Shimane: Football in Japan’s land of the gods

Pure chance took me to a far flung prefecture for a cup tie between two teams hoping for an encounter with a giant. And fate didn’t let me down

Date: Saturday, May 25th, 2019
Location: Masuda city, Shimane prefecture
Venue: Shimane Prefectural Soccer Field
Match: Matsue City versus Kamatamare Sanuki (Emperor's Cup first round)
Attendance: 318

Shimane is mysterious. A land of myths and legend. It has a history that stretches back to the founding days of Japan. This is where the country’s gods come to meet. A sacred place of culture and nature.

But none of that is why I’m here. The reason I took a 12-hour bus ride from Tokyo to Izumo is because I pulled a small piece of paper out of a hat.

Let me explain.

Road to the Emperor’s Cup final

It’s 7.30am. I left Tokyo the previous day at 7pm. Now I’m standing on a deserted train platform in Izumo. A cup of coffee in my hand. My head fuzzy from a sleepless night aboard a hot, rattling highway bus.

A week earlier and 500 miles away, I was sat at my desk, writing numbers on pieces of paper. I put the 24 numbered pieces of paper into my hat. And pulled out number 5.

I love cup competitions. The one-off, do-or-die nature of a knockout game. Giants against minnows, the drama, the romance, the shocks, the stories.

Every club has its cup moment. Whether its the elation of victory or the heartbreak of defeat. This is what football is all about.

The Emperor’s Cup is the oldest competition in Japanese football, with this year the 99th edition. And what better way to celebrate than to attend a game in every round? From round one to the final. Following the winner from each stage.

But the big question was where to start. There were 24 first round ties to choose from. A lot of them very appealing. The intriguing non-league options of Nara Club and Iwaki FC. Or a trip down to beautiful Kyushu for games in Nagasaki, Kokura or Kumamoto. A very inviting chance to see AC Nagano again.

I am, however, the world’s most indecisive man. And this is where the handicraft came in. I would leave it up to chance. All 24 first round games in a hat. Pull out one at random. And go.

The gods of fate bestowed upon me Matsue City, who would be hosting Kamatamare Sanuki.

I Googled Matsue, the capital of Shimane prefecture, and began planning my journey.

But, as it turned out, I didn’t actually have to go to Matsue.

A Japanese history lesson

I look up at the platform departure board to confirm all is correct.

Masuda.

If you’d asked me a week ago, I wouldn’t have had any idea where Masuda was. I’m still not 100 per cent sure as the Aqualiner, a train that operates between Yonago and Masuda, rolls into Izumoshi Station. All I know is that it’s more than two hours from here.

The format of the Emperor’s Cup isn’t all that straightforward. Before the first round, it’s a regional competition, and the best team from each prefecture qualifies for the first round.

And the Shimane Football Association decided that their home first round game would be held at the Shimane Prefectural Soccer Field in Masuda. A journey that can be as long as three and a half hours from Matsue.

All of this left me scrabbling around to arrange travel at short notice. It also sent me down a rabbit hole of ancient Japanese history and culture.

Just 20 minutes from the modern city of Izumo is one of the most important sites in Japan’s traditional Shinto religion. A shrine so old that it’s said to date back to the time of the sun goddess Amaterasu.

This is Izumo-taisha, the meeting place of the gods. Japan’s oldest shrine, mentioned in the same breath as the revered Ise Grand Shrine.

According to Shinto myths, the Japanese islands were once controlled from Izumo by the god Okuninushi. And it was from here at Izumo-taisha that Okunushi, the god of nation building, set about creating the country of Japan.

The current shrine at the site was built in 1744, but the exact date when Izumo-taisha was founded is unknown. But worship of Amaterasu has been traced back as far as 720 AD, and it was the goddess of the sun herself who is said to have bestowed Izumo-taisha upon Okuninushi.

And it’s when you consider that the Emperor’s of Japan are believed to have descended from Amaterasu that the importance of this quiet corner of Shimane becomes clear.

This is where the modern nation of Japan was born. It seems like a fitting place to begin my journey to the Emperor’s Cup final.

Riding the Aqualiner

There’s plenty of time to contemplate all of this as the Aqualiner shakes and rattles its way between watery rice fields that reflect the cloud-spotted blue sky on their glassy surface. Eventually the farmland recedes as the train line gently veers towards the coast, revealing pristine beaches and secluded fishing villages.

We pass through Oda, where signs advertise Iwami Ginzan, a 16th century silver mine that was in use for the best part of 400 years.

The train continues. Unfamiliar station names roll into view as we make brief stops. People occasionally get on and off.

Shimane prefecture stretches down the Sea of Japan coast for over 125 miles (200km). But there’s a lot of empty space. This is the second-least populated prefecture in Japan (the least-populated is neighbouring Tottori). And it shows. Trains are infrequent. Most stations are unstaffed. The towns and villages are few and far between. It’s a world away from the mega metropolis of Tokyo.

I drift to sleep and wake as the train pulls into Masuda. After 14 hours of sitting down and waiting, it’s time to descend on the stadium by foot.

Welcome to Masuda

Unsurprisingly, Masuda is not a big place. But it still makes no difference to my terrible sense of direction.

I set off from the station and immediately end up walking completely the wrong way.

Eventually I get on the right track. It’s a hot day. And kick-off is at 1pm. It couldn’t be a worse time to be traipsing through the dusty streets.

I cross a bridge, cut down a side street between houses, walk up a narrow road with steep hedgerows and emerge opposite a park.

I’m starting to get a little bit concerned. According to Google Maps, I’m only minutes from Shimane Prefectural Soccer Field. But I’m yet to see barely another soul, let alone someone wearing a Matsue City or Kamatamare Sanuki shirt.

I keep on walking. I pass a baseball field with a game in full swing. Friends and families of the players are gathered around watching on. I continue, past a sports complex where schoolchildren are rushing for the entrance.

Still no football fans.

On I go. According to the map, I’m only metres away. There are houses now, but still no supporters.

But then I see a bus. And a solitary fan in a light blue shirt. It’s a Kamatamare Sanuki fan. I breathe a sigh of relief.

It’s time for the first round of the Emperor’s Cup.

Battling for a date with a giant

Shimane Prefectural Soccer Field is a charming non-league ground. It’s surrounded by verdant, tree-covered hills. There are small houses dotted here and there, and the main stand has some very welcome shelter from the sun.

On the opposite side of the pitch are the ultras. In one corner is a collection of Matsue City fans in the bright yellow of their team. In the other is a very healthy smattering of light blue-wearing Kamatamare Sanuki supporters. It’s an impressive turnout from the residents of the beautiful Kagawa prefecture.

Heading into this game, the two teams are having very different seasons. Matsue City are competing in their first Japan Football League campaign, the fourth tier of Japanese football and the top-level of non-league football, one step below J3 League. But it’s been a tough start. Eight games into the season and they’re bottom of the table without a win.

Kamatamare Sanuki, on the other hand, are doing alright. After relegation from J2, they’ve quickly adapted to life in the league below and sit second in J3 ahead of this cup tie.

Another quirk of the Emperor’s Cup is the draw format. The route to the fourth round is set out in a bracket. The next draw is made for the quarter-finals, which sets out the path to the final.

Teams from J1 and J2 enter in the second round, so we already know the opponent for round two. Either Matsue City or Kamatamare Sanuki will be travelling to Gamba Osaka, one of the biggest teams in Japanese football.

And on paper, it should be the team from Shikoku going to Panasonic Stadium. But anything can happen in a cup match, and it’s the home side that strike first. Keishiro Sato fires Matsue City into an 8th-minute lead.

Sanuki strike back just five minutes later through Yuga Watanabe, but it’s the JFL team that end the half on top, going ahead through Shiori Nakai’s 28th-minute goal. It’s a deserved lead, and they’re unlucky not to be further ahead.

Kamatamare come out with intent for the second half. They take control of the game and it’s only a matter of time before they strike level. Fan-favourite Yusuke Akahoshi scores a 73rd-minute equaliser, leaving Matsue to hang on for the final whistle.

There are no replays in the Emperor’s Cup, so it’s a further 30 minutes of play in the sapping heat for the teams. And Matsue’s players are visibly wilting.

The first half of extra time is a battle of attrition, but the second half is a relentless onslaught by Kamatamare. They throw everything at a tired Matsue, but some valiant defending keeps the score level.

We’re going to penalties.

There are only 318 in attendance for this game, most likely because of the somewhat awkward location of Shimane Prefectural Soccer Field. It’s a six-hour round-trip for Matsue City, the “home team”. For Kamatamare fans, it’s a 200-mile (320km) drive each way.

Despite this, the atmosphere has been good. Japanese football fans are nothing if not enthusiastic, and there was almost non-stop drumming and chanting throughout the game from both sets of fans.

But now, as the game draws to its dramatic conclusion, the supporters have fallen silent. It becomes the eeriest penalty shootout I’ve ever witnessed.

As Kenta Yanagida steps up to take the opening penalty for Kamatamare, it’s completely silent. Nobody is speaking. Chirping from the birds in the trees surrounding the stadium drifts across the pitch.

Yanagida thumps the ball into the back of the net. A cheer erupts from the away fans.

Both teams score their first two penalties. Kamatamare also tuck away their third. Hiroto Miyauchi steps up for Matsue. His strike is palmed away by Takuya Seguchi.

Tomoya Hayashi rifles his effort beyond Koshiro Funakawa to put Kamatamare 4-2 ahead.

Yusuke Yoshii has to score to keep Matsue in the game. His penalty sails over the cross bar.

It’s a sad end to the game for Matsue City. They were the best team in the first half, but faded away as the fitter J.League club grew into the game. Kamatamare will now go on to play Gamba Osaka at Panasonic Stadium in round two. And I’ll be there to see if they can cause a shock against the four-time winners of the Emperor’s Cup.

Back to Matsue

It’s a long journey back to Matsue, retracing the train line from earlier in the day. But by now the sun has started setting. The ocean is a slowly shifting expanse of dark blue behind shadowy houses. It eventually disappears completely into the night as lights shine brightly from the houses dotted along the coast.

We pass back through Izumo, where just beyond the city sits the ancient shrine so intrinsically linked with the history of Japan.

Eventually the train reaches Matsue, a beautiful city on the shores of Lake Shinji. The next day I’m able to explore for a couple of hours before my flight home. This is a city of water, where rivers and canals cut between the shops and houses. The Tokugawa-era Matsue Castle looks resplendent amid the preserved greenery in the heart of the city.

It was fate that brought me to Japan’s land of the gods for an Emperor’s Cup first round tie. And I’m delighted that it unfolded this way. It took me on a journey through history, introduced me to the breathtaking Sea of Japan coast, and delivered an enthralling football match.

And I’ll follow the journey to Osaka. Let’s see where this adventure takes us.

Click on page two to find out how to get to Shimane prefecture

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