Oita: Discovering football in Kyushu – part two

A trip down the island’s east coast reveals beautiful beaches, vibrant onsen towns and an incredible football stadium. If you missed part one of the Kyushu excursion, you can read it here

Date: Thursday, May 3rd, 2018 
Location: Oita, Oita prefecture 
Venue: Oita Bank Dome
Match: Oita Trinita versus Omiya Ardija (J.League 2)

A small jolt wakes me up and the world outside the window has changed. As sleep descended, the brown urban sprawl of Kitakyushu was flickering past under a hazy sky. Now the ocean is twinkling beyond palm trees swaying gently in the breeze.

So this is Oita prefecture. My third Kyushu prefecture in two days. And it’s without doubt the most beautiful I’ve seen on this trip.

And it’s been a whirlwind trip. This time yesterday I’d just landed in a wet, grey Fukuoka. The next step was a train ride out into the countryside of Saga prefecture, where clouds clung desperately to rolling, wind-swept hills above verdant fields and pristine traditional houses.

That ride on the Kagoshima Line took me to Tosu, a down-to-earth city with a bona fide match day experience. You can read about it here.

But that was yesterday. Today is another day. The sun is out. And there’s more football to watch. Next up: Oita Trinita versus Omiya Ardija.

Odd shaped balls

The super Sonic train. Credit: Gordon C

I’m fully awake now and the view is captivating. The Limited Express Sonic (no relation to the hedgehog) glides alongside the Kyushu coast, hugging the seafront as we pass through bohemian seaside towns and craggy fishing villages.

And then we reach Beppu, where steam rises from the ground and red water boils away in hellish pools. This is one of the most famous onsen towns in Japan, and millions of tourists visit every year to experience the soothing waters of the hot springs.

I just roll past on the train, but out of the window I see another reason why people will soon be visiting this region en masse. A sporting statue, but not football.

Rugby is coming.

Hang on for some rugby. A statue outside Beppu Station. Credit: seldamn

In 2019, Japan will host the Rugby World Cup for the first time. Which is very exciting, especially as Oita is one of the host cities. So, rugby fans, you’re in for a treat as this is one beautiful place to watch sport, as I’m about to find out. And this time I’m not just talking about the scenery.

Oita is just ten minutes further along the line from Beppu, and I’m glad to finally arrive after a journey from Tosu that’s taken the best part of three hours. Kyushu is bigger than it looks.

On this day in May, the Rugby World Cup is 505 days away, as a sign in the train station tells me. Outside a beer festival is taking place. The sun is shining. First impressions of Oita? Very good.

But I’m about to be blown away by an incredible piece of architecture.

A shuttle to the dome

Japanese football stadiums are often a bit out of town, and Oita Trinita’s ground is no different. A shuttle bus – packed out on this sunny Golden Week day – chugs through the suburbs and out into the hills surrounding the city, taking us to Oita Bank Dome.

And wow.

This is one spectacular venue. It cost ¥25 billion to construct and was designed by the renowned Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa. It’s one of the largest domes on the planet and is an “architectural marvel” according to the National Geographic documentary series Big, Bigger, Biggest, which highlighted the structure in one of its episodes.

And they weren’t joking. It’s incredible. It looks like a spaceship that’s crash landed atop a tree-covered hill. There are huge expanses of land outside the stadium, from where you can look out over the Oita countryside.

Oita Bank Dome Oita Trinita Kyushu Japan J.League football
Fans queue for tickets at Oita Bank Dome

I walk around the huge dome, catching glimpses of the seats inside, which are already filling up with Trinita blue and Ardija orange with an hour to go until kick-off. At the ticket office, two long lines have formed with fans buying tickets on the day. This feels like a top-flight game, not a J.League 2 match up.

And Oita Trinita could be a J.League 1 team soon. They start today’s game as the league leaders following an unbeaten run stretching back almost two months to March 11th. Omiya Ardija, meanwhile, have just come down from the top division after a dismal 2017. And J.League 2 hasn’t been proving much easier, with the team down in mid-table. But two wins on the bounce heading into this game has given the fans hope.

So with the form table checked and kick-off rapidly approaching, it’s time to step foot inside the dome.

Oita Bank Dome Oita Trinita J.League Kyushu football
Oita Bank Dome. The stunning home of Oita Trinita

Welcome to the Squirrel Nation

So if outside the stadium was impressive, inside is even more gawp-inducing. Soaring above the pitch are the incredible arching steel pillars of the retractable roof. And the design catches the noise of chanting fans, even when the stadium isn’t full. It must be electric for sell-outs.

It makes me wish I could travel back in time to 2002, when the stadium hosted three World Cup games. Nearly 40,000 fans attended each game: a 1-1 draw between Mexico and Italy in Group G, another 1-1 draw in the Tunisia-Belgium Group H match and a 2-1 extra-time round of 16 victory for Senegal over Sweden.

But today there aren’t 40,000 people inside the dome. The attendance is 10,134, which is still impressive for a J.League 2 game. What’s also admirable is the turnout from the away fans. It’s a long journey to Oita from Omiya (I should know, as I live there…). Almost 1,000km. Yet there is a vocal group of orange-clad supporters from the Squirrel Nation in attendance. And they’re in for a treat.

Omiya Ardija Oita Trinita Oita Bank Dome J.League Kyushu Japan football
Omiya Ardija fans making noise before kick-off

Sunshine football

You’ve got to be quite a good team to go on an eight-game unbeaten run, and so it is that Trinita start the game strongly. It only takes them ten minutes to go in front, exploiting an Ardija attack to break quickly, leaving Takumi Kiyomoto clear through on goal. His left foot strike from the edge of the area, though, is a piece of individual quality.

Now, Ardija have been having a bad season. They’ve gone behind to an early goal. Away from home. To the league leaders. Who are unbeaten in eight games. What’s going to happen next?

A glorious fightback. That’s what.

The setback rallies Ardija. Just two minutes after conceding, Genki Omae intercepts a loose pass, takes a couple of strides forward and launches an audacious lob from 30 yards. It drifts just wide.

Then just five minutes before half-time, the visitors from Saitama click into gear. Some tika-taka football finds Shintara Shimada in space on the right of the penalty area. He cuts inside, runs at Trinita defender Naoya Fukumori, creates half a step of room and curls a left-footed shot into the top right-hand corner.

Half-time: 1-1.

As fans munch on snacks and sip on cool drinks, the big screen shows highlights of the goals. Shimada’s strike draws a polite round of applause from the happy Ardija fans.

And before we know it, the players are emerging back on to the sun-basked pitch.

Out of the blocks and its the hosts starting strongly again. And that man Kiyomoto once again is the instigator, this time smacking a 20-yard free-kick against the post. Ardija hang on, and strike again.

On 64 minutes, Omae whips in a left-footed corner. It swings goalwards, and all Trinita ‘keeper Shun Takagi can do is push the ball even further into his own net.

Oita Trinita 1 Omiya Ardija 2.

And that’s how it ends. Half chances come and go for each team, but it’s the guests in orange picking up their third win in a row, while Trinita kiss goodbye to their unbeaten streak of eight games.

A long trip home

I join the line of wide-grinned, colourful Omiyans as they file out of the stadium. Orange mixes with blue in the wide open spaces surrounding the dome as the Trinita fans pour out to awaiting buses, cars, taxis and bicycles. We all roll down the green hill, back across pretty red bridges and into the low-rise city that falls away into the gleaming blue ocean.

Back on the Sonic, we race the sun as it sets beyond the distant hills, slowly casting Beppu Bay into ever descending shades of dark blue until it turns pitch black. Lights spring up in every coastal nook and cranny. And I drift away to sleep as the train gently rocks along the rails.

I open my eyes back in Kitakyushu, where neon lights and shadowy buildings tower over huddled pedestrians rushing forth, bracing themselves against the wind and rain.

Fifty minutes later and the Sonic reaches the end of the line. Hakata Station. It’s cold, wet and windy. This is the heart of Fukuoka city, where friends pull up a seat at the yatai for food and drinks. But tonight gusts of frigid air whip at the awnings of these open-air food stalls. I pull my jacket closer, dodge the drunken revellers stumbling along the infamous streets of Nakasu.

Tomorrow morning I fly back to Tokyo. In two days I’ve seen three prefectures of this amazing island. From fertile farmland to hot spring resorts and bustling metropoles.

There are seven J.League teams in Kyushu. I’ve hit two of them on this trip. I can’t wait for the chance to come back for the remaining five.

Oita Beppu coast Kyushu Japan
Goodbye from Kyushu

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