A tragic past, a remarkable resurrection and a passion for sport. Hiroshima is unlike anywhere else in Japan
Date: Wednesday, April 10th, 2019
Venue: Edion Stadium
Match: Sanfrecce Hiroshima versus Daegu FC (Asian Champions League)
A heavy night sky is weighing down on the 32,000 people in the stadium. Rain has been threatening all day, and now the dark clouds have rolled in over the hills and settled above the city. The floodlights are blazing through the gloomy evening, bringing the field to life as an almost luminous sea of green. A huge TV screen intermittently flickers to life, colourful graphics and ear-splitting music momentarily drowning out the chants and chatter of the crowd.
Murmurs of discontent are beginning to spread. Mistakes and sloppiness are characterising tonight’s performance by the home team, allowing the visitors to take control. It’s been the story of the season so far.
But the fans will continue to come. Every night, regardless of the results, to support a team that hasn’t won a major title since 1986.
This is Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium, the home of Hiroshima Carp, on a Tuesday night. It’s a sell out, like they almost always are. Baseball is king here, and the Carp are the undisputed pride and joy of a city that takes its sport seriously.
Tomorrow I’ll be experiencing football at Sanfrecce Hiroshima. But tonight, as more than 30,000 Carp fans sing their traditional seventh inning song, this feels like the perfect place to begin.
Welcome to Hiroshima. The most remarkable city in Japan.
The pride of Hiroshima
It’s hard to overstate the influence of the Carp in Hiroshima. Red banners emblazoned with the team name flutter from what seems like every vantage point. Shop and restaurant staff wear the jersey while going about their daily work. Taxi drivers decorate their cars with images of the players and mascot. Commuters, couples, housewives, pensioners and children all seem to be carrying something that expresses their love for the team.
Even the city’s trams wear their colours with pride.
But the Carp aren’t a bastion of glory hunters. Far from it. This isn’t an all-conquering baseball behemoth. The Carp have only won the Japan Series – the top prize in Japanese baseball – three times, with the last success coming over 30 years ago.
The last few seasons have shown promise, with the team winning the Central League three years in a row. But a slow start to 2019 has the feeling of the Carp falling back down the pecking order.
So it’s not success that brings the fans pouring religiously into the ballpark. There’s a reason more important than a full trophy cabinet. And as with most things in Hiroshima, it all goes back to 8.15am on August 6th, 1945.
An historic castle town that developed into a major urban area over the course of 300 years, Hiroshima has long been an important location in Japan. The city sprawls between rivers, backed by mountains and fronted by the Seto Inland Sea. It’s a picturesque, yet practical place.
Rapid industrialisation during the late 19th century made Hiroshima a focal point of Japanese military efforts from the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894 all the way through to World War Two.
And this is what sealed its fate.
The “Little Boy” atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima in a split second. A devastating fireball reduced most of the buildings to ash. It directly killed an approximate 70,000 people. In total, it’s estimated that between 90,000 and 166,000 died before the end of 1945.
Recovery through sport
Rebuilding the city was to be an arduous task, not helped by a huge typhoon on September 17th, 1945, which killed a further 3,000 people.
But by 1949, the reconstruction process was underway. And as part of this, it was felt that Hiroshima needed a new sports team to help raise spirits.
That team was to be Hiroshima Carp.
But as was the way in Hiroshima, it wasn’t to be straightforward for the fledgling baseball outfit.
A lack of funds meant the team struggled to be competitive. And by 1951, there were serious threats to the future of the Carp. The Nippon Professional Baseball league proposed a merger with the Taiyo Whales in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi.
Despite the young age of the team, the citizens of a recovering Hiroshima had taken the Carp to heart. And they rallied to save them through fundraising efforts.
But the team wasn’t out of danger yet.
In 1952, it was decided one team would be culled from the Central League. To avoid this fate, a winning percentage of .300 or over was required. For the Carp, this was a major challenge. They were the league’s perennial basement dwellers, having never finished above last place.
Sport, though, is magical. And if any city deserved a miracle, it was Hiroshima.
The Carp battled away. The players gave their all. The fans backed them at every step. And the team won 37 games. It was enough for a winning percentage of .316. The Shochiku Robins finished last with .288 and were the team to be disbanded.
Financial woes continued to haunt the Carp throughout the rest of the decade. But through perseverance and unwavering support, they managed to establish themselves as an iconic team in Japanese baseball.
And that history is palpable on an oppressive night under the floodlights at Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium. Hiroshima Carp is in the blood of everyone here. You can sense it through the chanting, the cheering, the singing.
And through the resigned acceptance of another defeat as the visiting Yakult Swallows from Tokyo walk away with a 10-1 win on the night. This team has been through so much. And it will surely have its day in the sun again.
But come rain or shine, those fans will still be proud of Hiroshima Carp and everything this extraordinary team represents.
An unbreakable bond
Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium is a must-do experience in Hiroshima, even if baseball isn’t your sport. It’s an incredible ballpark with steep stands that look out over bullet trains rolling in and out of this mountain-fringed city.
And it’s just a short walk from Hiroshima Station. On any given game day, you’ll see thousands of Carp fans pouring off trains and out into the narrow streets that lead along the railway tracks towards the stadium.
Sanfrecce Hiroshima, though, face more of a struggle to bring in the fans. At first sight, it’s not even clear that a football team exists here.
But it very much does. And they actually have a history that stretches back further than the Carp’s. They’re also, arguably, more successful than their baseball-playing brother.
Sanfrecce’s roots stretch back to 1938, when the club was founded as Toyo Kogyo Soccer Club. In 1981, they became known as Mazda SC, the corporate team of the Japanese car giant. And when the J.League was founded in 1992, they changed their name once more to become Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
As Sanfrecce, they’ve won the J1 League three times (2012, 2013 and 2015). And in 2018, they finished second to qualify for the Asian Champions League. Tonight I’ll be watching them take on South Korea’s Daegu FC in a Group F match.
But around the city there are no signs of the team. Carp red is splashed everywhere, but Sanfrecce purple is conspicuous by its absence.
I roam around the city looking for something, anything football related. And eventually I find it. In the most unexpected of places.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park is the heart of the modern day city. It was formerly the major political and commercial hub, and therefore the target for the atomic bomb.
All that remains of the former site today is the skeletal structure of the Genbaku Dome, also known as the A-Bomb Dome.
Before the bomb, this building was known as the Product Exhibition Hall. It was designed by Czech architect Jan Letzel, completed in 1915 and opened to the public in 1921.
The direct target for the atomic bomb was the T-shaped Aioi Bridge. However, the exact location was missed and it exploded over Shima Hospital, not far from the Product Exhibition Hall.
Its scarred concrete and twisted metal is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, preserved as a reminder of the tragedy and as a symbol to promote the abolition of nuclear weapons.
Not far from the Genbaku Dome is the Children’s Peace Monument. This statue, decorated with thousands of colourful paper cranes, is to remember the young victims of the bomb. And amid the messages of support is one from a football club in a city that suffered a similar tragedy.
Three days after Hiroshima was hit, Nagasaki was targeted with an even more powerful nuclear weapon. Between 39,000 and 80,000 people were killed.
To this day, the two cities share an unbreakable bond. As do their J.League clubs. At the Children’s Peace Memorial, a bright sign from V-Varen Nagasaki reads:
Nagasaki. Peace. Hiroshima.
And at the Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki, two shirts from a poignant game take pride of place. One is a V-Varen Nagaski kit. The other a Sanfrecce Hiroshima special edition. These shirts were worn during the “Peace Derby” between V-Varen and Sanfrecce on August 11th, 2018 at Edion Stadium.
A quiet night out
I’m swimming very much against the tide as I struggle against the current of Red-shirted Carp fans flooding out of Hiroshima Station.
It’s another match-up between the Carp and the Swallows at Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium tonight. But 30 minutes out of the city centre, Sanfrecce will also be in need of support in their Asian Champions League campaign.
But sadly the game doesn’t appear to have caught the imagination of the locals. I squeeze onto a busy JR Sanyo Line train for one stop before switching to the Astram Line for Koikikoen-mae Station. And I’m not fighting for space with fellow football fans. Only commuters, schoolchildren and tourists.
Reassuringly, though, I do at least see signs of life from Sanfrecce on the Astram Line. Sancce, one half of the team’s mascot duo, is glaring out across the carriage, offering train etiquette advice.
After rattling through the squat-housed suburbs of Hiroshima, the train reaches the end of the line where the tree-covered hills begin to encroach on the city.
It’s another cloudy evening along the Seto Inland Sea, and there’s a noticeable chill in the air. There are also hardly any people about.
Edion Stadium is just a short walk from Koikikoen-mae Station. But as I make my way through the deserted plazas surrounding the ground, I see only a handful of other supporters.
At the entrance to the stadium there’s a bit more happening, and I get the chance to meet the other half of Sanfrecce’s mascot dream team: Frecce.
I hope for a late deluge of supporters, but it doesn’t happen. There are designated seats for this Asian Champions League game, but I could easily take my pick from swathes of empty rows.
With one win and one defeat heading into this game, Sanfrecce’s Champions League campaign could still go either way. Having been criticised for fielding weakened starting line-ups in the first two games, it seems they’re taking tonight’s match more seriously.
A professional job
It takes Sanfrecce only ten minutes to go ahead. Daegu FC midfielder Park Han-bin catches Yuki Nogami just inside the area, and Douglas Viera sneaks the penalty past Jo Hyeon-woo.
And in the 26th minute, Daiki Watari doubles the lead for the hosts with a splendid individual strike. The former Giravanz Kitakyushu and Tokushima Vortis forward cuts in from the left and curls a shot in off the post beyond a full-stretch Hyeon-woo.
From this point on, it never looks in doubt for Sanfrecce. Defensively organised, hardworking and dangerous on the break, it’s easy to see why they’re one of the top teams in J1. It may not always be pretty, but Sanfrecce sure are effective.
It’s also a somewhat ill-tempered game, and it’s unsurprising to eventually see a red card. Sanfrecce substitute Yusuke Minagawa is the player to get his marching orders, receiving a second yellow in the 89th minute for an elbow-lead aerial challenge on Daegu’s Cesinha.
As for the atmosphere, the 2,611 in attendance do a good job of creating some noise, but unfortunately it doesn’t compare well with the previous night’s deafening revelry created by 32,000 wildly enthusiastic baseball lovers.
But at full-time, with a 2-0 victory in the bag, the Sanfrecce players are heartily applauded by the fans. And as the team head back into the dressing room, the sound of singing supporters splits through the cold night air in this otherwise tranquil suburb of Hiroshima.
An unforgettable city
By the time I get back to Hiroshima Station, the Sanfrecce fans have dissolved into the night. But once again I’m going against the tide as the Carp army march back through the station. Tonight they lost 15-3 to the Swallows following a catastrophic 10th inning meltdown.
Location is important, and talks have been rumbling on for years about Sanfrecce one day moving to a more central home. One possible spot is the site of the old Hiroshima Municipal Stadium, the former ground of the Carp and just a stone’s throw from the A-Dome.
A purpose-built football stadium in the heart of the city would be an incredible development for Sanfrecce. The cavernous Edion Stadium, stuck out in the suburbs and surrounded by a running track, isn’t conducive to an exciting match day atmosphere.
And having both the Carp and Sanfrecce in the centre of the city would make Hiroshima one of the best places to watch sport in Japan.
But until then, this remains a baseball city. A place where the Carp are celebrated as the pride of Hiroshima. A sporting institution that represents the city so well, that has been there every step of the way in the resurrection from unimaginable horror.
Everything in Hiroshima is touched by what happened on August 6th, 1945. It’s important to never forget the victims. Every visit to this city must include time to remember them.
But it’s what happened after that fateful day that makes this a city to celebrate. From the passionate fans of the Carp and Sanfrecce, to the bustling streets, and the beautiful parks.
Farewell from Hiroshima. Japan’s most remarkable city.
For information on getting to Hiroshima, travelling around the city and reaching the stadium, please click on page 2. And to see the video of the trip, click the link below.