Monday, December 14, 2009

Sendai Saturday Sports Spectacular (Part 1) - Kawasaki Frontale 1 at Vegalta Sendai 2 (a.e.t.) - December 12, 2009

When the Emperor's Cup Quarterfinal match locations were announced, I was interested to see that Kawasaki Frontale were going to visit Vegalta Sendai. When I checked the bj League schedule, I was happy to find that Sendai has a team, and they had a home game on the same day! It was a chance to take a real sports road trip in Japan, my first in 2009.


The capital of Miyagi prefecture, Sendai is a city of some one million people about 200 miles northeast of Tokyo. It's the largest city in the Tohoku region (Tohoku combines two Chinese characters meaning east and north and includes the 6 prefectures between Kanto and Hokkaido. It's considered one of Japan's greenest cities and is nicknamed the city of trees. It is famous in the world of green purchasing, having hosted the first international conference back in 2004, which led to the Sendai Declaration on Green Purchasing. Of course, you still get plastic bags at every single convenience store, so they've got a long way to go to convince me.

Like most Japanese cities, there's a central train station (shown above) which defines the downtown core. From here, several lines venture out to the suburbs. There's also a single subway line that travels a 30-minute north-south route (hence the name Namboku line, which means south-north). Another line is due to be built in 2015, traveling east-west and naturally called the Tozai line (which means east-west).

There are a few attractions which I'll discuss in a separate post. There are 3 major sports teams, including the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles of the Pacific League, who play in Kleenex Stadium. Of course, the other two teams were why I was visiting Sendai this weekend.

Getting there

Sendai is on the Tohoku Shinkansen - just 100 minutes from Tokyo station on the fastest Hayate service. There are no flights from Tokyo's Haneda airport, but there are two daily flights from Narita, which are necessary for those Tohoku residents who want to get out of the country.

Shinkansen car guide in Tokyo station

The normal Shinkansen fare is 10,590 yen one-way (about $120 with the strong yen) but there's a special DoNichi ticket that allows unlimited rides on JR (the national rail) between Tokyo and the entire Tohoku region for a weekend (DoNichi referring to Saturday and Sunday - tired of the Japanese lesson yet?). At 18,000 yen, it's even cheaper than buying a return ticket on the Shink, plus you get all your local JR rides (which excludes the subway) for free. So you can spend your Sunday venturing away from the city, which we did, going out to Matsushima and Shiogama, which I'll also write about later.

If you plan to ride the subway more than twice in a day, pick up the unlimited day pass for just 600 yen. Given that even a short ride can be 240 yen, this pass saves you money and also saves you the time of figuring out how much to pay. I was surprised at how busy the subway was, even on the weekend, but I guess when there's only one line, people don't have much choice.

Hotels are plentiful around the main station, and you shouldn't have any problem finding one to book. I'd recommend staying anywhere downtown as it's not a big city and most of what you will want to do is within 30 minutes.

The Stadium

Vegalta Sendai play in Yurtec Stadium, named after a Tohoku-based corporation. Originally named Sendai Stadium (not an original name though), it is located next to the northern terminus of the subway line. As the train approaches Izumi-chuo station, you will notice the stadium on the east side (the subway is above ground for the last few stops). When you exit the station, just walk back south about 5 minutes. You have to walk down a relatively narrow sidewalk which doesn't provide any good views of the whole venue until you are just in front. Below is the main entrance.

The gates were well spread out and there was no waiting to get in, although that was likely because we arrived only 40 minutes before game time. Once inside, you can walk freely throughout the stadium along the concourse, but when you enter the seating area, you need to show your ticket. There are specific seating areas, but most of the seats are free seating within that area, so get there early or splurge for the more expensive assigned seats. There are also standing areas at the top of each section. As is usual, the supporters sit in the end zone, so try to get a seat along the sideline as your ears will thank you afterward.

The stadium is rectangular and made specifically for soccer. A wavy roof encircles the seating area and all seats are covered, so even a rainy day poses no problem here. Along the sideline, all seats are very close and offer great views. Holding just under 20,000 fans, it is cozy and clean, but loud - the Sendai fans chant non-stop and I'd say more than half of them are participating in the cheers. If you want to fit in, wear something yellow.

Sendai Supporters

This stadium maybe one of the best in Japan. It's small enough that you're close to the action, but big enough to allow a great crowd of supporters. Definitely worth a visit if you're in town at the same time as Vegalta.

Kawasaki Frontale 1 at Vegalta Sendai 2 (a.e.t.)

Kawasaki were fresh off a disappointing finish to their J1 campaign, slipping up against cellar-dwellers Oita Trinita in late November. Their 1-0 defeat cost them the league title as I've detailed here before. As well, they had lost the Nabisco Cup Final to F.C. Tokyo and fell against Nagoya in the Asian Champions League quarter-finals, so the Emperor's Cup was their last chance at gaining silverware in 2009.

Vegalta Sendai, on the other hand, were the J2 champions and doubtless were looking to prove themselves against one of Japan's best teams before joining the top flight next season. Back in October, I saw them defeat Omiya Ardija in the 3rd round of the Cup, despite being outplayed, but they then smoked F.C. Tokyo 3-0 in the round of 16, so I had high expectations for this match.

I was not disappointed. Both teams were tentative early on, and few chances were found. It wasn't until the 35th minute when Sendai opened the scoring on a great play. Kunimitsu Sekiguchi raced forward and looked right as Takayuki Nakahara made his way to the net. All Kawasaki's defenders thought the ball was going that way, but Sekiguchi made a nifty no-look pass to Yuki Nakashima who had space on the left. He made his way into the box, looked up, and placed an absolutely perfect shot inside the far right post to send the crowd into a frenzy.

I thought Sendai might start to play a more defensive game with the lead, but I was wrong: the game became more wide open in the 2nd half. Kaswasaki nearly drew level just after the restart when Renatinho was alone in front but he put it straight at keeper Takuto Hayashi. Frontale continued to push, creating several good chances but none were able to beat Hayashi.

Meanwhile Sendai used every opportunity to counter-attack and themselves had a number of great shots, only to be denied by Eiji Kawashima, who made at least 4 stops when faced with a 1-on-1.

Kawashima bats one away

It was an amazing back-and-forth game, but Sendai finally broke through 10 minutes from time when substitute Tomoyuki Hirase crossed to Nakashima who bundled the ball home off his chest. Or so I thought. In fact, it hit his arm and the goal was immediately disallowed. There would be no Henry-like controversy to sully the Emperor's Cup!

The teams traded chances and it looked like Sendai would advance when Hayashi made a terrible error. On a cross, he chased the ball well away from his net, palming it right to Frontale midfielder Kazuhiro Murakami, who one-timed the ball into the yawning cage just 2o seconds from the end of regulation. The Sendai supporters were suddenly silenced, but I looked forward to 30 more minutes of soccer.

Naoya Tamura tries to deke

The overtime periods were more of the same - Kawasaki attacks and Sendai counters. Both keepers were up to the challenge for the first 15 minutes, but 5 minutes into the second OT stanza, Kawashima was found wanting. Sekiguchi had the ball on the far left and crossed to Hirase. Although he was well-marked, the ball was slightly low and Hirase bent to head it towards goal. The ball floated ever so slowly as Kawashima leapt in vain - the ball sailed over his outstretched arms and into the goal. The fans went crazy! 2-1 Sendai! Frontale could not overcome this deficit and Vegalta was victorious! What a great game and a great winning goal.

Hayashi parries the cross in overtime

As usual, Kawasaki were technically better but lacked finish when they needed it most. Meanwhile their opponents seemed hungrier and won a lot of the key battles - it was Kawashima who kept them close. This game reminded me of the Nabisco Cup final; I wonder why Kawasaki can't play their usual style when the pressure is on. We'll see if things improve next year.

Meanwhile, Sendai will be facing defending champs Gamba Osaka on December 29th here in Tokyo. It's a work day and a 3pm start, but I've already got the day off, and will go check it out. The other semi-final features Nagoya Grampus and Shimizu S-Pulse, and the two winners meet for Japanese soccer supremacy on New Year's Day.

For those of you who want highlights, this video is good, although a bit strange. The first 40 seconds and last minute are a repeated close-up of a female Vegalta fan cheering and adjusting her bra. Bizarre. But in between are 3.5 minutes of the best plays including all 3 goals.

Annoying Fans

A final note - although I enjoyed the experience, I found a few of the Sendai fans to be bothersome. It was very crowded, nearly sold out, so there weren't a lot of seats to be had. But I noticed one group of 5 had taken 10 seats between them. This is atypical of Japanese, who are usually considerate and follow the rules. To make matters worse, the section in front of me stood for the whole game, despite it not being a cheering section. In Japan, if you are a supporter, you go to the supporter's section, where you can stand and cheer for the whole game. But for some reason, the people near the front of the section felt that it was imperative to stand. Of course, everyone behind them had to stand, which blocked the view of part of the field. Sadly, "Siddown" doesn't translate well. What is frustrating is that there was a standing section nearby - if you want to stand, do it there! I don't want to stand for 3 hours, which is why I bought a seat!

I should note that this is only a few of the fans. The Sendai supporters are by and large very good - after all they filled the stadium when the other 3 quarterfinal games were at less than half of capacity. But as any fan knows, it just takes a few to ruin it for everyone.

It was a good afternoon though, but the day was only half-over. The bj League was also in town in the evening and I'll write about that game in my next post.



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