Urawa Red Diamonds 0 Oita Trinita 0 (13/09/2008)
“Delicious Sandwich” said the writing on the box of the half time snack I purchased at Saitama Stadium. Now I could hardly have argued that it wasn’t tasty. The filling, I think some kind of pork in a thick sauce covered batter, had plenty of taste. It was just a taste that didn’t, to my western palate, belong in a sandwich. Food, or the mystery of having no real idea what you are about to eat, is one of the joys for the tourist in Japan. Restaurants almost never have English menus on display, and those that do often have translations such as “Fried Cartilage of the Cock”, which hardly you tempt you inside. My knowledge of Katakana, one of Japan’s three “alphabets”, usually reserved for words borrowed from other languages, allowed me to identify “ramen” – noodles bars, but my one ill-advised foray into one meant I wouldn’t try again. I’ve heard it said that the Japanese, although perhaps amused, aren’t concerned about westerners lacking chopstick skills, and in fact rather like appreciating a dog walking on its hind legs, marvel that it is done at all rather than complain about it being done badly. But although I can use them in a functional manner, I wield them with the elegance of a one-armed man doing the breast stroke, and as I struggle to eat spaghetti with a fork, noodles with chopsticks was like asking me to nail blancmange to a tree.
Being a comparitively experienced Japan-o-phile, now on my second trip and with over three weeks of Japan experience under my belt, it would take more to surprise me. More to evoke that “what on earth are they thinking of?” feeling which is such an enjoyable part of experiencing Japan, Tokyo in particular. The most extreme example on this trip was in Akihabara, the district famed for selling electrical goods, where my own purchase of a UK/Japan plug adapter was decidedly at the lower end of the food chain. No sooner had I left the station than I was accosted by a gauntlet of suitably attired women handing out restaurant flyers. Suitably attired, that is, for a Merchant-Ivory production about domestic servants, as these young women were dressed as French maids, handing out flyers for “Maid Cafes”, where similarly dressed women will attend to (almost – they are apparently above board and distinctly above the waist establishments) every need for their customers, most of whom, I’d image, were missing the point when advised that they should get out more. That I’d been singled out as a potential customer was perhaps slightly disconcerting, but I guessed they just weren’t choosy. The cafes did look kind of interesting, but I wasn’t tempted to venture in. And not just because I couldn’t read the Kanji-symbol map, oh no. But that wasn’t what got me. I had heard of maid cafes before. What got me was the manga comic book shops also endemic in the neighbourhood.
I’ve never been into manga, or any comic books for that matter, since about the age of 11, but I thought I’d find what all the fuss is about. I was expecting lantern-jawed superheroes, perhaps with capes and masks, fighting villains and evil. The books here seemed to feature covers with wide-eyed young girls whose fighting characteristics seemed to involve looking disturbing in a school uniform. And then I saw the basement section, for over 18s only, and like approaching a motorway car-crash, I felt compelled to look. All I can say is that I now understand why they are referred to as “Graphic Novels”, as believe me, the stories on display were about as graphic as you can imagine. In honour of those café maids in the area, I picked up an issue featuring similar types on the cover, albeit with rather less of the uniform on show, and other than a few pages which somehow featured aliens, I can’t really describe anything here. All I can say is that being a Japanese book, with the spine on the right as you’d view the cover, the Japanese certainly know what they are doing, as anyone who read the story would be turning the pages with their left hand as they did so.
As for eye-opening surprises of a rather more footballing nature, given how young the league is in Japan, many from the “established” footballing nations would be surprised how popular the league is, and in particular that one team, from a place they’ve never heard of, can average 50,000 fans at their games. The Urawa Red Diamonds scarf I purchased before the match v Oita Trinita hailed the team from this distant northern Tokyo suburb as being “The Pride of Urawa”, and without being too unkind to the area, after passing through it on the train and stopping off there to buy a ticket at the club shop on an otherwise rained out day, you kind of wonder what they were proud of before the club came along. Regardless, the club shop staff were very helpful and chatty, and I’ll even forgive them for using a “simplified map” for the website directions to the shop, on the grounds that I actually found it. Simplified maps belong in the lowest pit of Dante’s inferno in my book, as someone who has travelled a fair bit and had to rely on them for direction to hotels etc, I’ve never grasped how anyone can believe that taking a genuine street layout and redrawing it in such a way that it no longer resembles the unfamiliar streets someone is about to try an navigate will in any way help they find their way. But find the ticket shop, I did, as do thousands of others ever week.
I was offered the use of the shuttle bus from Urawa, but not only would that not exactly be handy from my base in central Tokyo, just north of an area called Roppongi (a very friendly area where as any foreigner will know, you can’t walk 10 yards without meeting a new friend who wants to invite you into his club, at a special price, just for you) but I would also be going to the game after a day-trip to the small northern suburb of Kawagoe, which is architecturally much nicer, with loads of pleasant old buildings and shops, and a very friendly small museum about the Kawagoe parades held every year. So pleasant and friendly were the staff inside, as they uncomfortably switched to their very best English to try and explain about the floats used and the tradition behind them and make sure I got the very best of the museum experience, that I felt compelled to nod and be as outwardly appreciative as possible, just to try and hide the fact that I wasn’t really that interested in the Kawagoe parades, and I’d only gone in because I was dying for a crap.
From there it was a relatively simple, if not exactly speedy, route to Saitama Stadium, and slowly, stop by stop, the train began to fill will red-shirted people on their way to the same place as me (oh, and if by some slim chance anyone from Japan Railways is reading this, it would be nice if you thought less about whatever tune you could play next when a train arrives at a station, and more about providing information such as, ooh, I don‘t know, perhaps where trains stop other than the terminus station, it would be much appreciated. Plans which involve changing trains at a particular station become somewhat easier if you know trains stop there before you board).
I said I’d been to Japan before. The previous time had been in August, when the weather feels like you are being breathed on by a pack of giant dogs. September, on the other hand, must have been a whole 2 C cooler, and although still rather uncomfortable to someone used to English weather, it was quite bearable as long as you weren’t directly in the sun for too long. It was perhaps less than ideal then that the game was scheduled for 2pm on a baking hot day. Even less ideal was that although the stadium does have its own station, it’s a full km from the stadium itself. A km isn’t far in most countries, but the heat and humidity had me redefining what a long way was. Anything over 300m had me looking for a public transport option. 1 km on the completely shadeless route was like crawling over hot coals, and I began to wonder if fanning myself with the branded fan handed out at the station was making me hotter than the fanning action was cooling me down. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one suffering. Some of the locals actually look worse, and give the impression they’ve been breaking rocks all morning, or just use an exceptionally bad brand of deodorant.
But then, after a pocari sweat o.d. in an effort to stop my brain frying, you turn the corner and see the stadium. Wow. The place is huge, impressive, and the risk of dehydration all seems worth it. Despite all the great sights I’d seen over the prior two weeks of travels, this was something I was really looking forward too. I bought a scarf and a 99% unintelligible match day programme, and made my way inside. Some crazy people sat happily drinking away in the completely open beer garden, but I was after the coolness of the stadium’s shade.
Some big stadiums can be a little disappointing and bland, but there’s still nothing like that buzz of seeing the vista of a large stadium open up before as you make your way out to your seat for the first time. It reminded me of the big new grounds I’d seen in Germany at the world cup. Not so much in design, but in style. In felt open and spacious, and for a 6 year old stadium, it somehow also felt like they’d only taken the wrapper off that morning. The huge roofs on each side hung weightlessly over the seats, and although perhaps those at the back of the top tier may disagree, everyone looked to have a good view.
All around me were red-shirted people, none more so than in the home end, where if there was a seat occupied by a fan not in a red shirt, I didn’t notice. Unlike England, where away shirts are common even at home games, I didn’t see one. I don’t know if have Urawa even had an away shirt, but my guess is that if they do, then it’s red as well. It certainly makes for a far more impressive spectacle than at many English games, where the number of “lads” who think wearing colours is uncool is depressingly high. And I have to say, the atmosphere and noise generated by the Urawa fans was terrific. So what if its all very organised and orchestrated. They made a heck of a racket, and with their willingness to jump up and town and sing to a man, they could certainly teach a lot of English fans a thing or two. Other than for a short peculiarly silent period about 10 minutes before kick off (I actually wondered if someone had died and there was a minute’s silence, but nobody was standing) the atmosphere was building. The teams took the field. Flags waved, the not full, but nonetheless considerably large crowd sang and roared. And then the game started. Oh dear.
Critics of the game will often tell you that there can be nothing more boring than a 0-0 draw. Supporters will respond, accusing the critic of being unable to appreciate a sport that doesn’t have scoring every few minutes, and that the “nearly” moments of the game as an integral to the excitement of the game as the scoring. We’ll even say that some 0-0 draws can be terrific games, and they can. Privately though, we’ll admit that a lot of 0-0 draws are about as welcome as a visit from Jehovah’s witnesses. I wish I could tell you I this 0-0 was one of the better ones. I did enjoy the experience, but the game itself was an absolute turd.
It didn’t help that the game kicked off during the hottest part of the afternoon. Such conditions seldom produce flowing open football, and the tactic for both teams seemed to venture little beyond getting to half time and having a drink. Urawa did put one shot into the side-netting after about 7 minutes, but both seemed to regard that as probably more than enough excitement for one half. Oita took advantage of some lethargic defending to register a tame shot of their own, but that was about it.
The second half wasn’t quite as bad, although that’s a bit like saying malaria is better than AIDS, as the shade of the main stand now covered the whole pitch, and the grinding poverty of ambition was now tactical rather than partly enforced by the conditions. There were shots in this half at least, and you have to admire the confidence of players sometimes, as this clearly was a game that was only going to be opened up by a terrible rick at the back or a piece of magic, but you’d think a player might realise that if he’s played all day as if his feet were numbed with cortisone injections, then going for the dramatic shot into the far corner every time isn’t perhaps the best option.
Despite Oita having a game plan which clearly revolved around them having their families kidnapped and threatened with execution if the game didn’t end 0-0, they actually went closest to scoring, having one header come back off the post, and forcing a full-length diving save from the Urawa keeper, in perhaps the only genuinely exciting moments of the match. Urawa’s response was to substitute attacking midfield Robson Ponte. He was furious, probably because he knew it meant he’d have to watch the rest of the match. The Urawa fans, to their eternal credit, did their best to rouse the team. If their team had had the fan’s energy and drive they’d have won easily, but they just continued to stroll around with the urgency of a child on the way to the dentist.
Had the game been a farm animal it’d have been taken out to a barn and shot. Urawa’s manager Gert Engels, who looks like Vladimir Putin’s uglier brother, but without the sunny laughter-filled side to his character, later commented that the 0-0 draw wasn’t two points dropped, and this was probably best summed up when Urawa had a great chance of a break in the second half, but when the ball had reached the Oita area, Urawa still had eight players back in their own half as the midfield slowly walked out from their defensive positions.
Eventually the ref put everyone out of their misery. The Urawa fans stopped dead mid-chant as soon as he blew and the ground fell strangely silent again. True, there wasn’t a great deal for the crowd to applaud, and it did seem appropriate that such a non-event of a match should be greeted with an absolute non-reaction from the fans, but it was a trifle odd to say the least.
Any thoughts about the slim possibility of taking in a second match, kicking off two hours later in the western suburbs, were conclusively buried by the huge amount of time it took to get back to the station, let alone get back to central Tokyo, as 46,000 people shuffled like zombies down the one path that lead back to the station. OK, it hadn’t gone quite to plan, but it was fun all the same. Time now to think about getting something to eat and having a night out. Fried cock cartilage, anyone?