Mito: Embracing the world of perpetual J2 football

HollyHock have become a mainstay of the Japanese second tier, but their fans remain upbeat and the city is full of charm. And natto

Date: Wednesday, July 25th, 2018 
Location: Mito, Ibaraki prefecture 
Venue: K's Denki Stadium 
Match: Mito HollyHock versus Tochigi SC (J2 League)

Rochdale AFC hold a record in English football. It’s not a particularly welcome record, but, hey, history is history. From 1974 to 2010, the club played in the Football League’s bottom division. No other team has spent that long in the basement.

A third place finish in the 2009/10 season broke the spell and secured advancement. It was only the second promotion in their history at the time. But those 36 consecutive seasons of stasis resulted in the bottom tier being dubbed the “Rochdale Division”.

So if 36 is the magic number, then we’re just past halfway to J2 League being renamed the “Mito HollyHock Division”. Since entering the league in 2000, the Ibaraki club haven’t budged. We’re now in Year 19 of HollyHock’s second tier residency.

But it’s not just league consistency that links these clubs from the east and the west. Mito and Rochdale share one other similarity: both live in the shadows of vastly more successful neighbours. HollyHock are drowned out by Ibaraki rival and Japanese football behemoth Kashima Antlers. While Rochdale, part of Greater Manchester, survive on the few specks of light that escape past Manchester United and City.

Yet this is where the similarities end. Because the capital city of Ibaraki prefecture is a world away from the humble former mill town at the foothills of the South Pennines.

A great garden

Mito is famous for various reasons, but it’s impossible to visit without seeing Kairakuen, one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan. The other two are in Okayama and Kanazawa, but Mito’s Kairakuen arguably has the most important legacy.

Kairakuen Mito Ibaraki Japan

It was brought to life in 1841 by feudal lord Tokugawa Nariaki, making it a fairly new garden compared to those found in Okayama and Kanazawa. But unlike those other areas of natural beauty, Kairakuen wasn’t built just to be enjoyed by the ruling classes. Nariaki designed his garden for everyone and anyone. This was a novel concept at the time, and paved the way for the development of national parks around the country.

Today Kairakuen is still for the people. It costs nothing to enter and is open every day, so whenever you find yourself in Mito, its peaceful bamboo groves, plum tree-lined paths and meandering tracks under the shadow of great cedars will be waiting.

Kairakuen Garden Mito Ibaraki Japan

Food meets football

Between Kairakuen and Mito Station is the beautiful Senba Lake, overlooked on one side by simple wooden structures poking out of the shrubbery atop verdant hills, and to the other by the modern skyline of the city.

And after experiencing one of Mito’s claims to fame, it might just be time to sample another. But this one isn’t for everyone.

Ibaraki natto fridge magnet

It’s stringy, slimy, pungent and has a taste that can best be described as acquired. Yes, it’s natto. Mito is famous for its production of this fermented soy bean dish. You’ll find plenty of places to try natto in Mito, and you’ll even be able to pick up some natto-themed souvenirs.

And, if you’re happy to believe online encyclopaedias, natto has also been used to define Mito HollyHock. As one of J2’s “traditionally weak” teams (don’t shoot the messenger, please click on the link), it’s alleged that HollyHock defined themselves as a defensive outfit, a style of play that has spawned a unique name: Mito-nachio.

Itself derived from catanaccio, the defensive Italian tactic, HollyHock’s version is also a play on words of its famous food: Mito Natto.

Derby night

With thoughts of Mito-nachio and 18 years of J2 purgatory rattling around in my brain, I board the bus at the station, heading for K’s Denki Stadium.

The queue for the bus is a clash of colours; the light blue of HollyHock and the luminous yellow of Tochigi SC. And tonight there’s a 50-50 split of rival fans, for this is the North Kanto Derby between teams from neighbouring prefectures.

So there are bragging rights up for grabs, but not a lot else, at least for the hosts. HollyHock, true to form, are sitting safely in mid-table, looking secure for another season in J2. Tochigi, meanwhile, will be looking nervously over their shoulder, only a handful of points above the drop zone.

K's Denki Stadium Mito HollyHock Ibaraki Japanese football

After crawling through suburban traffic, the stadium shines into view, with the dramatic curving roof of HollyHock’s home rising above the low-rise structures on the outskirts of the city. It’s an impressive venue, and the atmosphere is already building.

Under an angry-looking sky, with ominous clouds forming, fans are gathering to eat fried chicken and drink beer. Groups of friends chat, kids run around wildly, and Tochigi’s mascot Tokky messes about with the home side’s Holly-kun.

After soaking up the pre-game festivities, it’s time to enter the ground for what will hopefully be a exciting local derby to match the atmosphere.

A damp squib

As kick-off approaches, the HollyHock fans run through their repertoire of songs and chants, as the sky turns from grey, to blue, to a deep purple before darkness falls completely.

K's Denki Stadium Mito HollyHock Ibaraki Japanese football

The players emerge to unfurled banners, huge flags fluttering in the breeze and a wall of noise from the banks of blue HollyHock fans and yellow Tochigi supporters. Everything is set up for a cracker under the floodlights.

Unfortunately, the game doesn’t live up to the energy provided by the fans. The first half is slog of misplaced passes, individual errors and lacklustre set plays. To their credit, the fans from both sides don’t stop singing. Let’s hope the second half is an improvement.

It isn’t. That is until the last five minutes. And it’s all Mito HollyHock. First, Takuya Miyamoto narrowly drags a cross-shot goal from the left narrowly past the right post. And then Takeru Kishimoto heads agonisingly wide to a collective groan from the boisterous home fans.

Living up to the reputation of Mito-nachio, the game ends 0-0. The fans of both teams wait back after the final whistle to applaud their players. I stay a little longer as well, give Holly-kun a round of applause, before filing out into the breezy evening to find the bus back to Mito.

Looking to the future

At full-time, the league table makes familiar reading for HollyHock. They sit 13th out of 22. Over the previous 18 seasons, their average league finish is 12th. Another year of mid-table obscurity is slowly panning out.

But if Rochdale have proved anything, it’s that nothing is permanent. Even after 36 seasons, when the league has been jokingly named after you, there is still hope.

So here’s to 2037, and Mito HollyHock in J1.

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