temples hide amid the verdant hillsides that rise up from the coast. Take a walk down a side street and you’ll be greeted by a shrine tucked between some quiet houses.

If travelling from Tokyo, it’s worth first stepping off the train at Kita-Kamakura. A short walk from the station is Engakuji. And while it may only be a couple of minutes on foot, it feels like stepping back hundreds of years.

After entering through Sanmon, a huge wooden gate, neat paths lead gently uphill towards tranquil halls surrounded by pristine gardens. On this day in late spring, bursts of pink cherry blossom contrast brightly against the deep greens and browns.

I could have spent all day here, and by the time I reach Kamakura Station, a part of me wishes I had. It’s a warm sunny day and the cherry blossom is still in bloom. This means there are people everywhere. Walking through the centre of the city takes an age. But it’s worth it to visit Tsurugaoka Hachimangu.

This is one of Kamakura’s most important shrines, which is clear from its imposing design. The approach leads along an avenue lined with cherry blossom trees, under countless red tori gates. At the end are two shrines, one at the foot of a steep stone staircase, the other atop, looking back out across the city.

Statues and cherry blossom at Hasedera

Big Buddhas and sad statues

Back at Kamakura Station is the portal back in time. Otherwise known as the starting point of the Enoden Line. It could be the early 1900s, right down to the faded railway posters and hanging flower pots.

Whats’s no so early 1900s, though, is the huge crowd of selfie-taking tourists. With trains coming every 12 minutes, the waiting group swells and swells. And when one finally arrives, I’m carried into the carriage amidst a slowly moving mass of people.

Wedged into a corner, I watch this otherwise serene corner of Japan flash past beyond the window. Only two stops later it’s time to jostle my way off the train to visit two sites in Hase.

It seems the majority of the train passengers had the same idea as me. I join the crowds and move slowly along the narrow streets, under the awnings of gift shops selling touristy tat.

But away from the tacky stores, Hasedera is a beautiful place. The complex is set across ascending levels, and along the way to the top there is plenty to see. Before beginning the climb, there’s a dark, damp cave complex to explore. It’s dimly lit with candles and so low in places that you’re almost forced to crawl. It’s claustrophobic, especially when you’re sharing the space with people stopping to snap photos on their phones. I count to ten, breathe deeply and eventually emerge back into the eye-blinking brightness of the day.

After escaping the caves, it’s time to trek to the top of the complex. Along the way you’ll pass Jizo-Do, a hall with hundreds of small Jizo Bodhisattva statues. These tiny ornaments are believed to help the souls of deceased children reach paradise.

At the top you’re rewarded with views that stretch across Kamakura as far as the eye can see, taking in forests, beaches and the glistening Pacific Ocean.

Hase holds one more must-see. And it’s a big one. Literally.

The Great Buddha of Kamakura is just that. A giant Buddha in Kamakura. It’s 11.4 metres high and is the second biggest Buddha in Japan after the statue in Nara’s Todaji. But with the crowds as big as the Buddha itself, it seems like a good time to hit the beach.

The second biggest Buddha you’ll ever see, if you go to Nara next

Hitting the beach

I jump back on the train and the Enoden Line eventually breaks free of the houses and emerges alongside the beach. White horses are breaking in frothy bursts as the wind whips at the sea surface. Couples stroll hand in hand along the seafront while eating ice creams.

The clock is slowly ticking, but there’s still time for a stop off at Enoshima beach. I take a seat on the sea wall and look out across the sand and ocean, out towards Enoshima. It sits off the coast, an island linked to the mainland by a narrow bridge. It’s quiet here. The sun is still warm, despite the dying of the afternoon. But time is slipping away like the grains of sand in an hour glass. I take a slow walk back to the station.

Enoshima beach and island on a hot, sunny day in April

Back to reality

It doesn’t take long for the Shonan coast to become a distant memory. At Fujisawa I squeeze on to the Tokaido Line with the commuters travelling home. It’s just a ten-minute ride to Hiratsuka, but there’s no view of the sea to keep me entertained. The light is fading and there are only towering apartment blocks, out-of-town shopping centres and sprawling industrial estates for the watching eye.

I file off the train at Hiratsuka Station and make my way outside to wait for the shuttle bus to the stadium. Fans in the light green of Shonan Bellmare slowly board to fill up the bus, plus one young man standing out like a sore thumb in a maroon Vissel Kobe shirt.

As soon as we leave the bus station, all the peace and tranquility built up during my time at the beach is washed away. We drive straight into a traffic jam. The bus crawls slowly through the dark, past a gloomy park and alongside a shadowy factory.

Time held no importance throughout the day. I was vaguely aware of the hour, but there was no rush by the seaside. Yet now, in the city, creeping along with the traffic, I’m acutely aware of the seconds ticking by. Kick off is approaching, but the stadium isn’t.

We make it with 15 minutes to spare. Hiratsuka BMW Stadium is in the middle of a park. At first sight, there’s nothing to see here. I can’t event spot the floodlights. So I follow my fellow passengers. They take a path between some trees, which leads between two ponds and skirts a huge open space.

The path brings us out at a row of fast food trucks. But there’s no time to eat. I keep walking, picking up the pace, following the track that leads around the stadium until I reach gate eight.

Shonan Bellmare fans making noise before the match against Vissel Kobe

View from the terraces

It’s quiet outside the stadium, but inside there’s a carnival atmosphere, even for this Levain Cup group game, a competition that doesn’t attract the most ardent support. I’m standing in the terraces – a novelty for a football fan who grew up in the all-seater era of English football – and the ultras are already in full flow when I find a free spot.

Drummers are setting the beat for the bell ringing and chanting fans as the teams emerge. But it’s about to be a testing 90 minutes for the home support.

The game starts brightly for Shonan Bellmare, though, with Jin Hanato’s glancing header bouncing back off the bar. But that turns out to be a false dawn.

Vissel Kobe take the lead on 23 minutes. Wellington’s header hits the post, and in the ensuing goal line scramble, Daiju Sasaki prods the ball home.

Seven minutes later, and Vissel are 2-0 up. And there’s a healthy dose of controversy to go with it. Wellington shoves Keisuke Saka off the ball. It’s a foul. There shouldn’t be any debate. Yet a whistle from the referee doesn’t come. Wellington runs through unimpeded and calmly places the ball in the top right hand corner.

A replay of the incident is shown on the big screen. It’s greeted with a chorus of boos from those in the stands dressed in green.

Bellmare’s fans keep singing, though, but their team never look like getting back into the game. And it gets worse.

With only five minutes to go, a push by Bellmare’s Daiki Sugioka on Daiki Miya earns him a second yellow and gives away a penalty. Kazuma Watanabe makes no mistake from the spot.

The game ends 3-0 to the visitors. As I leave the stadium, I hear a prolonged boo from a lone Bellmare fan.

The end of time

I felt I had all the time in the world during the day, and I was glad for it. But on the journey home, a two and a half hour crawl through Kanagawa, Tokyo and Saitama, I wish the minutes would tick by faster.

I struggle to stay awake. Passengers come and go. Unfamiliar station names drift into view. I’ve been on the go for over 12 hours. Time is taking its toll.

But football by the sea? Watching a club with vibrant fans? In a part of Japan blessed with an abundance of natural beauty and culture? I’m sure I’ll be finding the time to visit this stunning corner of the country again soon.

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