Saitama: Omiya Ardija and football in the suburbs

There’s a bright spot in this overlooked prefecture. Escape from Tokyo, look past the red corner and enjoy an orange day out in the suburbs

Date: Saturday, November 10th, 2018
Location: Omiya, Saitama city
Venue: Nack5 Stadium Omiya
Match: Omiya Ardija versus Montedio Yamagata (J2 League)

It’s difficult living in the shadows. Sharing a city with a team that brings in crowds of 40,000-plus, plays in the division above and is a two-time Asian Champions League winner makes life hard sometimes.

But one sure fire way to stand out is to play in bright orange and to make your compact home as raucous as possible. It’s not always a lot of fun being the underdog in your city, but Omiya Ardija don’t wallow in self-pity. Urawa Reds may hog the limelight, but the other footballing corner of Saitama city has a lot going for it.

This is a day to embrace the orange side.

In praise of Saitama

There’s no love lost between Omiya Ardija and Urawa Reds. But let’s put the rivalry aside for a moment. Because having two passionately supported teams in an otherwise derided prefecture is reason enough for celebration.

Saitama suffers from somewhat of an image problem. It’s only through football that it’s able to shake off this air of uncool and take its place as the destination on any given match day.

Tokyo has its museums, restaurants, shops and futuristic, neon vibe. Saitama has its vibrant football culture.

Football manhole cover Saitama Japan

I may not be the most reliable narrator on this point. Since moving to Japan just over two years ago, Saitama has been my home. And Omiya Ardija, just a short hop up the Saikyo Line, is my local team. I have a definite soft spot for them.

But Saitama as a place also deserves some support. It’s too often glossed over as a collection of boring commuter belt towns, connected to the capital by overcrowded train lines.

It’s understandable why people may get this impression. Take the train out of Tokyo going north – often with your face pressed against the window during rush hour – and as you cross the Arakawa into Saitama, nothing stands out except for the low crawl of greyish buildings.

But take a closer look, because there’s more than meets the eye. On clear days, mountains appear on the horizon like a protective arm wrapped around the Kanto plain. When the air is crisp and the sky a dazzling blue, a snow-capped Mount Fuji sits majestically, despite being over 100km away in Shizuoka prefecture.

Mount Fuji sunset

Stay on the train, leave Tokyo further behind, and Saitama reveals more surprises. It takes only 40 minutes to reach Kawagoe from the capital, and it’s a worthy destination.

This historic city on the ancient road into Edo (modern day Tokyo) still maintains that old world feel. Traditional houses line the streets. Today they are restaurants and souvenir shops.

There are intricately-decorated temples amid peaceful grounds, quiet parks dotted with tranquil ponds. You can escape the hustle and bustle here. It’s the forgotten side of Saitama.

Back in the urban trappings of modern day Japan, there are some fascinating attractions to give you another reason for escaping the gravitational pull of Tokyo.

Omiya will be familiar to most as a bullet train stop heading north. The wilds of Tohoku and Hokkaido await beyond the rising towers around this major terminus in Saitama.

Trains play a major role here. And the Railway Museum demonstrates the vital role train transportation has played in the development of Japan.

Here you can see historic rolling stock, dioramas and even real-life, working miniature trains that you can ride on. It’s a paradise for train nerds. And it’s only a short walk from Omiya Station. Tickets are ¥1,300 for adults, ¥600 for school children and ¥300 for children aged over three and under school age. It’s well worth your time if you find yourself in Omiya.

Omiya Park Life

Omiya Station is a whirlwind of activity. It’s one of the country’s busiest transportation hubs, which is evident at almost anytime here, especially during rush hour.

But weekends, too, are defined by a blur of people coming and going. Break free from the station, though, and the city begins to reveal its charms.

Nack5 Stadium is about a 20-minute walk from the station. At first it’s as expected, a game of dodging other pedestrians and darting across roads before the green man turns red. That is until you reach the entrance to Hikawa Shrine.

There are few stadium approaches that can rival the calm felt on the walk to Nack5. It’s a shady tree-lined path, which guides orange-shirted match-goers beneath bright red shrine gates.

The path leads to the grounds of the earthy shinto shrine tucked away amid the verdant colours of the park. On this autumn day, the leaves are turning a dark red, and through gaps in the foliage are the fluttering orange flags of Omiya Ardija.

It’s an unlikely place to find a football stadium, but it works. The juxtaposition of traditional Japan and a sporting venue is a feast for the senses. The chiming of shrine bells, the rustle of the wind through the trees, the excited chatter of football fans, the echoey chants of early-arriving supporters.

Space is of a premium here. There isn’t much room between the Hikawa Shrine grounds and Nack5 grandstands. A pre-match buzz is whipped up quickly as fans emerge from the trees and congregate around the entrances. I join the mass of people and move slowly through the turnstiles. A match day programme is handed out, a free Omiya Ardija-branded toothbrush pushed into my hand. I don’t know what’s happening.

Push for the play-offs

Steep stands rise from the four sides of the pitch, and arriving “only” 90 minutes before kick-off seems like a foolish oversight.

This is game number 20, stadium number 20 of the season. But I still haven’t learnt one of the most important things about watching football in Japan: fans here are keen. Especially when it’s a big match, which today’s undoubtedly is.

Ardija are sitting just outside the play-off places with two games to go. If they’re to stand any chance of extending their season, they need maximum points. Starting today against Montedio Yamagata.

And the people of Omiya are fully behind the play-off push. My unreserved seat ticket in the home section behind the goal has left me faced with a sea of orange. I can’t see any open spaces. This is starting to feel like a repeat of the Matsumoto Yamaga experience.

But after a bit of aimless wandering, I spot a spare seat. I ask if it’s free, and I’m enthusiastically encouraged to sit down. They’re a welcoming bunch down at Nack5.

It’s a beautiful November day for football. And it’s clearly a sell-out. Even the away end looks packed, with a chanting army of Montedio Yamagata fans in their bright yellow shirts. An impressive turnout considering they have nothing to play for, safely encased in mid-table.

Omiya’s starting line-up is announced to the theme tune of The A-Team. We’re reaching fever pitch.

The atmosphere is electric. It’s loud, it’s colourful, and it’s seemingly too much for the players.

Lacklustre would be the word to describe the first 45 minutes. There’s an alarming lack of energy from the home side. They need to win, but there’s no urgency. Amid a cacophony of noise, the players are somehow sleeping.

Dark rain clouds roll in as half-time approaches. It seems like a portent of what’s to come for Ardija. And for me personally. I didn’t bring an umbrella or poncho. Twenty games into the season and I still haven’t learnt my lesson about the Japanese weather.

But, miraculously, the rain stays away. The dark clouds keep on moving, heading off towards the mountains. The sky is spectacular, the sunlight refracting through breaks in the heavy sky.

And Ardija wake up.

Their anxieties disappear with the clouds. Mateus and Genki Omae provide the creative spark needed to break down a stubborn Montedio. First Mateus breaks through to slot the hosts ahead, before Omae doubles the advantage on the hour mark. There are high-fives all around in the stands, the flags are waved with added gusto and the ultras with their megaphones lead the hardcore support through full-throated chants.

Full-time is greeted with a cheer full of elation and relief. One more win next weekend will be enough to secure a play-off place. An immediate return to J1 after a single season absence is still within reach.

So close, yet so far

November is a beautiful season in Japan, but it’s also melancholy. Those deep red leaves on the trees will soon fall to the ground. The nights are already beginning to draw in. There’s a chill in the air on the walk back to the station. Lanterns light the path in a gentle glow. The football season will soon come to an end. There will be joy and despair.

For Ardija, it turns out to be the latter. They secure their play-off place, but fall at the first hurdle. Tokyo Verdy come to Nack5 and snatch a 1-0 win. It’ll be another season of J2 football for the orange corner of Saitama city.

But one thing is for sure. Nothing will dull the passion of the fans who fill this picturesque corner of Omiya on match days. A derby with Urawa Reds will be missing from the calendar for another year, but Saitama will still march to the beat of football.

Click on page 2 for information on how to reach Omiya and Nack5 Stadium.

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