There’s more than meets the eye to the home of the reigning J.League champions in this often ignored corner of Kanagawa
Date: Wednesday, April 18th, 2018
Location: Kawasaki, Kanagawa prefecture
Venue: Kawasaki Todoroki Stadium
Match: Kawasaki Frontale versus Ulsan Hyundai (AFC Champions League)
We’re sat around a fireplace in silence, watching as smoke gently rises and listening as wood softly crackles. The man tending the sunken-earth pit picks up a long wooden pipe and blows into the burning embers, which brings forth a ferocious orange glow that sets off the snap of kindling. Water in the bowl hanging over the fire boils, producing steam that drifts through the shafts of light before dissolving into the ether.
It’s gloomy in this early 18th century house. A door is open, but the huge thatched roof hangs low over the building. The interior is all dark woods, including the carefully polished floors.
With the fire contently roaring away, the man sits back. We all stare at flickering flames a bit longer.
“Where are you from?”
We speak in low voices, exchanging pleasantries, all keeping an eye on the fire. Smoke swirls around us. When we stop talking, only the reassuring noise of burning wood fills the void.
“I’m on my way to watch Kawasaki Frontale.”
One of the old men lets out a short laugh. His friend draws a short breath.
“They’re falling down,” he says, while gesturing with a wavering hand.
And he’s right. The reigning J.League champions are sixth in the table after eight games, which doesn’t sound bad. But they’re ten points behind leaders Sanfrecce Hiroshima, haven’t won in six games and are preparing to bow out of the AFC Champions League after an uninspiring group stage campaign.
“Do you like Kawasaki Frontale?”
“Ah, you live in Saitama. You must like Urawa Reds.”
But it’s difficult to explain why I’m here in Kanagawa, en route to Todoroki Athletics Stadium to watch a game that doesn’t matter between Frontale and Ulsan Hyundai, neither of which I support. So I bid farewell to my friendly hosts, receiving a colourful Japanese paper toy as a parting gift. It’s a spinning top. The woman spins it, blurring the colours into one.
“It’s a gift”, she says, pushing it into my hands.
Kawasaki is proving to be a charming place.
I step out of the warm, dark house and back into the bright, crisp spring day.
There are four hours until kick off.
Kawasaki’s green side
On the map, Kawasaki is a slim slither of land stretching out from Tokyo Bay. It nestles between Tokyo and Yokohama. Some commuters live here, others just pass through, content with simply seeing the station sign through the train window.
Kawasaki waterfront is heavily industrialised. There isn’t much to see here, unless the nightmarish scene of factories spewing smoke into the light-polluted sky above a sea reflecting the blinding white building lamps is your thing, in which case you can go on an organised tour.
There is another side to Kawasaki, though. Travel away from the coast and the city sheds its heavy industry skin. It becomes decidedly suburban and eventually abundant greenery begins to appear behind houses.
Jump off the train at Mukogaoka-Yuen Station and you’ll be in the heart of this softer side of Kawasaki. A calm 10-minute walk from the station leads you away from karaoke and pachinko parlours, across a lazily-flowing river and along quiet residential streets until the horizon is dominated by gently-rolling, tree-lined hills.
And amid these trees is one of Kawasaki’s best-kept secrets.
A walk through time
It’s perfectly silent as I tread carefully along the uneven paths lined with verdant trees and bursts of pink and red flowers. The route climbs and falls steadily, and around each corner appears another beautiful house set amid pristinely-manicured grounds.
This is the Japan Open Air Folk House Museum, a wonderful place that has rescued and now preserves 24 traditional structures from all over the country. Some of the buildings date back as far as the 17th century and offer a glimpse of a long lost Japan.
Adding to the experience are the friendly volunteers. As well as discussing football, they happily explain and demonstrate traditional culture. It’s fascinating and enlightening, an experience you don’t come across every day in Japan.
It’s also a stunningly tranquil place. Almost exactly halfway between the bustle of Shinjuku and the industry of Kawasaki, the museum is another world. Gentle murmurs escape from houses where smoke softly rises out of the rooftops. Birds chirp while swooping between trees and bees buzz from flower to flower. There’s no traffic noise. No shouting. Only a handful of visitors are quietly roaming through the site on the day I visit.
I reach the end of the path and perch on a seat facing an empty kabuki stage. No-one is around. It’s almost eerie. It’s easy to picture the stage come to life, actors performing the ancient kabuki scenes.
But then my thoughts are interrupted for the first time since arriving. A loud speaker announcement begins. The museum will be closing in 30 minutes. Where has the time gone? Kick off is in two and a half hours.
Back to the present
I feel like a time traveller. I retrace my steps through the museum, ticking off the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Back on the residential streets, I pass young families and students leisurely travelling from A to B. It’s gone 5pm by the time I reach the station, where the evening rush is starting to pick up pace, with stressed-looking commuters dashing for the ticket gates.
There’s still space in the carriages when I switch to the Nambu Line for Kawasaki, jumping off at Musashi-Kosugi, climbing aboard the shuttle bus for the stadium.
This is Kawasaki Frontale’s heartland. As the bus moves along slowly with the evening traffic, I see the club’s flags fluttering from boxing gyms, tyre shops and small, family-run restaurants. And this is a team that in recent times has given the locals something to be proud of.
Frontale are the reigning J.League 1 champions after a season of stylish, entertaining, attacking football. But as already mentioned, this year hasn’t gone quite according to plan.
Tonight’s game will bring the club’s AFC Champions League campaign to an end. They enter the match against Ulsan with only two points from five games, guaranteed to finish last in Group F.
The visitors from South Korea, meanwhile, have nothing to play for in a more positive sense. Second place and qualification for the knock-out round is already confirmed ahead of kick-off. This is simply a chance to end the group stage in style.
Yet despite the game being a dead rubber, there’s a decent atmosphere building pre-match, helped along by the location of the stadium.
The Todoroki Athletics Stadium resides in a large park, and with the sun setting, I first catch a glimpse of the floodlights shining brightly above the tree line. Cutting down a side street, I see the back of a grandstand and hear the fans chanting. I quicken my step. There’s nothing like a football ground on match night.
A game of two halves
Despite being surrounded by a running track, Todoroki Stadium has a lot of charm. It’s an old-school sort of place. Concrete pillars, grey terracing and huge banners hanging from the upper tiers. Out the back of the stand, through the open concourse, you can look out at the Kawasaki skyline.
But the action on the pitch is more than enough to keep my attention. There are swathes of empty seats – not surprising considering the dead rubber nature of the game – yet the home fans are creating a racket. There’s also a respectful moment between the two sets of fans, with applause for the visitors from South Korea. And the stadium is buzzing when the players make their way out on to the pitch.
Frontale are understandably fielding a second-string starting eleven, but they make a flying start to the game and take the lead within two minutes. A jinking run by Manabu Saito creates space for a shot, with Ulsan’s goalkeeper Jo Su-Huk only able to parry the ball out as far as Yuto Suzuki, who slides in to put the hosts ahead.
It’s an end-to-end half, but Frontale finish it on top by adding a second in the 43rd minute. Tatsuya Hasegawa finds himself some room just outside the area and calmly curls the ball over Su-Huk.
Frontale made taking a two goal lead look it easy. But they make losing a two goal lead look even simpler. A lot of fans are still buying their half-time snacks as Park Yong-Woo forces home a header from a corner in the 47th minute. But most fans are back in their seats three minutes later when Lee Yeong-Jae is given all the time in the world to fire a shot across Shota Arai and into the bottom right hand corner.
The second half peters out and the game ends 2-2 without any further drama. Frontale’s participation in the AFC Champions League is over as the fans file out into the chilly April night.
End of the road
So Asia’s finest teams won’t be returning to Kawasaki, at least for another season. But that’s not to stop the rest of us. The city is only 30 minutes from central Tokyo, so it’s easy enough to plan a trip to this unassuming corner of Kanagawa.
But it has a lot of competition in the battle for tourists. Vibrant Yokohama and the ancient seaside delights of Kamakura are just beyond Kawasaki, while Tokyo and its many temptations loom large to the other side.
I think about this as I walk in through my front door at the end of a long day. Why should you visit Kawasaki?
I empty my pockets and pull out the match ticket. The reigning J.League 1 champions are worth seeing, and the fans make a lot of noise in an atmospheric stadium.
There’s one more thing in my pocket: a colourful paper spinning toy. It’s the free gift from one of the friendly volunteers at the museum. I give it a spin and watch the colours blur into one.
If you want a genuine experience away from the bright lights, where honest and humble people go out of their way to make you feel welcome, give Kawasaki a try. You might be surprised.
To find out how to get to Kawasaki and Todoroki Stadium, click on page 2 below.