Sagamihara: Football between the mountains and the city

This small city sitting in the Tokyo-Yokohama commuter belt is home to one of the most surprising clubs in Japan. One that survives against the odds

Date: Wednesday, September 12th, 2018
Location: Sagamihara, Kanagawa prefecture
Venue: Sagamihara Gion Stadium
Match: SC Sagamihara versus Azul Claro Numazu (J.League 3)

Through gaps in the foliage, the mountain falls away in a wave of trees, washing gently down towards the urban sprawl of the Kanto Plain. Birds glide on the thermals, their chirping complemented only by the sound of my footsteps and the rustle of the wind through the leafy branches.

It feels a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, but this haven of tranquility resides within the boundaries of one of the most populated cities on the planet. This is Mount Takao, less than an hour from Shinjuku, the world’s busiest train station.

Mount Takao stands out as an exception to the rule in Tokyo. It’s greenery amid the grey urban sprawl. It’s peace and quiet amid the ear-splitting din of city life.

And back down there, 600 metres below, beyond the trees, where the mountain recedes and the city takes back control, is another exception to the rule. A football club that exists despite the odds being stacked firmly against it.

This is the SC Sagamihara experience.

A sacred mountain

When talking about Mount Takao being on the edge of a mega metropolis, it’s important to remember who was here first. Back when the area of Tokyo was a ramshackle collection of fishing communities and simple farms, Mount Takao was already regarded as a sacred place. For over a thousand years, pilgrims have trekked up the steep paths towards the summit, where Yakuoin, an important temple in Shingon Buddhism, proudly sits.

Deep red lanterns set back amid the verdant foliage lead the way through winding tracks under the shadow cast by ancient Japanese cedar trees. As you walk slowly along routes worn down by footsteps that echo through time, it’s possible to catch glimpses of what this region has become – the apartment blocks, the skyscrapers, the industrial estates, turning the sky on the horizon grey.

Mount Takao Tokyo view
A view from near the summit of Mount Takao

But that’s far away from this world, where insects buzz lazily to and fro, where sunlight dances through the spaces between the leaves, and where a temple of gold and red takes pride of place near the summit of this sacred mountain.

It’s not necessary to be told that Yakuoin is important. It exudes spirituality, entwined with nature, faded by time to blend in with the deep, dark greens and browns that surround it. And then there are the statues.

Yakuoin Temple Mount Takao Tokyo Japan
Yakuoin Temple near the summit of Mount Takao

A red face and a long nose is how Tengu are most commonly depicted. These creatures have been accused of everything, from sinister interference to being the portents of war.

But in the mountains, the Tengu have a different image. Up here, they are the guardians of the steep slopes and cloud-shrouded peaks. They offer protection in the dark spaces that lurk far from the paths, in the depths of the forests.

And back down on ground level, in the shadow of Mount Takao, the Tengu’s protection is required in the face of a significant adversity.

Tengu Mount Takao statue train station Tokyo Japan
A Tengu statue at a station near Mount Takao

Surviving against the odds

There are 18 J.League teams that call the Kanto Plain home. Some of those clubs are giants of the Japanese game, including Kashima Antlers, Urawa Reds and Yokohama F. Marinos.

SC Sagamihara are not in that company. Their battle to exist takes place every week. They fight for fans with Kanagawa rivals such as Shonan Bellmare, reigning J1 champions Kawasaki Frontale and the three Yokohama clubs: Yokohama FC, YSCC Yokohama and the aforementioned Marinos.

And as if that wasn’t enough, just down the Keio Line are high-flying FC Tokyo.

Yet here they are. SC Sagamihara. A small team from a nondescript city that primarily acts as a commuter belt bed space for the workers that pack crowded trains into Tokyo and Yokohama every day. It doesn’t make sense.

But take the short walk from Harataima Station, past identikit shopping centres, between the houses of sleepy residential areas and through a woodland park, and you’ll begin to see where SC Sagamihara fit in the J.League ecosystem.

Third time lucky

Sagamihara Gion Stadium sneaks up on you. First its the noise, the sound of drums and chanting reverberating through the trees. An unsighted bastion of football amid an otherwise tranquil suburban park.

Eventually a clearing opens up along the path, leading towards a narrow gap in the fence, past an athletics facility where young sportspeople are put through their paces. And beyond that sits the home of SC Sagamihara.

I follow the running track around the ground, catching sneak peeks of the pitch through gates topped by striking red arches. Flags with photographs of each SC Sagamihara player flutter in the breeze opposite a huge club banner draped from the top of the stadium.

SC Sagamihara Gion Stadium J.League 3 Japanese footall
A sea of SC Sagamihara player flags outside the stadium

Tonight the sky is moody and grey. Fitting for a fixture that appears to have angered the weather gods.

This is the third attempt at SC Sagamihara hosting Azul Claro Numazu in J.League 3 this season. Rain did for the original fixture on March 21st. A typhoon then scuppered the rearranged match on July 28th. But tonight the climate controls itself enough to get through 90 minutes of football. Not without a prolonged dousing, though.

SC Sagamihara Gion Stadium J.League 3 Japanese football
Welcome to Sagamihara Gion Stadium

I sit in a far corner of the back stand, umbrella propped up, looking out over this compact little ground. Standing on the grass bank behind the goal to my left are the hardcore support – flag-flying and chanting with just shy of two hours until kick off. A mix of families with children, couples and groups of friends. And they keep the energy levels high throughout, in what turns into quite a game.

Singing in the rain

Azul Claro Numazu arrive in Kanagawa flying high. They sit third in the league, three points behind second place Kagoshima United and seven points away from leaders FC Ryukyu. And despite not having the required licence for promotion to J.League 2, they could play a significant role in the end of season shake up.

SC Sagamihara, meanwhile, are down in 13th. and come into this game off the back of a 7-0 humbling at the hands of Gainaire Tottori and a 1-0 home defeat to Blaublitz Akita. And the first half here doesn’t offer much in the way of cheer.

A corner from the left swung in by Kazuya Sunamori is met by Eiichiro Ozaki, who smartly adjusts his body shape to meet the low flight of the ball and head the visitors into the lead.

Half time: SC Sagamihara 0 Azul Claro Numazu 1.

SC Sagamihara Sagamihara Gion Stadium J.League 3 Japanese football
SC Sagamihara and Azul Claro Numazu in action under the floodlights

It’s an old cliche, but football is a game of two halves. And SC Sagamihara demonstrate this in the best possible way for the next 45 minutes.

A pinball scramble breaks out in the six-yard box, until Daiki Umei strikes to draw the home side level just before the hour mark. Thirty minutes to go in the driving rain on a pitch that’s starting to cut up. This isn’t going to be pretty. Or so I think.

What comes next is a shining moment of brilliance on a murky night. SC Sagamihara’s Shinji Tsujio lines up a free kick in a central position just outside the box. He whips the ball over the wall with his right foot, placing it just inside the post, out of reach of the despairing Ayumi Niekawa in the Numazu goal.

It’s a slippery, treacherous final ten minutes, with the ball spinning and bouncing unpredictably, and the players sliding desperately in vain bids to stay on two feet.

But the seconds tick by, the fans keep chanting, the rain keeps falling. And then the final whistle cuts through the hazy night. Tension turns to relief in the home stands. SC Sagamihara mark an impressive comeback to win 2-1.

And here is what makes this small, over-shadowed and over-looked football club so important. After the on-pitch celebrations, the players make their way to the vocal fans behind the goal. Rain-soaked and exhausted, the team line up in front of the supporters and bow. And then comes the celebration. In unison, those in the stands and those on the pitch sing and dance. The flags wave, the drums beat and the players bounce. It clearly means so much to everyone in attendance. An ever important three points in the third tier of Japanese football for a twice rescheduled game on a gloomy Wednesday night.

Protection from above

I exit the stadium to the sound of singing and chanting, and walk back through the park, along the quiet residential streets and to the sleepy suburban station, leaving the bright lights of Sagamihara Gion Stadium behind as a distant glow in the night.

This corner of Kanagawa isn’t a big draw. You’ll likely pass by en-route to Mount Takao, and when it comes to football elsewhere in this prefecture, well, take your pick.

But SC Sagamihara have something special. Their woodland home comes alive on match day, thanks to a committed band of supporters whose passion for their club shines brightly.

Up on Mount Takao, the Tengu offer protection from the dark corners of the high up forests. And down here on the Kanto Plain, in the shadows of the mountains that encircle Kanagawa and Tokyo, it feels like like their presence extends a little bit further, to this small football club that survives against the odds.

You’ve read the blog post, now watch the video. Scroll down or click here to experience a trip up Mount Takao and a match night at SC Sagamihara.

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