Nagoya: A punk rocking football city of the past, present and future

Grampus are one of the most famous names in Japanese sport. But the city is often overlooked, making it one of the country’s best-kept secrets

Date: Wednesday, April 11th, 2018 
Location: Nagoya, Aichi prefecture 
Venue: Paloma Mizuho Stadium
Match: Nagoya Grampus versus Vegalta Sendai (J.League 1)

It took all of five seconds to get my first impression of Nagoya. And it happened on a darkened street at 11pm. I’d just stepped off the bus. The other passengers had disappeared into the night, leaving me alone, fumbling with my bags and phone. And I was about to get an answer to a question.

Before visiting Nagoya, I had no idea what to expect. “What kind of place is it?”. I asked friends and colleagues to be met with blank stares, disinterested shrugs and two or three comments about nice food. That was about it. And one Japanese friend had told me it was a “yobbish” place.

So when I heard a voice behind me, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I mean, what kind of person strikes up a conversation on a Nagoya side street late at night?

As it turns out, an incredibly friendly and helpful person. “Can I help you?”, asked a very polite young man. Yes he could. I told him the name of my hotel, he took out his phone, checked the map, and gave me perfect directions. Two minutes later, I was checking in.

So what kind of place is Nagoya? It’s a friendly place for starters. And many more things besides, as I was about to find out.

Famous faces

There’s an argument to be had that Nagoya’s football team is more famous than the city itself. And there are a few reasons for that.

In 1992, Nagoya Grampus Eight, as they were known at the time, welcomed the arrival of their new signing. And it was a signing that raised an eyebrow or two.

Before he became a TV personality and Twitter megastar, Gary Lineker was best known for scoring goals. Lots of goals. In 80 England games, he hit the back of the net 48 times. He also played for Spanish giants Barcelona, as well as Leicester City, Everton and Tottenham Hotspur in England.

Lineker’s time in Japan was disrupted by injury, but his arrival was a key moment in the history of the J.League. And three years later another game changer occurred. Once again it was Grampus who were responsible.

Disillusioned with the sport having been denied a move to Bayern Munich and following the bribery scandal that had rocked French football, Arsene Wenger left Monaco in need of a fresh start. Ambitious Grampus were the team to offer him that opportunity.

And it was a move that worked out brilliantly for both parties. Wenger led previously unsuccessful Grampus to the Emperor’s Cup in 1995 and then the Super Cup the following year.

Wenger left after two season to join Arsenal, where he went on to win three Premier League titles, seven FA Cups and seven Community Shields. And he credits his time in Japan as an important part of his success, once telling The People newspaper, “It helped me a lot to go to Japan, where I was manager of Grampus Eight. Everybody there is controlled. They laugh at you if you show emotion.”

So Grampus had Lineker and Wenger. They also had one more thing that endeared them to fans. Very cool shirts.

Golden dolphins

For a time, Grampus also had a striking logo of a dolphin kicking a football. The dolphin still appears on the badge today, and it’s not just an animal chosen at random.

Nagoya Castle is one of the symbols of the city. It’s a huge, intricate structure, albeit one that hides itself well amid a lush green park. Atop the castle sit two golden grampus dolphins, the animal that gives the city’s football club its name and image.

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The impressive entrance to Nagoya Castle

Sadly the castle was completely destroyed in 1945 during world war two. Air raids laid waste to the city, and its oldest, most famous building wasn’t to escape the carnage. Reconstruction on the castle began in 1957, and while it looks authentic from the outside, the interior is a bit of a let down. Lifts whisk visitors up through the spacious, identical floors, sanitising the experience.

But Nagoya isn’t just about its castle. Historically it may have been. But this is a city that has overcome the devastation of war to carve out a new path, one that is entwined with Japan’s own recovery from annihilation.

A glimpse of the future

The train ride out from Nagoya Station on the Aonami Line takes me past cargo yards, container ships and towering cranes. A grey sky has finally given way to streaming rain that’s running in rivers down the carriage windows. It’s not the most inspiring journey, but the destination makes it worthwhile.

Stuck out on a limb at Nagoya Port is a startling juxtaposition. Amid the heavy industry flutters a cartoonish flag atop a multi-coloured building. This is LegoLand Japan, but I’m not here to play with plastic bricks. I’m here to play with trains instead.

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One for the bullet train fans

Across the road is the SCMAGLEV and Railway Park. It’s a stunning demonstration of Japan’s technological advancement, from record-breaking steam trains, through iconic Shinkansen models and a glimpse of the future in the form of the incredible Maglev. The latter, a magnetic levitation railway system, will carry trains at speeds of up 500km/h (315mph) and will connect Tokyo with Nagoya in 40 minutes.

Hours can be lost in this museum wandering around the gleaming rolling stock, walking through preserved carriages from the 1920s and eating bentos from stations around the country. But there are only so many hours in the day. And we’ve still only scratched the surface of Nagoya.

A world of cars

An hour later and I’m face to face with more technology. This time a road-going example. I’m looking at a Lexus LFA, one of the most advanced sports cars ever made. This model lives in the Toyota Automobile Museum, a paradise for car lovers.

Toyota City, the home of Toyota Motor Corporation, is just an hour from central Nagoya. And its influence can be felt around the region, with various museums in both cities.

Lexus is owned by Toyota, hence why the LFA takes pride of place at the entrance of Toyota Automobile Museum. But you’ll find cars from around the world here, including some incredible examples. There’s a beautiful Mercedes Benz 300SL, known as “the gull wing” for its striking bird-like doors. Around a corner is a gleaming Lotus Elite from 1961, an icon of British motoring. A blue stunner catches my eye. It’s a lesser-known Delange Type D8-120, a luxurious French roadster from 1939.

I glance at my watch, which requires a double take. The hours have gone. It’s time to tear myself away from the rows and rows of perfectly polished classics. There’s a football game to attend.

Moshing fans

Toyota looms large in Nagoya and the surrounding area. Nagoya Grampus themselves play most of their home games at the Toyota Stadium in Toyota City and are sponsored by the company as well. But tonight’s game isn’t at the 45,000-seat venue with its lovely roof. It’s at Mizuho Athletics Stadium, which is mostly uncovered. And, typically, it’s raining.

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The Mizuho Athletics Stadium. It doesn’t have a roof. Problematic when it rains

But the weather hasn’t dampened the spirits of the Grampus fans. A sea of orange and red dominates the stand behind the goal and underneath the big screen. There’s still an hour until kick-off, but chants have already started breaking out and flags are being waved with enthusiasm on a wet, muggy night.

Despite the lively atmosphere, the fans don’t have a whole lot to cheer about. Grampus head into the game without a win in seven. Back-to-back victories in the opening two games of the season appears to have been a false dawn. This is the club’s first season back in J.League 1 since returning from a year of exile in J2, but at this rate it will be a short-lived return.

Tonight’s visitors, on the other hand, are flying high. Vegalta Sendai arrive in Nagoya third in the table after a more than solid start to the season that has yielded 11 points from six games.

But I’m suddenly distracted from my stat checking by a song. A track I never imagined I would hear at a football stadium.

If I could plan the perfect day out, there’s a good chance it would include a castle. I wouldn’t mind seeing a few trains, too. And cars? Yep, definitely some cars. How about a bit of football on top of that? Yes, please.

Nagoya has delivered all that. It couldn’t possibly add one more treat, could it? A cherry on the top?

If I could pick a soundtrack for the day, a dash of punk rock would fit the bill perfectly. So to hear Gotta Go by Agnostic Front blasting out of the stadium sound system blows my mind.

And now the fans are singing it, with their own words. They’re practically moshing along, too.

Nagoya, you’ve won me over.

Drama on the pitch

As the game kicks off, the atmosphere continues ticking along nicely, despite the terrible fare on the pitch. It’s clear to see why Grampus are so low in the league. Vegalta Sendai are running rings around them.

And the pressure tells after 23 minutes. It’s not pretty. Takuma Nishimura’s shot is cleared off the line by Grampus defender Kazuya Miyahara, but only into the back of goalkeeper Mitchell Langerak’s head. Naoki Ishihara swoops to force the ball into the goal.

Things go from bad to worse for Grampus on 37 minutes. A cross from Keiya Shiihashi is headed down by Koji Hachisuka and half-volleyed past Langerak by Nishimura.

That’s pretty bad, right? Grampus manager Yahiro Kazama felt so, too. A minute after the second goal he makes a change to bring on former Manchester City forward Jo for Shumpei Fukahori.

And in the second half the Brazilian forward makes a big difference. His hold up play brings his team-mates into the game and Grampus start to look dangerous. It’s no surprise when he gets on the scoresheet in the 53rd minute, heading in a cross from Yuki Kobayashi.

But Vegalta aren’t ready to let their lead slip. Nishimura hustles Ryota Aoki just inside the Grampus half, wins the ball, runs with it and slots a shot into the bottom right hand corner with 20 minutes to go.

There’s late drama, though. Jo’s 86th-minute shot is cleared off the line by Kazuki Oiwa. The referee judges that the defender used his hand and shows him a red card. Vegalta players take it badly and there’s a bit of a melee. Eventually Jo gets the chance to take the penalty, which he confidently converts with one minute left on the clock.

Five minutes of added time flash up on the fourth official’s board. Grampus throw everything they have left at the visitors, but it’s not enough. Vegalta hold on to go second in the league. Grampus slip into the relegation zone.

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Grampus fans didn’t stop cheering, despite the performance and result

A hidden gem

Before travelling to Nagoya, I wondered if I’d find enough to do. The non-committal shrugs received from friends and colleagues when asked about the city didn’t fill me with confidence.

So as I drift along with the home fans – still cheerful despite the result – after a tiring day, I feel that I have the answer to my question.

What kind of place is Nagoya?

It’s a punk rocking city of the past, present and future. Home to friendly locals who support their team with unflinching enthusiasm. And it’s a place I’ll be visiting again. And again.

Nagoya is one of the best places in Japan. That’s what kind of place it is.

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