Nagasaki: Football in a city full of stories

Take a trip to watch V-Varen and spend a few days discovering this beautiful, complicated place. A must-visit in Japan

Date: Wednesday, March 6th, 2019
Location: Isahaya city, Nagasaki prefecture
Venue: Transcosmos Stadium Nagasaki
Match: V-Varen Nagasaki versus Shonan Bellmare (Levain Cup, Group A)

I wake with a start as my head bounces off the wet window. I clear the condensation with my coat sleeve and see a gentle blue ocean beneath a white cloud-spotted sky. The train is half full. The chatter of other passengers rattles around my head. I feel like I’m dreaming.

My alarm clock went off this morning at 3.30am. It’s now nearing 5pm. And when I drifted off to sleep, my JR Nagasaki Line train was chugging slowly through the rain-soaked streets of the city, past the red brick buildings and dark brown wooden houses.

Now, just 30 minutes later, it looks like a different world. This is the stunning Omura Bay, as seen from the Seaside Special train heading out of Nagasaki towards Isahaya. And here, in this small town just a stone’s throw from the water, is the home of V-Varen Nagasaki.

This beautiful setting is the latest surprise in this incredible corner of Kyushu. And as I take the walk towards Transcosmos Stadium, I have time to reflect on Nagasaki. A city that hardly needs any introduction, yet one that still feels undiscovered.

A view of Nagasaki, Kyushu, Japan at sunset

August 9, 1945

There can be few destinations in the world that hold as many stories as Nagasaki. It opened up  Japan to the world. Drove the country’s industrialisation. It welcomed new people. Persecuted them, too. And on one day in August it became infamous.

It’s impossible to talk about Nagasaki without mentioning August 9, 1945. When the Fat Boy atomic bomb was dropped, this historic corner of Kyushu became “that” city in Japan. Along with Hiroshima, it was to forever become a byword for unimaginable destruction.

The Atomic Bomb Hypocenter and remains of Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki, Kyushu, Japan

It’s a cliche to say – and somewhat crass – but today it’s hard to imagine anything even remotely horrifying has ever happened here. It could be any city in Japan. It may even be more beautiful than the majority of the country’s other urban centres. It’s verdant hills escaping from the haphazard jumble of buildings that fill the plains stretching to the island-dotted waters. Stone bridges cross slowly-running rivers, and narrow lanes weave between the houses.

But on that day 74 years ago, those hills were instantly covered in ash, the buildings burnt to nothingness, and tens of thousands of the city’s residents left dead, charred beyond recognition on the plains.

The one-legged gate at Sanno Shrine in Nagasaki, Kyushu, Japan

Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum is a harrowing place. But this is where any visit to the city should begin. It’s important to see what happened and to understand before contemplating what Nagasaki – and Japan – is today.

But at the entrance to the museum is an unexpected sight. Before the sloped walkway that leads down to the exhibitions, two football shirts take pride of place, surrounded by colourful ribbons.

One is the home kit of Sanfrecce Hiroshima. The other a special edition of V-Varen Nagasaki’s away strip. Both shirts are from the J1 League match between the teams on August 11, 2018. Just days after the anniversaries of the bombings of both Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki. It was dubbed the “Peace Match”. A poignant football derby.

Shirts of J.League teams Sanfrecce Hiroshima and V-Varen Nagasaki in the Atomic Bomb Museum, Nagasaki in Kyushu, Japan

It may be a while before Hiroshima and Nagasaki meet again on the football pitch. V-Varen were relegated from J1 after a solitary season in 2018. Sanfrecce finished second.

But there’s still a buzz about the team. The club’s colours of orange and blue flutter from vantage points around the city. Players’ faces stare out from posters in shop windows. For a place that sometimes feels a bit like the end of the world, it matters having a team to represent Nagasaki and its people.

There’s no bullet train connection to Nagasaki. You either fly or take the express train out of Fukuoka. And it’s this somewhat remote location that has shaped the city’s history.

Christian Nagasaki

When the San Felipe shipwrecked off the coast of Shikoku on October 19, 1596, it was to set into action a course of events that would have significant repercussions.

At this time, Nagasaki was already developing as an important international city in Japan through trade with Portugal. Further south in Kagoshima, the Spanish were also making inroads, and embarking on a campaign of evangelism.

And it was successful. Several daimyos were converted to Christianity, including Omura Sumitada, a powerful lord of the Sangoku period. This turbulent era was known as the Age of Warring States, but for a time Nagasaki became something of a haven.

Sumitada established Nagasaki as a port, and later, along with Jesuit leader Alexandro Valignano, designated the city as a Jesuit colony. From 1580 for seven years, Nagasaki welcomed and protected Christians from other regions of Japan.

This was until the rise of Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

Known as one of Japan’s great unifiers, Hideyoshi arrived in Kyushu in 1587 on his mission to bring the country together. Christian-governed Nagasaki became one of his main targets, and he soon seized the city, putting it under his control and expelling the missionaries.

But it wasn’t until the shipwreck of the San Felipe that the crackdown really began.

Hit by three typhoons on its planned journey from Manilla to Acapulco, the Spanish ship was forced to seek refuge in Japan. It was not received warmly.

Its cargo was confiscated and the crew treated with suspicion. And when Hideyoshi learnt of the wreck, the situation quickly escalated. Comments from the ship’s crew convinced Hideyoshi that Spain was intent on converting the local population to Christianity before initiating a military campaign to take control of the country.

Hideyoshi came down hard on the country’s Christians, leading to one of Japan’s most infamous incidents.

The 26 Martyrs of Japan were paraded from Kyoto to Nagasaki, before being crucified atop one of the city’s hills on February 5, 1597.

The 26 Martyrs of Japan Monument in Nagasaki, Kyushu, Japan

On the site today sits The 26 Martyrs Monument and Museum. A huge sculpture in front of an open square, beneath the two towers of St. Philip’s Church, greets visitors. And behind the monument is the museum, with information about the martyrs and exhibitions on the history of Christianity in Japan.

The 26 Martyrs of Japan Museum in Nagasaki, Kyushu, Japan

The world of Thomas Glover

Not all outside influence was rejected in Nagasaki. High above the city, looking down on the church spires and colourful houses, is Glover Garden, the former home of a man who’s influence is not only still felt in Nagasaki, but all over Japan.

A bust of Thomas Blake Glover at Glover Garden in Nagasaki, Kyushu, Japan

It’s a long way from Fraserburgh in Scotland to Nagasaki. And in the mid-19th century, it must have been like a different planet. Yet Thomas Blake Glover, a Scottish merchant, was able to prosper.

It was not all plain sailing, though. Glover arrived in Nagasaki in 1859, at the height of anti-Western feeling due to unpopular trade agreements. There was also significant opposition to the government, with militant groups plotting to seize power.

But Glover saw this as an opportunity. He supplied weapons and ships to the rebel groups, and supported a group of students known as the Choshu Five, helping them travel to England to study.

Members of these groups went on to be instrumental in the Meiji Restoration, a period in history that led to the industrialisation and all-round modernisation of Japan.

This influence ensured Glover could live in style, which is evident at Glover Garden. It’s a beautiful estate, surrounded by trees amid the clean, crisp air high above the water and city. The views of Nagasaki harbour are stunning, with ships coming and going beneath the magnificent Megami Bridge.

A view of Nagasaki city in Kyushu, Japan from Glover Garden

It feels like the perfect place to sit back and crack open a beer, but make sure it’s a Kirin. Glover wasn’t just a merchant. He was if anything an ideas man. And he played a role in the founding of Japan Brewery Company, which later became known as Kirin.

And that wasn’t his only significant contribution to Japan.

Battleship Island

With a groan and thud, the boat breaks free from the dock and glides slowly out into the bay. It picks up speed and passes the hulking cranes of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, a company established with the input of a certain Scottish merchant.

But it’s further out to sea where the most striking remnant of Glover’s influence remains.

Around 30 minutes after leaving Nagasaki, a black silhouette appears to rise out of the ocean. As we edge nearer, it begins to take shape. It’s the unmistakeable outline of a battleship.

Abandoned coal mine Hashima, also known as Gunkanjima or Battleship Island, off the coast of Nagasaki, Kyushu, Japan

Except it isn’t. This is Hashima, or Gunkanjima – Battleship Island. An abandoned coal mine 50 minutes out of Nagasaki port.

The mine was established in 1887, with Glover instrumental in the deal to begin operations.

But it became far more than just a coal mine. It was also home to the workers and families. Shops, restaurants, schools, apartments and a hospital were all crammed on to this 16-acre island.

Conditions were harsh. High temperatures and humidity made mining a gruelling task. Above ground, destructive typhoons and massive waves hammered the reinforced concrete seawalls and buildings.

There is also a dark side to Hashima’s history. From the 1930s until the end of the Second World War, forced labour was used as part of the mine’s workforce. Korean and Chinese conscripts endured terrible conditions, with an estimated 1,300 dying on the island.

Today the island is uninhabited. Mining ceased in 1974 and the remaining residents left soon after. Years turned to decades as the conditions took their toll on the structures, smashing the windows and eating away at the concrete. Only seagulls called the island home, swooping amid the ruins, nesting in the wreckage.

In 2009, tours to Hashima began. After a bumpy lap around the island on choppy waters, the boat docks beneath the intimidating skeletal remains of former homes.

A tour guide leads our group along a designated course. The path cuts through the rubble, the wind whips off the sea and birds squawk overhead. A fitting location for a Bond villain.

It’s also a haunting reminder of a Japan that no longer exists.

Welcome to Transcosmos

Transcosmos Stadium appears above the shops and houses, amid the trees and nestled against the rolling hills of Joyama Park. After a brisk walk up from Isahaya Station, I feel wide awake despite the early-morning start. Energised by my first game of the new season.

Transcosmos Stadium Nagasaki, the home of V-Varen Nagasaki, in the city of Isahaya, Kyushu, Japan

The rain clouds are dispersing and a late-afternoon sun is starting to burn through, slowly drying the ground and picking out the bright orange and blue of V-Varen.

Flags bearing photographs of the management team and players flutter either side of the staircase leading up to the main stand. Fans are starting to congregate around the food stalls selling takoyaki, karaage and champon, Nagasaki’s unique noodle dish.

Main stand entrance at Transcosmos Stadium Nagasaki, the home of J.League 2 club V-Varen Nagasaki, in Isahaya city, Kyushu, Japan

The Levain Cup isn’t a big draw, and the stadium is expectedly unpopulated for the visit of Shonan Bellmare. Huge swathes of empty seats greet me with an hour to go until kick off. But the sky is putting on a show, with the sun setting beyond the main stand, turning the clouds a soft orange.

Transcosmos Stadium Nagasaki, the home of J.League 2 club V-Varen Nagasaki, in Isahaya city, Kyushu, Japan

A running track around the pitch detracts somewhat from Transcosmos as a football stadium, but it’s an otherwise impressive venue. The undulating white roof looks stylish and does a decent job acoustically. It also offers a fair amount of cover, which must surely come in useful here in Nagasaki, one of Japan’s rainiest cities.

As the players emerge for their warm-up, the V-Varen ultras behind the goal begin to ramp up the atmosphere and make an impressive amount of noise on a low-attendance night.

And moments before kick off, with the stadium lights low, the fans launch into their atmospheric pre-match song. No drums, no music, just the collective voice of the supporters.

Transcosmos Stadium, the home of J.League 2 club V-Varen Nagasaki, in the city of Isahaya, Kyushu, Japan

A thrilling finale

The visiting fans from faraway Hiratsuka also deserve a mention. It takes quite some effort to travel 750 miles (1,200km) for a midweek Levain Cup group stage match. But there’s an enthusiastic pocket of luminous green-shirted Shonan supporters in the away end. And they’re soon making even more noise.

It takes only four minutes for the visitors to go ahead. Shota Kobayashi’s low cross from the right is turned goalwards by Yuki Ohashi, parried by Nagasaki’s Masaya Tomizawa and stabbed into the back of the net by Tsukasa Umesaki.

Shonan continue to look the better team for the remainder of the half, as well as looking very smart in their white away kit. V-Varen are also doing well in the style stakes with their colourful home number.

The second half drifts by in uneventful fashion. There are few moments of quality or excitement, although the hosts begin to look the stronger team.

And then as the clock ticks into the 90th minute, the game bursts into life. A long goal kick is flicked on twice, Junki Hata muscles his way on to the ball and pulls it back for Masakazu Yoshioka to equalise.

Then in the 94th minute, with seconds left, some slick passing gets the ball moving around the box. It finds its way to Hata, who calmly places a shot under the goalkeeper.

The Levain Cup might well be the poor relation to the other competitions for J.League teams, but a 94th-minute winner is a 94th-minute winner no matter what the circumstances. The bench erupts. Hata is mobbed by everyone including the substitutes. There’s screaming, jumping and flag waving behind the goal.

It’s a wonderful end to the game and brilliant to see the Nagasaki fans and players so happy in early 2019 after relegation from J1 last season.

For victory and peace

I leave Transcosmos Stadium behind and embark on the walk back to the station. The fans slowly disperse as I get further from the bright lights and into the shadowy suburbs of Isahaya. The tiredness is coming back now, having been kept at bay by the exhilarating finish to the game.

And by the time I board the local train back to Nagasaki, it’s almost impossible to keep my eyes open. There’s nothing to be seen out of the window. The beautiful Omura Bay is just a black expanse under a moonless sky.

I take out my phone and look through the photos of the day. The Atomic Bomb Museum, the Peace Park, Martyrs Monument and Hashima.

History has been cruel to Nagasaki, its residents and its visitors. But there’s something positive to be said for what the city has become. It’s beautiful, fascinating and welcoming.

And then there’s V-Varen Nagasaki. You may wonder what’s in a name, but this rather odd combination of words has meaning. The V is for victory, or the Portuguese vitoria. But it also relates to the Dutch word vrede, meaning peace. And another Dutch word: varen – to sail. Words that tell the city’s story of multiculturalism and maritime history. And, of course, peace, which is the very least this wonderful city deserves.

Fall in Love with Nagasaki sign outside Nagasaki train station in Kyushu, Japan

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