A drum-thumping, grandstand-shaking, flag-waving carnival of football under the shadow of Mount Fuji
Date: Wednesday, August 1st, 2018 Location: Shimuzu, Shizuoka City Venue: IAI Stadium Nihondaira Match: Shimizu S-Pulse versus Sagan Tosu (J.League 1)
On a clear day, as I cast my gaze across the grey suburban rooftops of Saitama from the simple two-platform train station that rises amid the residential sprawl, I can see an iconic image of Japan.
Mount Fuji stands proudly on the horizon, often snow-capped, back-lit by the burning orange sky at dusk.
It draws people in. The forests and lakes in the foothills, the peak that pokes above the clouds for stunning sunset views. Hundreds of thousands make a pilgrimage each year. It’s easy to see why.
It’s beyond Mount Fuji that I’m looking towards, though. Today, in the dank depths of a sweltering summer day, the mountain is invisible, washed out by a brownish humid haze.
But who needs a mountain when there’s football to be watched? In the shadow of Mount Fuji lies Shizuoka, home to one of Japan’s most colourful football teams.
It’s time for the Shimizu S-Pulse experience.
Setting sail for S-Pulse
S-Pulse are one of the most colourful teams in the J.League. They play in bright orange shirts, inspired by the region’s local fruit produce. And then there are the fans, renowned for their passionate support, including samba drums and boisterous celebrations.
All of which feels a million miles away as I stare out of the bus window as we roll through Tokyo at rush hour. A corner turned reveals a snake of red lights crawling out of the capital.
Dusk falls. Lights twinkle out of towering office blocks. The sky burns orange as the sun falls behind the horizon. Wispy grey clouds float lazily beyond the mountains that encircle the city.
Eventually we break free from the traffic, joining the motorway and cruising west towards Shizuoka and the dying embers of the day.
The next morning I eagerly open the hotel window curtains. Downtown Shizuoka stretches out around me, squat grey buildings huddled together in blocks, intersected by narrow roads navigated by lumbering cars and nimble bicycles.
On the flat roof below my room, a hulking air conditioning unit wheezes desperately for air. It’s hot in Shizuoka. And humid. I savour my cool room a moment longer.
There are ten hours until kick-off. Plenty of time to get a feel for this historically and culturally significant city.
Modern day Shizuoka centres around its sleek train station, where harried-looking businesspeople rush for the shinkansen, which shuttles passengers to Tokyo in just one hour.
But I see stressed out office workers every day, so I board a bus, leave the station behind and stare out of the window as we weave through the city’s business district and outer suburbs until nature begins to win the war with concrete.
Nihondaira is Shizuoka City’s green heart, a plateau that rises to a peak of 308 metres (1,010ft). Steep hillsides fall away from the road as we leave the city behind, the bus struggling around tight corners, climbing sharply between verdant clusters of trees.
After nearly an hour, we finally reach the destination, a seemingly nondescript car park. This is near the area’s peak, but there’s no relief from the oppressive heat despite the higher altitude. It’s still a sweltering sweatbox of a day.
This is the stop for Nihondaira Ropeway, a cable car that whisks visitors over a tree-covered gorge, towards a jutting outcrop that hides a beautifully-kept, remote sanctuary.
It’s not a recommended journey for vertigo sufferers. I board a boxy carriage and plant myself at the front, staring out across the undulating hills far below. There’s a judder, and we’re moving. The ground falls away and we’re gliding high above Nihondaira. The windows are open, a lazily-rotating fan pushes hot air around the car. Birds hover below, riding the thermals.
As the ropeway carries us further along, the ocean comes into view beyond the treetops, lapping against a golden stretch of sand along the Shizuoka coast. The water glistens under the bright sun, a thousand feet below this cable car gently rocking in the breeze.
A little over five minutes later and we’re docking with a clank at the destination. Welcome to Kunozan Toshogu Shrine.
Intricately-designed buildings and deep red gates lurk amid the dark greens of the forest. Stone staircases and rugged paths meander past striking statues and offerings of gold.
It’s peaceful up here. Far away from the hustle and bustle of city life down below. Views stretch away down the coast to distant mountains blurred by the humid air. It’s easy to escape the other tourists, to find pockets of silence, disturbed only by bees buzzing by lazily.
Yes, this is Nihondaira. But this is only one of its sides. It holds one more attraction that I’ll be visiting today. A place not renowned for its peace and tranquility. A place known best for its colour and noise. A place where passions run wild to a samba beat.
It’s time to visit IAI Stadium Nihondaira. Home to Shimuzu S-Pulse.
Welcome to S-Pulse
The ride back down to sea level is hot and steamy. It’s almost unbearably hot in the city centre, where the pavements trap the heat and scant shelter can be found.
It’s another bus ride out to the stadium. The heat of the day is taking its toll on the passengers. Young and old drift away to sleep as the bus rattles through the suburbs before emerging on the seafront and following the coast road. Seabreeze-battered greenhouses form a valiant line across the road from the ocean that gently laps at the shore.
We hug the coast a little longer, before turning back inland along tree-lined streets brightened by orange-clad pedestrians. Minutes later and we’re trundling up a narrow lane that climbs away from the street, only to be met by a yellow giant.
Staring intently at IAI Stadium Nihondaira is Pikachu. A Pikachu the size of a small house. Fans swarm around the inflatable Pokemon, snapping pictures and supping beer. Steam seeps from stalls selling grilled meats and the club’s mascots – Pul-chan and Pical-chan – pose for photos with kids.
There are also splashes of pink, white and blue amid the orange. Today’s visitors are Sagan Tosu, who despite their lowly league position of 17th are optimistic since the arrival of Spanish World Cup winner Fernando Torres.
It’s all set up to be an entertaining clash.
A stunning stadium
I peel myself away from the festivities outside and enter the rather brutalist-looking stadium. It’s busy around the ground floor concourse. Fans brush together and jostle for space in stretching queues for beer and food.
I leave them all behind and climb the concrete stairs to the second tier. Glimpses of the stadium catch my eye through gaps between draping flats and grey pillars. But these sneak peaks don’t do the venue justice.
The setting is stunning. From my vantage point in the home end behind the goal, I see three stands rising above the trees, backed by verdant mountains to the sides and the glimmering ocean beneath a gentle dusk sky behind the away end.
And as kick-off approaches, more fans spill in. It’s hard to spot a spare seat, and soon the volume levels begin lifting, the drums beating, the flags flying. And then the players emerge into a cauldron of effervescent expectation.
Drama at dusk
It’s a colourful encounter between the orange-shirted home team and the light blue-clad visitors. And it’s an even first half, with a lot of neck-craning to catch sight of Torres running at the S-Pulse defence. He’s undoubtedly box office, but these are the early days of his Japan adventure, and he struggles to make an impact.
The game ebbs and flows, until Douglas breaks into the Sagan box. He’s clumsily brought down by Yuji Takahashi, and the referee doesn’t hesitate in awarding a penalty. Douglas picks himself up to cooly slot the ball past a despairing Shuichi Gondo.
We reach half-time with S-Pulse leading 1-0. Before launching into a fiery second-half of controversy.
The hosts come out stronger. Mitchell Duke lifts a side-footed effort over the bar from six yards. Douglas again gets into the box, but this time tumbles under his own momentum.
And then drama. Mu Kanazaki breaks free of the S-Pulse defence, only to be caught by Freire. There is clear contact. The Sagan forward was clipped. Freire didn’t get the ball.
No free kick. No card.
The Sagan Tosu bench erupts. Manager Massimo Ficcadenti storms out of his technical area, backed by his coaches, to remonstrate with the officials. It’s all in vain.
But this moment changes the atmosphere. Every decision against Sagan is greeted with aggressive disdain by the bench. Players square up.
The air is heavy. It’s still humid. Supporters flutter plastic fans in desperate bids to cool down. The S-Pulse ultras start jumping. The stand shakes. Drummers pick up the beat. Chances come and go. Five minutes additional time. Chants echo around the concrete stands. The final whistle goes.
Shimizu S-Pulse win 1-0 against an aggrieved Sagan Tosu. Fireworks explode behind the main stand. The players gather in the centre circle to bow, before embarking on a lap of honour to thank the fans.
I join the swell of supporters and get carried along to the exits, high-fiving the delighted S-Pulse staff on the way.
Back beyond the mountain
It takes some time to sieve through the crush for the bus, but eventually I board to take a night-time ride through the quiet streets of Shizuoka.
Tomorrow morning I’ll be catching the coach back to Tokyo. Away from this fervently supported football club, away from the green hills that surround the city, and far from the tranquil Kunozan Toshogu Shrine.
But the next time I’m standing on the platform at my unremarkable train station, looking out towards the magnificent Mount Fuji, I’ll remember that there’s an exciting new world not far beyond.
The world of Shizuoka and Shimizu S-Pulse.