When you live in Tokyo sometimes it’s nice to get out of the city for a bit. If you can do that by local trains and take in a football match while away then all the better…
It’s that time of year when I check the fixture lists, pack my bag, buy a seishun juhachi kippu and travel around Japan a bit.
This tradition started when I first arrived in Japan and a) couldn’t afford the shinkansen, and b) wanted to see more of the country (but mainly a)).
Although it’s certainly tiring, in some respects it’s also quite relaxing.
You can admire the hugely varied scenery rolling by, and the change in the landscape also provides more of an idea about the team you are about to watch.
Around the world football clubs often have the most passionate support and unique identities in areas where there is not much else to do.
Clubs in these places bring people together and provide a sense of belonging, which is perhaps sometimes lacking in bigger, more metropolitan areas.
Even bearing that aspect in mind, I have to admit I was still not expecting too much from my visit to Tottori.
After the Osaka Derby – I still like big games too – I caught highlights of Gainare’s home defeat to Machida Zelvia and it wasn’t the best advert.
There’s a car park behind one stand, a rice-field behind the other and not a lot else, it seemed. Plus the team had lost 3-0.
The opponents for this game, Kyoto Sanga, did make it a little more appealing, boasting some of the best young talent around, and I thought I could perhaps just focus on them.
Still, when I woke up at 7am and remembered the journey ahead of me it was a little tricky to will myself out of bed.
As each transfer down the San-in Line took me further into the countryside I grew more positive though, and the spectacular views of rivers, mountains and shorelines certainly had a calming influence.
Everything today is carried out at such a frenetic pace, and the slow and steady progress of the local trains to Tottori provided a nice remedy to the hectic existence of living in a place where it seems anything and everything can be rented by the hour.
Seven hours after boarding my first train in Uji I arrived at Tottori and it didn’t take long to see that Gainare – along with the famous sand-dunes – provide a core focus for the town.
There were flags hanging welcoming the Sanga fans to the area (“You’ve come a long way so welcome to Tottori!”) and upon check-in at my hotel the receptionist became a lot more chatty when I asked how far the stadium was.
“Ah, Gainare!” he beamed. He wasn’t really a fan but one of his friends was in the oendan, he added.
I made my way back to the station to catch the free – yes, free – bus to the ground, and although when I arrived there were only three people waiting, by the time we set off there were probably enough of us to constitute a World Cup finals squad.
As we pulled away from the bus stop the first drops of rain began to fall from the ever-darkening sky and I hoped it wasn’t a bad sign.
It wasn’t, and as soon as I arrived at the wonderfully-named Tori Gin Bird Stadium I had a good feeling about the club.
There were friendly staff and fans milling around, and, unbelievably to an Englishman, bars selling real ale, vodka, whiskey and anything else you might fancy.
I bought myself a Daisen burger (sadly, I had to resist the bar) and made my way inside the ground.
The football only venue with an old school scoreboard – thankfully no OTT player intros or music after goals here – left another positive impression.
The game was enjoyable, too, and the 2-1 scoreline flattered Sanga. Gainare were dominant and should have won by more.
That may have been something to grumble about elsewhere, but club staff and fans alike were in high spirits after the match.
One member of staff who had returned to work for her hometown club after a decade in Tokyo was beaming when I left the stadium.
It seemed that, to her, Gainare hadn’t only beaten Sanga, Tottori had prevailed over Kyoto, the former capital. And that made my trip more than worthwhile. That’s why I love football.