Matsumoto: A fortress of football in the Japanese Alps

Discover myth and legend, and a passionately supported local team, in this historic castle city

Date: Wednesday, July 11th, 2018 
Location: Matsumoto, Nagano prefecture 
Venue: Matsumotodaira Park Stadium 
Match: Matsumoto Yamaga versus Urawa Reds (Emperor's Cup, 3rd round)

Matsumoto Castle is unusual in many ways. It’s black, whereas most traditional Japanese fortresses are white, giving it the spooky moniker Crow Castle.

Then there’s its age. In a land of devastating natural disasters, with a tumultuous past of war and destruction, countless historic structures have been razed to the ground. Not so Matsumoto Castle. The main structure dates back to 1594. It’s a 400-year-old-plus portal back to another world.

And this is a flatland castle, one not built atop a mountain or a hill. Instead it sits amid the Matsumoto Basin, encircled by the rugged, cloud-shrouded, often snow-capped Japanese Alps.

There is, though, another bastion in Matsumoto. One that looks unassuming, quietly residing amid verdant farmland, nestled between a humming motorway and a sleepy airfield.

This is Matsumotodaira Stadium, also known as Alwin. Home to Matsumoto Yamaga, the current pacesetters of J.League 2. And tonight they face an almighty battle against a behemoth of Japanese football. One of the county’s most successful, best supported teams. A winner of not only national competitions but regional as well, with two AFC Champions League titles to their name.

It’s Matsumoto Yamaga versus Urawa Reds. It’s the Emperor’s Cup third round. And storm clouds are gathering over the Alwin Stadium as kick-off approaches.

A city of stories

But first let’s stop and take a breath. It’s 9am. There are ten hours until kick-off. Frantic cup football under the floodlights, full-throated chants echoing around the packed grandstands is all a million miles away from these quiet urban streets of Matsumoto.

Matsumoto Nagano bridge river Japan
Matsumoto is a city of rivers and mountains

I follow the banks of a small river with a narrow channel of rushing water that carves its way through the city. Bridges criss-cross the Ta River, including Sodetome-bashi, now known as Midori-bashi, which holds the secret to one of Matsumoto’s many legends.

Hidemasa Ogasawara was the third lord of Matsumoto Castle and in 1615 set off to war in Osaka. He was followed shortly after by his two sons Tadanaga and Tadamasa.

As the war dragged on, it became necessary for the family’s youngest brother, also called Hidemasa, to join the effort. So young was Hidemasa junior that he still wore a furisode kimono under his armour, a style of clothing for those under the age of 20.

His mother was distraught at the thought of losing her youngest son in battle, and after bidding farewell, decided to follow him. She caught up with Hidemasa at the bridge.

She pleaded with him not to go, pulling at his sleeves in a desperate bid to make him stay. Hidemasa felt the pain of separation and they embraced on the crossing leaving the city. Yet he didn’t stay. He told his mother it was his duty to go and wrenched his sleeves from her grasp.

Sodetome-bashi, meaning “the sleeve pulling bridge”.

Secrets of the castle

Matsumoto’s history is closely entwined with that of its castle. It’s a symbol of the city, a national treasure with dreams of becoming a World Heritage Site. And it’s easy to see why.

Matsumoto Castle Nagano prefecture Japan
Clouds gather above Matsumoto Castle

This grand old structure rises elegantly from pristine grounds surrounded by an immense moat. It’s striking, with its black walls, elaborate cladding and sturdy stone keep.

And then there’s the interior.

It’s dark and musty. Light streams through in beams that penetrate the small gaps in the walls. Some floors have no windows at all. Slippery wooden staircases, almost as vertical as ladders, connect the levels. Climb to the top and be rewarded with views stretching out across the low rise city that nestles up against the Japanese Alps.

Dark corners, inaccessible nooks and crannies, and plunging drops into black nothingness send echoes through time of another world. A dangerous world of feudal conflict, which this castle miraculously survived.

Matsumoto Castle Nagano Prefecture Japan
Crow Castle rising from the greenery

Time for refreshments

I tear myself away from the castle. There are still six hours until kick off. And a simple sign has caught my eye.

Nakamachi is a pleasant district of preserved merchant warehouses. Today this area is home to gift shops, restaurants and guesthouses. And Brewery Lane.

Matsumoto Brewery Matsumoto City Nagano Prefecture Japan real ale
Take a walk down Brewery Lane

Matsumoto Brewery occupies a small two-floor building down a narrow Nakamachi side street. It’s cosy inside, like a British pub with minimalist styling.

I’m the only patron as the clock ticks just past one. Four beers are on tap, and I opt for Matsumoto Brewery’s pale ale. It’s incredible.

“Why did you come to Matsumoto?,” enquires the barmaid after a short conversation.

“I’m here to watch football.”

And as if by magic, another fan enters the bar. An Urawa Reds fan. And then two more. Followed by a Matsumoto Yamaga fan. By 4pm the bar is full, filled with the chatter of expectant supporters. The match day atmosphere is building up nicely. It’s time to head to the stadium.

But first, a quick costume change.

Green Army

When packing for this trip, I made sure to include one special shirt. Matsumoto Yamaga play in a fetching shade of green. A very familiar green to my eyes. And I don’t require much of an excuse to break out the shirt belonging to the Pride of Devon.

Plymouth Argyle, of England’s League One, are in Matsumoto. The Green Army up against the Reds of Urawa.

I also remembered to pack my trusty poncho. But I won’t be needing that. It’s sunny. So I leave it in the hotel room. (Spoiler: I will be needing it. Very much so).

A shuttle bus runs from Matsumoto city centre out to Alwin Stadium. And any fears I had of not being able to find the departure point quickly disappear. A queue of green and red shirts snakes out from the bus terminal.

I join the back of the line that slowly moves forward towards the coach. It’s a 20-minute journey out to the fringes of the city. I find a seat next to the window and drift away to sleep as the suburbs of Matsumoto gradually fade into green fields that stretch out towards the ever-darkening mountains.

Preparing for battle

Those clouds are starting to look ominous as I wearily stumble from the bus. I blend in with the green-shirted home fans as we march towards the stadium, watching the sun burn away behind the main stand, behind the mountains, into the dark grey evening sky.

There’s electricity in the air, and not just from potential thunderstorms. Yamaga fans have turned out en masse for this cup match. Behind the goal is a sea of green, washing its way into the corners, along the back and main stands. The attendance is an impressive 12,077 for this midweek match. I wade through the crowds, looking for a free space.

And then a woman stops me dead in my tracks.

“Where are you from?”

She’s looking at my shirt.

I try to give a concise explanation of Argyle and why I’m wearing the shirt tonight.

“Well, thank you for your support,” she says, before disappearing into the crowd to find a seat.

My search for a free space is in vain. I trek to the top of the stand and perch against the railing behind the final row of seats.

It’s game time.

Scoring in the rain

It’s deafening as the teams emerge. The Yamaga fans are in full flow, waving huge flags, bouncing up and down, and singing their songs with lung-busting gusto. At the other end of the pitch, a not insignificant pocket of Urawa fans try to compete but get drowned out by the home support.

Matsumoto Yamaga J.League J-League japanese football emperor's cup Urawa Reds
The Matsumoto Yamaga Green Army in full force

And after ten minutes, Yamaga are in dreamland. Yoto Shimokawa breaks away down the left wing and drills the ball across goal for Ryo Nagai to stylishly flick home. It’s high fives all round up in the rafters behind the seats. J.League 2 leads J.League 1.

But Urawa start to claw their way back into the game. They get closer and closer, until a 42nd-minute corner is sent deep, headed back across goal and forced in by Reds defender Mauricio.

Half time comes and the teams go in level. But the second half begins how the first half ended, with the visitors in control. They push and push, threatening with every attack. Yamaga defend valiantly, repelling the attacks and attempting to launch counters.

Urawa Reds Matsumoto Yamaga Emperor's Cup Japanese football
Urawa Reds fans celebrate behind the goal

Then heartbreak. With five minutes to go another Urawa corner is swung in. Again Mauricio rises highest. Again he scores. It’s 2-1. And it’s started to rain.

It’s only spitting at first, with the occasional fat drop splashing to ground on the dusty space at the back of the main stand.

And then the heavens open. It’s biblical. Water is pouring off the pillars above the grandstands. Fans pull out their raincoats and ponchos. I think longingly of my beloved poncho, safely tucked away in my suitcase, carefully placed in the corner of my hotel room.

Through the rainy haze, we see the fourth official raise his board. There will be five minutes additional time. A cheer goes up among the drenched fans in green. There’s still hope.

It’s frantic. The ball zips along the slippery surface, rasping shots skid across the waterlogged pitch, lunging tackles fly in.

But it’s not enough. The final whistle goes. Urawa win this battle and progress to the next round. Recognising the effort against a superior opposition, the Yamaga fans stay back in the pouring rain to applaud their mud-covered troops.

Goodbye Matsumoto

Soaked to the skin, I clamber aboard the shuttle bus back into the city. Traffic is heavy and we crawl slowly through dark streets, the lights blurred by rain running in rivers down the bus windows.

It’s always going to be Matsumoto Castle that steals the headlines, and understandably so. But beyond the fortress walls is a charming city of friendly locals, inviting bars and restaurants, and natural beauty within touching distance.

And while not a 400-year-old national treasure, Matsumotodaira Stadium has its own charm. When packed with green-shirted fans, it’s one of the most atmospheric places to watch football in Japan.

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