Trains, fails and thrilling football in northern Japan

I decided to travel over 1,000km by local train in three days to watch two J.League games. It didn’t quite go to plan

Ghostly reflections dance on the window. It feels like a dream, but I’m awake. At least, I think I am. Trains are my home now. Behind me is a journey of 12 hours. Ahead of me the same. This felt like a good idea at the time. Now I’m not so sure, as the lights of Akita city disappear into the darkness.

This is what happens when you decide to travel 1,000km by local train to watch two J.League games in three days.

Making a plan

Like all adventures, this one was borne out of boredom. A particular kind of boredom. The type that leaves you staring into space, eyes glazed over, mouth agape. The cogs of the brain whirring slowly, clunking into place, formulating an idea.

“Wouldn’t it be great to travel around Japan using only local trains?”

One more cog clicks into position.

“And I could watch a couple of football games while I’m at it.”

It’s not only the thought process that moves at a glacial rate, though. I first contemplated this idea over a year ago. To put it into action took planning. Finding the time, choosing the destination, checking the fixture lists.

Eventually, it all fell into place. But as it turned out, I should have researched more.

Going by local train

There are various ways of travelling around Japan. The headline act of transportation here is the bullet train. Fast, sleek, cool, comfortable and reliable. Oh, and expensive.

SCMAGLEV Museum Railway Park Nagoya bullet trains shinkansen Japan

You can also fly. But I don’t like flying.

Then there’s the bus. I quite like bus travel. Even the overnight ones. They’re cheap, which is nice. And it feels like a real journey. Every bump and rattle, the scenery ever-changing beyond the window.

But local train? Local trains are just for short journeys. I take a local train to work. Seats on either side of the carriage, at right-angles, facing the other passengers. I often have to stand. It’s not comfortable. And my commute is only 40 minutes.

How about taking these trains over longer distances?

And by longer distances, I mean for 26 hours. In three days.

It’s easy to think, “Oh, that’s a lot of travelling, but I’m sure it’ll be fine,” when you’re sat on your sofa scrolling through the route on your phone.

But it’s hard to imagine the brain-numbing drudgery of being on a cramped local train in the middle of nowhere with nothing to look at for hours on end except the face of the passenger sat across from you.

The pain was about to become real.

Saitama to Fukushima

The alarm goes off at 5am. It hurts my brain. I’m confused.

“Do I have to go to work? What day is it?”

It’s Saturday, August 10th. And today Fukushima United are hosting Fujieda MYFC in J3 League. Kick off is in 11 hours time. The journey is about to begin.

I stumble out of bed, get ready and take unsteady steps out on to the early-morning, already sun-drenched streets of Saitama.

Train one is familiar. It’s the train I take almost every day of my life. The Saikyo Line. Two stops. Five minutes. To Omiya.

This is easy.

Next up is the Utsunomiya Line to Koganei. A journey just shy of one hour. It’s not too hard. I stare out of the window as the buildings slip away and green fields begin to swallow up the urban landscape.

It all gives me time to contemplate the journey. And the special pass that makes it all possible.

The Seishun 18 Kippu translates roughly as the “Youthful 18 Ticket”. Now, I’m not youthful. I can barely remember being 18. But none of that matters. Because anyone can buy this pass. And it’s a pretty good deal.

For ¥11,850, you can use the Seishun 18 Kippu to ride any local or rapid JR train in Japan. If you’re travelling alone, it’s good for five consecutive days. But it can also be shared by up to five people for one day.

I’m very much alone on this trip, though, as Saitama gives way to Tochigi under a bright August sun.

At Koganei I change to another Utsunomiya Line train for Kuroiso.

It’s now 7.30am. The day is heating up. And from this point on, it gets busy.

I find a solitary space in the far carriage and catch glimpses of small houses and simple two-platform stations. At Kuroiso, I change trains for Shin-Shirakawa. It’s standing room only now, as the Tohoku Line cuts through swathes of Tochigi forest.

It somehow gets busier at Shin-Shirakawa, and I find myself wedged into a corner of the carriage. The train jolts forward and rolls out of the station towards Koriyama, through the flat farmland that stretches between the mountains of Fukushima prefecture.

At Koriyama, it’s the final transfer of the day. I rejoice at the sight of a seat. The train soon fills up. I manage to doze off to sleep on one of the most uncomfortable train seats I’ve ever sat on.

I wake up as the train approaches Fukushima. Leg one is complete. But I’ve arrived into a world of confusion.

Never assume anything

Fukushima is just like any other medium-sized Japanese city. There’s a huge station building that contains shops and restaurants. In front of the station are bus stops and taxi stands.

I see a notice about a Fukushima United shuttle bus. The space on the chalkboard to write the opposition team name is blank. But I don’t worry too much.

Outside I see the team’s flags fluttering in the gentle breeze. I find the stop for the shuttle bus. There’s nobody around and no signs up. But there are still about four hours until kick off. It’s fine.

I get some lunch. Have a look around the shops. Head back outside to the shuttle bus stop. There’s still no-one about. I’m getting a little concerned now. Kick off is two and half hours away. Surely the shuttle bus will be starting up soon?

I decide to check-in to my hotel before heading to the stadium. The glass lift whisks me up to the tenth floor. I can see the station clearly. And the shuttle bus stop. There’s still no-one there.

Back down in the lobby, I ask the receptionist about getting to Toho Stadium. She gives me a look. A look as if to say, “Why on earth do you want to go to Toho Stadium today, you bloody idiot?”. But I don’t recognise it at the time. She taps away at the computer. Begins to write something. Stops. Taps away at the computer again. Stops. Stares at the screen.

“You have to take a bus. But… the next bus is at 4.20pm.”

This is alarming news as kick off is at 4pm.

“You should take a taxi.”

Okay, now I’m getting concerned. Why is there seemingly no shuttle bus? Why is there no regular bus service? And why, come to think about it, have I not seen any other football fans today?

I decide to take another look around the station. I go to where the shuttle bus should be. There’s no-one. Maybe I’ve made a mistake. Maybe I’m in the wrong area. I take the underground pass to the east exit. Lots of people out enjoying a sunny Saturday. None of them in football shirts. And no sign of any bus going to Toho Stadium.

This is strange. What’s going on?

I get out my phone and check the Fukushima United website. And there I see it. A name that makes my blood run cold.

J-Village Stadium.

“J-Village Stadium?! Where the hell is that?!”

Google Maps gets fired up. I type in the stadium name. The map rotates a disconcerting amount.

It’s an absolute age from here. The best part of 100km. But maybe I can still make it.

I open up a route-planner app. And my heart sinks for the second time in a minute.

It’s a three-hour journey, involving a combination of bullet trains and local trains. If I set off now, I’ll arrive 30 minutes after full time.

I sit down on a bench outside Fukushima Station. Contemplate my mistake. And then slink back to the hotel.

Never assume anything. Fukushima United play almost every home game at Toho Stadium. “Almost.” An important word.

Today they’re playing at J-Village for the first time.

Back in my hotel room, I watch the game on my phone as the sun sets on a long day. At nightfall, fireworks explode out in the suburbs. I watch through the window until my eyes fall heavy. An early night beckons, ahead of another day on the local trains.

Fukushima to Akita

My alarm goes off at 5am. Again. I’m confused. Again. It takes time for the drip-drip of reality to wash away the dream state.

I’m in Fukushima. Next stop, Akita. Well, after changing trains three times.

I grab a coffee from the convenience store and sleepwalk through the station. First it’s an 80-minute ride to Sendai. The train is quiet. I drift to sleep as it shakes and rattles through the early-morning mist that obscures the mountains and clings to the trees.

At Sendai I change for Kogota. At Kogota I change for Shinjo. It’s all becoming a blur of stations, platforms and uncomfortable seats. Out of the window is a world of green: trees, fields and mountains. Occasionally nature is punctured by a smoke-belching factory or a collection of weather-worn wooden houses.

After five hours of travel, I reach Shinjo. One more change. Another three hours until Akita.

I use the time for research. First of all to double, triple and quadruple check that the match is happening in Akita city.

It is. Phew.

Blaublitz Akita are hosting Kataller Toyama at Soyu Stadium. It’s 12th versus 13th in J3 League. Promotion is almost certainly unattainable for either team. And there’s no relegation from J3.

It sounds like a meaningless game. Nothing to play for. Two teams going through the motions to see out the season. Thoughts already turning to 2020, when hope can return.

But as it turns out, the game is anything but dull.

Welcome to Akita

I shake the numbness out of my legs on the platform at Akita Station. It feels cooler here. Less humid than Fukushima and Saitama.

Outside the ticket gate I’m greeted by the sight of two huge dogs. Akita dogs, naturally.

It’s an impressive welcome to this northern city. The station is an attractive wood-panelled building with lots of natural light. It leads out into a pedestrianised shopping arcade, which today is filled with market stalls selling local produce.

Soyu Stadium is about a 30-minute walk from the city centre, so I set off on foot. And into one of the most eccentric match night atmospheres I’ve ever experienced.

Demons, fireworks and drama

The stadium is nestled amid a sports park, surrounded by gyms and tennis courts. Around the football ground is a hive of activity. Grilled meat sizzles away, sending smoke drifting across the park. Friends and families are gathered, enjoying the pre-match vibe.

It’s a welcoming environment, and I decide to soak it up a bit more before entering the stadium. There’s a stall selling craft beers. It seems like the thing to be done.

I order, get my beer, and then an unexpected question.

“Are you from Toyama?”

I’ve never been asked this question before. It catches me off guard. I have been to Toyama. It’s lovely. But I’m definitely not from there.

“Ermm… no.”

I take my beer and almost walk into a demon. It has long, scraggy hair, a blue face, horns and protruding yellow teeth. I’m face-to-face with a namahage, a figure from Japanese folklore that admonishes naughty children. This creature can only be found around these northern parts. I’m lucky to run into one. And fortunate not to be told off.

Soyu Stadium is, like many football venues in Japan, a multi-purpose facility. It has a running track around the pitch. But the distance from the action doesn’t seem too bad. And from my seat in the unreserved home section, I have a great view of the sweeping main stand.

Warm-up is treated with gusto by the fans, who are already waving banners and chanting at the top of their voices. A rapper adds to the pre-match festivities, and before I know it we’re only moments away from kick off. An atmospheric sing-along to stunning footage of Akita on the big screen heralds the arrival of the players. And we’re off on a beautiful evening in northern Japan.

It’s a fast-paced game, with chances for both sides. But Blaublitz strike first, with Daisuke Kitahara stabbing home a cross from Kyohei Maeyama in the 19th minute.

Akita see out the first half fairly comfortably with their one-goal advantage. But after the break we see a Toyama onslaught.

Shot after shot peppers the Akita goal. The home side are pushed back into their own half. Takuya Matsumoto is forced into numerous saves. Toyama crack three strikes against the woodwork. It’s relentless.

Above the stadium, the sky bursts to life as fireworks from a nearby display explode in a kaleidoscope of colours. Loud bangs echo through the night as the stand reverberates from the jumping, drumming and chanting of the fans.

Somehow Akita still lead as the clock ticks into the 90th minute. The fourth official holds up his board to display five minutes of additional time. On the big screen a Mission Impossible-style timer begins ticking down from five.

Crosses and passes continue to bother the Akita penalty area. But Blaublitz are hanging on. We’re into the 94th minute. Little over 60 seconds remain on the countdown timer.

The ball works its way out to Toyama midfielder Tomoyuki Shiraishi on the right. He looks up. Whips a cross into the box. Lucas Dauberman rises the highest, glances a header across the goal. The ball nestles in the bottom corner. Toyama players wheel away in delight. Akita players collapse to the ground.

The countdown timer is switched off. Shortly after the restart, the referee blows up for full time.

Blaublitz Akita 1 Kataller Toyama 1.

The long journey home

I linger behind at full time. Massively impressed by the Akita players who hang back to sign autographs for the kids. It would be easy to slink away into the dressing room after conceding such a late equaliser. But they honour their responsibilities as role models. This is how you make fans for life.

It’s been a great experience in Akita, but as the fans begin to drift away I glance at my watch. It’s almost 8.30pm. And I’m in Akita. Tomorrow I have to travel all the way back to Saitama. By local train.

But more pressing is the realisation that my hotel for the night is an hour from here. In Yokote.

I walk at pace through the quiet Akita streets. Fireworks are still going off, lighting up the sky and shattering the Sunday night peace.

I miss the train I was aiming for. I’ll have to wait for the last service out of Akita. I kill time by hanging around the shadowy station, until I see my train roll into view.

Only a handful of passengers board. I take a corner seat and feel the weight of sleep sit heavy on my eyes as the train leaves Akita behind and heads out into the darkness.

The next morning I’m greeted with the sight of a squat, industrial-looking city. I arrived in Yokote at 11.30pm the previous night and headed straight to bed in the hotel next to the station.

I scroll through the journey home on my phone. It doesn’t make for pretty reading.

A departure time of 7.41am. Ten transfers. A travel time of just over 12 hours. An estimated arrival of 7.52pm. Can’t I just stay here forever?

I reluctantly gather up my things. It’s time to go again. One last day on the local trains.

Over the next 12 hours I drift between states of alertness and inattention. A sweeping view of a river cutting through forest catches my eye, before the unrelenting oppression of nature brushing against the window sends me into a trance.

I fall to sleep. I wake with a start. A farming structure grabs my attention and lets it go again as the train pushes on.

Through Akita, Yamagata, Miyagi. Into the heart of Sendai. Not a huge city, but one that feels like a mega metropolis after hours rattling through the wilderness.

Out through the suburbs, back into farmland, through clusters of houses clinging precariously to the edges of rice fields. Between towering mountains on one side, the Pacific Ocean on the other.

Into Fukushima. A name sadly synonymous with disaster, but through the window of the train simply a world of beautiful, wide-open nature stretching across unspoilt plains to the hazy, mountainous region of Aizu.

Through the forests of Tochigi, now within touching distance of home. Soon the trees begin to melt away, eaten up by houses and factories.

At Utsunomiya the sun is beginning to set. Lights reflecting in small rivers that cut between retail parks. The sky burning orange beyond shadowy buildings.

Back into Omiya. Darkness has fallen completely. Neon lights shine from the roofs of hotels and department stores. Billboards shine through the gloom, grinning faces and wondrous products.

A final transfer. On to the Saikyo Line. Two more stops. One more stop. Home.

I walk on unsteady legs through the station, show my Seishun 18 Kippu to the staff and enter the real world for the first time in over 12 hours.

Never again?

It’s a surreal feeling to be back home. Sat at my desk. Contemplating the journey. Considering the logistics of it all.

I’m tired, a little bit broken, but in a way I feel like a time traveller. To have gone so far in three days using one piece of paper seems like magic. There’s a sense of euphoria. Of achievement.

But ultimately I did nothing. The real star of the show is the Japanese train system. To have travelled so far in three days without a single hitch is incredible. Nothing was confusing. Everything was logical. Take this train to here. Wait a couple of minutes. Get on this train. For over 1,000 kilometres.

The only fail was delivered by the human being in the process. Yours truly. Assumption is the mother of all failures.

Fukushima United, I will be seeing you again in the future. I’m sorry for missing you. But I won’t forget to come back.

Blaublitz Akita, you blew my mind. Brilliantly eccentric fans, a wonderfully inviting atmosphere and players that clearly care about the community. This is a special football club.

And the Seishun 18 Kippu? I think you broke my brain a little bit, but I forgive you. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to see so much of Japan for so little money.

Would I do this again? I just might, you know.

You’ve read the blog, now watch the video. See the reality of travelling over 1,000km through northern Japan and experience match night at Blaublitz Akita.

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