Tosu: Discovering football in Kyushu – part one

There are seven clubs to visit on this southern island of Japan. We begin with a trip to one of its most colourful: Sagan Tosu

Date: Wednesday, May 2nd, 2018 
Location: Tosu, Saga prefecture 
Venue: Best Amenity Stadium 
Match: Sagan Tosu versus Consadole Sapporo (J.League 1)

In asking for time off work to make this trip, I explained the plan to my boss.

“I’m going to Kyushu. I’ll visit Fukuoka, Tosu and Oita.”

I watched his reaction to each name.

“Kyushu.”

A nod

“Fukuoka.”

A nod

“Tosu.”

A look of utter confusion.

“Oita.”

An assured nod.

I know what question is coming next.

“Where’s Tosu?”

And it’s an understandable query. Kyushu is a popular place, as I can see from my packed plane. Yes, it’s Golden Week, a collection of national holidays in which the majority of Japan takes off for a well-deserved break. But how many of these people on the flight to Fukuoka will be making the journey further south to Tosu?

By the looks of the passengers, not many. Although football fans, of course, aren’t perpetually decked out in their team’s colours and chanting. But any supporter who hasn’t made a trip to Tosu is missing out on one of the most authentic sporting experiences in Japan.

Finding Tosu

But to get back to my boss’s question, here’s a bit of geography to provide an answer.

Tosu is a small city in the east of Saga prefecture. It can be reached in just 22 minutes from Fukuoka, the prefectural capital of Kyushu, a major conurbation home to over 200,000 people and renowned for its food culture.

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Tosu is here

So let’s take the 22-minute train journey south and discover what Tosu is all about. Because – and you might have noticed I’ve been stalling here – I don’t know anything about Tosu, either.

As it’s a national holiday, the rain is coming down steadily and Fukuoka is looking the definition of urban. The train clatters its way out of the city, under bridges with graffiti-lined walls, past haulage yards of lonely-looking carriages and beyond the identikit tower blocks that seem to populate every Japanese city. But soon the buildings start to fade away and Kyushu reveals why it’s so popular. It’s beautiful.

Into the countryside

Clouds of grey and white cling to the tops of verdant hills as strong gusts bite at the edges and blow wisps into the ether. Farmland stretches out below, sharing space with traditional houses ringed by perfectly manicured gardens.

But as the minutes tick by, the sight of the city isn’t returning to view. I’m spending the night in Yayoigaoka, just five minutes from Tosu on the train. Yet when we reach the station, I start to think there must be some mistake.

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Yayoigaoka Station. Not exactly a bustling transport hub

Yayoigaoka is part of Tosu city, yet it feels like an extension of the countryside. When the train departs, it reveals behind it a view of fields and trees. The simple two platform station has no electronic information boards. But it does have some pretty flowers lining the walls.

There are no ticket gates. Just an electronic reader for travel cards and a box to drop paper tickets into. A station worker is watering the plants. It feels like being back home in rural England.

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Yayoigaoka, on the edge of Tosu

And that feeling only grows when I step out of the station. There are few people on the streets, only a couple of solitary figures shuffling along, hidden under umbrellas on this murky May day. Cars sporadically pass on the wide roads. A few squat supermarket buildings take up space on the corners of deserted junctions.

My hotel is meant to be in this area. It seems an unlikely destination for any tourists.

I walk between two apartment buildings. Nobody stirs. The path brings me out on a road alongside a wide expanse of green. I skirt around the huge plot of shrubbery and trees that circle a lake.

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Welcome to Tosu

There are no further signs of life. I keep walking. It’s raining on and off, but through the haze I see a familiar sight. And I really do think I’m back home in my village.

A union flag is stuck to the wall. I see it, stumble over a lose piece of pavement, and continued towards it. What’s it doing here? Where am I?

And then I see it. Beyond the flag. My hotel. It’s the last building on the street. After this there’s nothing, until the hills meet the sky.

I check-in, freshen up and get ready to head back out to find out what Tosu is all about.

Colour amid the grey

The rain has stopped by the time I venture out again. But ominous looking clouds lurk behind the hills, promising the imminent threat of a downpour. The wind has picked up, too, rustling through the trees and shaking drops of rainwater to the ground

Back at the station and I see a glimmer that I’m on the right track. And it’s hard to miss. Sagan Tosu don’t go easy on the colours, and one of their fans, decked out in the club shop, is standing out like a lighthouse on a clear, moonless night. I don’t bother checking the train departure information on the printed board. I follow the fan onto the next train.

Those Sagan Tosu colours are light blue with splashes of pink and white. Their badge is an eagle bursting out of a psychedelic trip. It’s a striking identity. And right now its in considerable juxtaposition to the surroundings.

As Yayoigaoka disappears from view, the world outside the train window goes industrial. Scrapyards, construction sites and railway sidings of rusty-looking carriages lurk in the early evening grey. But there’s a welcome sight just minutes later. The unmistakable glow of floodlights.

A familiar experience

Football stadiums, especially new ones, struggle to find a home. Cities and towns are, in most cases, already quite built-up. And any spare land is unlikely to be handed over to a football club.

But back in 1996, Sagan Tosu were able to land a prime piece of real estate. Best Amenity Stadium is literally a stone’s throw from the station. As my train departs, I see it clearly from the platform. There will be no faffing about with maps tonight.

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I see more fans now, and flags. Sagan Tosu’s colours and badge are everywhere. And that’s not all. Tonight’s visitors, Consadole Sapporo, are also recognised. Their black and red colour scheme is visible, as are their fans. Surprising and impressive considering the 2,000km separating the two cities.

Fans mingle outside the station and slowly make their way over the footbridge, which crosses the railway tracks and leads to the stadium.

And once again during this trip I’m taken back home. This feels like the match day experience I grew up with. A provincial city, slightly gritty, not flash, taking a train to the stadium, walking to the ground surrounded by other fans.

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A proper match day experience in Tosu

Football and flowers

It’s a world of browns and greys. Tosu is a rugged city, a hard-working place. That’s clear to see. You can imagine factories and heavy industry. Trains rolling in and out of the functional station, carrying cargo and weary passengers.

But then I see some pretty pink shirts covered in flowers.

Sagan’s next match after this one will mark Ladies’ Day. And to celebrate the club has designed a special shirt. It’s striking, to say the least. And it stands out a mile.

The rain is coming down again, so I shelter under an awning, sipping on a slightly warm beer, eating a hot dog from a van. There are still 45 minutes until kick-off, but I can already here the fans chanting and stamping on the floor of the huge North Stand.

It’s time to go inside.

Here comes the rain

I check my ticket again. I’m up on the third floor. I climb the steps, catching a glimpse of the grass and blue-shirted fans through gaps in the staircase. And then I reach my section.

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A wet night for football

There’s nothing like that first view from the stand. And the Best Amenity Stadium offers a stunning welcome.

The North Stand is incredibly steep, yet despite being so high up, you feel on top of the pitch. On either side is the Main Stand and the Back Stand, both huge, two-tiered structures. Both with roofs.

If there was a soundtrack to my football watching this season, it would be Why Does It Always Rain On Me? by Travis. And so it is again that I find myself sat in a totally exposed grandstand as it pours down and blows a gale.

So I pull on my trusty convenience store poncho, sit on a wet seat and wait for kick off. Roll on the summer.

Form doesn’t lie

Coming into this game, Sagan Tosu are second bottom of the table with eight points from 11 games. They haven’t won since March 31st, meaning they went through the entire month of April without a victory.

The evening’s visitors, on the other hand, are in fine form. Unbeaten in eight, fourth in the table – all is good with the world up in Hokkaido.

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Happy Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo fans on the South Stand terracing

But the first half doesn’t back up these stats. Consadole, wracked with injuries, are struggling. And Sagan don’t look like a team short on confidence. We reach half-time at 0-0.

Then on 51 minutes, the hosts take the lead. Consadole get themselves into all sorts of trouble trying to pass their way out of defence, with the ball breaking to An Yong-Woo, who makes no mistake one-on-one with the goalkeeper.

So this looks like it. The end of the losing streak. Sagan continue to pour forward, Consadole look shaky at the back. The home fans shivering through the wind and rain will be rewarded with a first win since March.

But, alas, football doesn’t do you any favours. When Julinho is introduced by Consadole on 66 minutes (he’s one of only six substitutes; they don’t have enough available players to fill the bench), there’s little sign of what’s about to come.

Then with ten minutes to go, the ball falls to the Brazilian in the box. He turns neatly and rifles his shot into the bottom left-hand corner.

Four minutes later and the inevitable happens. A ball over the top sets Julinho away. He works his way into a one-on-one situation with Sagan goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda, who gets a hand to the shot, but it isn’t enough. The ball agonisingly rolls over the line. The visitors have turned it around.

Sagan throw everything at Consadole as they look for an equaliser. Gonda even goes up for a corner. But it’s all in vain. The winless streak stretches to nine games. Players lie prostrate on the ground. The fans begrudgingly clap the effort. Other supporters file out into the drizzly night. I join them.

A football city

Okay, so Tosu isn’t famous. If you have time for sightseeing, then there are other places that deserve a spot higher up your list.

But if you’re into football, and you want an authentic experience, then make a beeline for this down-to-earth corner of Kyushu. It won’t disappoint. And the next time someone asks you, “Tosu? Where’s that?”, you’ll be able to give them a smug answer.

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The seven J.League clubs of Kyushu

Part two of the Kyushu mini-tour is a trip down the scenic east coast to watch Oita Trinita play Omiya Ardija in J.League 2. Read about it here.

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