Hauntingly beautiful islands, fascinating history and incredible gardens await, as does an intriguing football club that flies under the radar
Date: Wednesday, September 19th, 2018 Location: Marugame, Kagawa prefecture, Shikoku Venue: Pikara Stadium Match: Kamatamare Sanuki versus Montedio Yamagata (J2 League)
It’s easy to fall through the gaps. One false move, one misstep and down you go. It’s a treacherous journey. And a deceivingly long one. Even when you think you’re almost there, one more obstacle threatens to plunge you into the mire.
It shouldn’t be Kamatamare Sanuki I’m thinking about at this exact moment in time, as the bridge wobbles, my foot slips, and I cling desperately to the side. But here we are, both facing the drop. Me into a murky river, Kamatamare into J3 League.
I regain my footing, tread carefully and slowly pick my way along the rickety crossing made up of loose pieces of wood lashed together by vines, all just centimetres above the water. I stumble unsteadily over the final few planks and reach the other end, with a huge sigh of relief.
Welcome to Shikoku Mura, an open-air museum of traditional Japanese houses, a place that takes realism seriously. Right down to the plunge-threatening authenticity of a vine bridge entrance.
Kamatamare still have some way to go before they can relax on the other side, looking back with satisfaction, their feet still dry. On this bright sunny September day, they sit bottom of J2 by two points with nine games to go.
In a couple of hours time I’ll be in the stands, watching on as Kamatamare fight to keep their heads above water against visiting Montedio Yamagata.
But until then, the football club’s home, the incredible prefecture of Kagawa, awaits. And it’s certainly something special.
Takamatsu shrinks away beyond the wash left behind by the boat as it picks up speed and leaves the shore behind. The not insignificant waterfront buildings of the biggest city in Kagawa prefecture make the perfect backdrop as the sun glistens on the gentle glassy surface of the Inland Sea.
Thousands of islands dot this part of the world. They rise from the water, covered in trees and fringed by unspoilt beaches. Some can be accessed by small ports that lead the way to characterful fishing villages.
Ogijima is a picture-perfect example. On the approach, as the boat pitches slightly, the cliffs roll past, revealing a stunning scene.
Houses with patchwork roofs are packed together tightly on the steep hills that crawl up from the shore. Where the terrain is too severe, wind-swept trees and thick, verdant foliage paint the land green, all sandwiched between the light blue sky and the turquoise ocean.
And there’s something else that catches the eye. A huge white, latticework shell sits on the quay. It reflects and shimmers in the surrounding pool of shallow water.
Ogijima may be a traditional fishing village, but that’s only part of its story. Today, as it strives to survive amid an ever-changing world, it offers something else to stand out. And that’s a quite incredible collection of modern art.
As tourists step off the boat from Takamatsu, they’re greeted by Ogijima Soul. This welcome centre was designed by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa and it contrasts beautifully with the dark browns and greens of the island. It’s also functionary. The light and airy interior is a cool place to relax, or pick up maps of the island.
But back outside, with Ogijima’s streets laid out on a piece of paper that I hold in my hands, I’m none the wiser about where to go.
I’m facing the houses with the ocean to my back. I hear the water lapping gently against the sea walls. Insects buzz and the distant sound of a scooter high up on the hill drifts down through the narrow streets.
I look to the left but see no clear route into the lanes that weave between the homes. To my right is a small, lonely graveyard, built into a corner, sheltered somewhat from the elements.
It’s eerily quiet. The other passengers who disembarked the ferry have somehow melted away, consumed by what appears to be an impenetrable façade of a village.
I put the map away and walk in the direction of the graveyard. As I approach, I see a small lane to the left. It looks like a dead end, but there are no other options.
Through twists and turns, the narrow path slowly climbs away from the shore. Houses flank both sides. I pass a large blue building, the island’s school. The chatter of children momentarily fills the air before dissolving into the muggy heat of the afternoon.
The sun is high in the sky and I’m now completely alone. There are no more houses. I follow a footpath that skirts around a small quay where weather-worn fishing boats bob gently on the sheltered water.
Another turn in the path, and this one stops me in my tracks. The island’s east coast stretches away in a line of perfect sand, receding into the calmly rolling waves of a sea filled with tranquil islands. And marching out into the water is a monster with ten legs.
Walking Ark is another of the island’s modern art collection. This shell with feet is by Keisuke Yamaguchi, and looks like a dystopian sea creature en route back to its alternate underwater universe.
Enticed along by the view, I eventually find my route blocked off as the path breaks up into jagged rocks at the foot of a cliff. I retrace my steps and find a steep road winding through the trees.
There’s some welcome shelter at first under a canopy of leafy branches, but I’m soon high above the ocean, on narrow pavements precariously clinging to the rocky face of Ogijima. Ramshackle rooftops lie just metres beneath my feet. The sound of a spluttering boat engine rises from the port far below, through the heavy heat of the afternoon.
A stone staircase catches my attention. It’s a steep climb, following the arduous trek up from the shore. Each step saps my energy further as the sun beats down. At the top I take a second to rest in the shade in front of a simple wooden structure. This is Toyotamahime Shrine, the main place of worship on the island.
I turn around and contemplate stepping back into the burning afternoon sun. But what I see from the temple entrance requires a second, prolonged look.
The steep stone staircase descends into the beautiful chaos of Ogijima village, which carelessly tumbles away between the trees and down into the glistening Inland Sea, where dark green islands beckon beyond the haze.
Island life drifts along slower than on the mainland, but there are still timetables to adhere to. And while there are worse places to be stuck than Ogijima, it feels like the right time to descend from the shrine, chart the maze-like streets that weave between the rustic homes and back out on to the port to catch the return ferry to Takamatsu.
Takamatsu is the biggest city in Kagawa, Japan’s smallest prefecture. It’s also my base for this trip to watch Kamatamare Sanuki. This is a team that flies under the radar on the Japanese football scene. And the same could be said for Takamatsu.
This pretty port city manages to blend industrial functionality with a welcoming atmosphere. Nature plays its part, too, with green mountains surrounding the city and the Inland Sea glimmering along the coast.
Away from the port, the charming Kotoden Railway trains trundle through the low-rise suburbs, past the ruins of Takamatsu Castle and towards the jewel in the crown of this historical city.
In Japan, there’s a love of grouping famous sights and events into threes. There are the Three Views, the Three Great Mountain Castles and the Three Great Festivals, to name but a few.
There’s also the Three Great Gardens of Japan: Kenrokuen in Kanazawa, Okayama’s Korakuen and Kairakuen in Mito, which I visited earlier this year during a trip to watch Mito HollyHock.
But the problem with groups of three is the fate of number four. And Ritsurin Koen makes a strong claim to expand the list to the Four Great Gardens of Japan.
It’s stunning beyond words. The definition of tranquility. Stones crunch under foot on winding paths that pass beneath towering trees. Bridges of deep red cross gently flowing streams amid the verdant scenery. Immaculate landscaping leads to intricate teahouses that reflect in the gentle waters of golden koi-filled ponds.
As the sun begins to drop below the horizon, setting the sky alight in a glowing orange hue, the fading light of the day breaks through gaps in the trees, turning windows to gold and bouncing off the glassy surfaces of the ponds. Long shadows stretch out across the white gravel and dark green grass.
It’s a perfect end to the first day in this incredible corner of Japan.
Stepping back in time
I look back across the bridge, which is now swaying just above the cloudy water. Vine bridges were common in this region, especially in neighbouring Tokushima, where the Iya Valley is traversed by numerous crossings of this type.
And to enter Shikoku Mura, this incredible time capsule of a lost Japan, it’s necessary to step back a century or two by carefully picking your way over some pieces of wood lashed together with ropes made from branches.
This open-air museum on the forested outer reaches of Takamatsu is as beautiful as it is fascinating. It’s home to 33 traditional Japanese buildings, some dating back to the 17th century. All set amid sprawling woodland, climbing through the trees and up into the foothills of Mount Yashima.
Not for the first time during this trip, I find myself completely alone. Silence fills the air as I follow paths amid bamboo groves, over stone bridges and through earthen tunnels. Traditional buildings melt into the undergrowth and sunlight pierces gaps in the trees to flicker on thatched roofs and wooden houses.
All signs of modern life have disappeared. I half expect to see villagers in Edo-era clothing appear from the dark doorways of rustic stables. Hours are lost on the winding tracks, past the hauntingly quiet kabuki theatre, beyond the lonely lighthouse and through the deserted yard of the brewery.
Eventually I emerge back in the 21st century, on a baking hot September afternoon, with kick-off at Kamatare Sanuki rapidly approaching.
Finding Kamatamare Sanuki
It’s hard to shake the bygone feel of Shikoku Mura, even as the train trundles out of Takamatsu Station. Within minutes the city recedes, revealing small villages, farmland and tree-covered mountains.
Kamatamare Sanuki are a difficult team to pinpoint. The name Kamatamare comes from a type of noodle bowl, mashed together with the Italian word for sea. Sanuki, meanwhile, is best known as a noodle dish. Sanuki udon is famous around Japan and comes from this region, with the name Sanuki originating as the ancient name for Kagawa prefecture.
All of this is nice to know, but it doesn’t help when trying to locate the team’s home. So that’s why, after some research, I find myself on this Dosan Line train, rattling through sleepy-looking countryside.
I get off at Konzoji Station, a simple, unstaffed, two-platform affair. Only a handful of other passengers disembark, and no-one in match-going attire.
But then a welcome sight. Kamatamare Sanuki flags.
I check the map on my phone. And when I look up again everyone has gone. For the next thirty minutes I encounter barely another soul as I walk down dusty streets lined by traditional wooden houses, over bridges crossing lazy streams and past echoey commercial units devoid of customers.
Eventually I see a glow in the early dusk sky. I follow the lights and see the tops of giant floodlights peaking out above the industrial buildings, before emerging at a main road. And from the pedestrian footbridge, I catch sight of it for the first time.
The land is completely flat and covered by a carpet of green. Smoke rises from isolated bonfires in the otherwise empty fields. And beyond the pitched roofs of an old Japanese house is Pikara Stadium.
It’s an otherworldly scene, like an alien spaceship that’s crash landed in a rural community. Street signs tell me that this is Marugame city, albeit a distant suburb, by the looks of it.
With an hour until kick-off, fans in the light blue of Kamatamare Sanuki are sitting on benches, enjoying pre-match food and drinks. The team’s mascot, Sanupi – a boy with a bowl of Sanuki udon on his head – walks around, posing for photos and giving high-fives.
It’s a relaxing atmosphere. One that bellies the perilous situation the club finds itself in.
A pocket of Kamatamare fans are making some serious noise as kick-off approaches. Relentless drum beating fills the air, while giant flags are flown vigorously. And in the far corner, a small group of blue, white and yellow supporters are huddled together, making their presence felt.
Tonight’s visitors are Montedio Yamagata from distant Tohoku in northern Japan. A team in mid-table of J2, casting hopeful glances at the play-off places, just six points above.
But for Kamatamare, the objective is simply to survive. And tonight’s game in hand is a huge opportunity, with the chance to climb off the bottom of the table within reach.
The first half, though, is a scrappy affair. Neither team is able the stamp their authority on the game. Chances are few and far between, with the half-time whistle a welcome sound.
As the second half gets underway, the weather begins to change. Sharp gusts of wind blow through the exposed stadium. Ash from the bonfires surrounding the stadium swirls through the air, and light rain begins to drift in, carried along on the breeze.
And the action on the pitch changes, too. Montedio emerge a more determined side, and begin to show why they’re 23 points better off than their opponents.
Some patient build-up play from midfield gets the ball moving, first to the left and then over to the right. Kai Miki cuts inside and launches a looping cross into the box, where Toyofumi Sakano rises highest to glance a header beyond Kenta Shimizu in the Kamatamare goal.
With just over an hour to go, the visitors are in the driving seat. A sense of despondency blankets the home stands.
The rain is getting heavier as the clock ticks agonisingly closer to the 90. Chances come and go for Kamatamare. A glancing header. Fans scream in anticipation. The ball sails agonisingly wide. Groans of disappointment seep from the stands. Players collapse to the ground and punch the turf with frustration. The fans go again, urging the team on, flying the flags, beating the drums.
On the giant scoreboard, the clock ticks over into the 90th minute. All eyes move to the far side of the pitch, to the dugouts, from where the fourth official emerges.
The number burns bright through the hazy night. It buoys the fans. The volume goes up a notch. There’s hope. It spreads to the pitch. Kamatamare players surge through the rain, snapping into tackles, moving the ball with urgency, willing themselves forward.
Stoppage time is ticking away. Kamatamare’s grip is loosening, their footing looking increasingly uncertain on the bridge across J2. They can’t afford many more slip-ups.
Into the 94th minute. A hopeful ball is lumped forward toward the Montedio box. It bounces up. Ryota Nagata gets his head on it, directing the ball towards Yuki Morikawa.
Shrieks and gasps from the home fans.
Morikawa is in space on the left. Defenders on his shoulder. The goalkeeper rushing out.
He gets away a left-foot shot. The ball skids along the wet surface, across the goal and under Tsuyoshi Kodama.
There’s a moment of stunned nothingness. Just for a split second. And then they erupt. Morikawa is mobbed by his teammates. Montedio players mope away, dejected. And in the stands there’s euphoria. High fives, hugs, spontaneous chants and songs. This is what a 94th-minute equaliser means when your team is scrapping for its life.
Searching for a guiding light
Pikara Stadium is reverberating to chants of Morikawa, Morikawa, Morikawa as I take my leave and begin the journey back to Takamatsu.
I decide to walk to Marugame Station to catch the train. Rain is falling steadily now and the long, straight road stretches ahead of me as far as I can see into the darkness.
It dawns on me that I’ve misjudged the distance, and over the course of the next hour, the ringing in my ears from the jubilant Kamatamare fans fades to a dull nothingness. There are no sounds, except when a car glides by, its wheels creating a low, damp thump on the wet road.
I start to doubt the map as the road continues to unfurl in front of me. A low-lit family restaurant, a lonely tyre repair shop and undistinguishable, shadowy buildings set back from the pavement line the route.
That is until I see a dim glow straight ahead and to the right, high above where the city should be.
It’s Marugame Castle, lit by warm yellow light, now acting as my guide into the heart of the city and the train station.
And it’s one more pleasant surprise in Kagawa prefecture. From its unspoilt islands to secluded gardens and beautifully-preserved history, this is a special place.
But it flies under the radar. A somewhat overlooked region, jostling for attention in a country full of amazing sights.
And for its football team, a similar problem exists. Kamatamare Sanuki aren’t a famous team in Japanese football. It’s hard to identify them, attached as they are to the name of an unfamiliar region.
The club isn’t without its charm, though. A loyal, passionate supporter base following a team blessed with a modern stadium. There’s potential here, for sure.
Kamatamare Sanuki won’t be defined by what comes to pass this season. Relegation is always a blow, but it doesn’t have to be a disaster. It can even be a positive experience, a chance to rebuild, to find a new path.
And as I walk beneath the impressive Marugame Castle on the approach to the station, it’s this thought that sticks in my mind.
A football club in a truly stunning region of Japan, with a strong core of support and plenty of room to grow. It just needs to find its own shining light to guide it. To help it make the most of its beautiful home. And to ensure it’s not left behind in the darkness.
You’ve read the blog, now watch the video! Take a tour of beautiful Kagawa prefecture before experiencing match night at Pikara Stadium. See the video below or click here.