Visiting the Ajinomoto Stadium
The EAFF E-1 Championship, if the name alone doesn’t get you excited – I’m not sure what will. Okay, okay, this minor tournament might not be the pinnacle of footballing prowess but still an evening of entertainment.
My ticket was for the second matchday, on Tuesday the 12th of December. Two games of football included in the price of one ticket. I opted for decent seats, priced at 6,300 yen. Which cost me about £40. Other seats were available within lower price brackets, but when it’s your first international game – you don’t mind shelling out a bit more. Also, I managed to watch TWO GAMES here.
Oh, and what games they were. The Korean derby was on first. Yes, that’s right. Korea DPR vs. Korea Republic. Or casually, North Korea vs. South Korea. The hot political potato in the form of a football match. Quite the sight. The main event was Japan vs. China, which on paper doesn’t sound enthralling but given that Marcello Lippi coaches China and Japan was using a J.League exclusive squad, it had every right to get interesting.
The Ajinomoto Stadium is a little jog from Chōfu station, in Tokyo. The Keio line is a nightmare, with a myriad of complex train combinations. On this particular journey, I actually ended up in Shinjuku, before having to go back on myself to change at the appropriate station. Basically, if you’re going to the Ajinomoto – read the directions carefully, unlike me.
The game had a big feel with street stalls selling merchandise, posters for the tournament and a lot of people walking to the ground. After an incredibly lax security check, I was even gifted a paper cup by a steward – so I could empty my beer (that I had bought from an external establishment) and take it into the ground. The fact I was drinking at 4pm says a lot about me. Then again, the EAFF E-1 Championship only happens every two years. The point remains though, very courteous and understanding.
There were plenty of things to do around the stadium, including the Kirin fan zone. The opportunity won the entry-level prize – a notepad. Still, better than nothing. I even had my picture taken with the Vahid Halilhodzic. Well, a cardboard cut-out of him anyway. Oh and like most things here in Japan, you could buy a lot of merchandise. You name it and you can probably buy it with the official Samurai Blue logo on it. Mousemat, mug and shirts. I fell short of the official programme and a scarf, however.
The FIFA anthem hit for the Korean derby, wow. I was hearing this great music live, well, played through the speaker system. The Koreans lining up to this was something unforgettable – alas, the first half of football was quite the contrast. It’s lapsed from my mind already.
By this time, I had acquired a good grasp of my surroundings. The roof is a thing of beauty. A real treat for the eyes, no different to any new handsome stadia in Europe. It’s really befitting of Japan’s capital. You’d be forgiven for thinking that a 49,970 capacity stadium belonged to the national team. Yet, it’s actually home to F.C. Tokyo and Tokyo Verdy. In the space of a week or two, the ground had hosted the Japanese national team, J1 and J2 football. A stark difference from England’s set up. You don’t see the Three Lions wishing to populate second-tier football stadiums.
There’s an evident newness about the ground. Opened in 2001, it’s a modern architecture and has been purpose-built for football. The “home end” is made specially to amplify the supporters and their noise. The standing area especially, as it cushions many supporters together - and thusly creates a wall of sound. Although this was hardly occupied for the first game. I was one of a mere 5,477 that watched this game. The stadium at less than 11% capacity at this point.
The second half of the Korean derby was a little livelier, but only the one goal separated the two teams as South Korea won it. Now with these two rival nations leaving the field, the Japanese section started to fill up – at great speed.
The Japanese fans came in numbers and came armed with all manner of banners, flags and oversized shirts. The pulse of the Samurai Blue surged from its fans. I wanted to join in but needed to food to energise myself. I headed to one of the stadium’s many refectories. An unnamed counter selling chicken burgers was where I decided to dine. The first bite and I thought: “this is KFC.” Further inspection, the wrapping was from Kentucky Fried Chicken. You can get KFC from the football stadium, without even knowing it. It’s like they don’t want you to know its KFC! It wasn’t a replacement for a pie, but it was good.
Cometh the game, the main event. Japan started… eh. International football. Something, something, bad pass. Unintended tika-taka. I’m surprised the Japanese fans were so vocal considering how poor the team were. China was by no means better, which made for another dull first half of football.
Vahid Halilhodzic, the Bosnian head coach of Japan must have really torn into them at the halftime break – considering how they came out fighting in the second. The ground continued to show their support too and we finally had a compelling fixture on our hands. Yu Kobayashi opened the scoring and the stadium leapt up into jubilation. This venue became an amphitheatre of celebration, well in the noisy standing section anyway. Others appreciated the goal silently. I may have celebrated too much as I got a few dodgy looks when I jumped up from my seat in the joy of the goal.
The game ended 2-1 to Japan and the stadium began to empty its attendees. A much healthier number of 17,220 were in attendance for this game. Although still only at 34%, then again it was a cold Tuesday night.
A decent game and because the stadium is from the same ilk and era of the Emirates, there really isn’t a bad seat in the house. That contemporary vibe, which is encompassing. Yes, it does feel sometimes feel like you’re at an O2 Academy because you can get fast food and it’s all so new, but all grounds will be updated and like this one day. A good game, which again – might have been helped with a few more people. I may check out the ground in a league game, where F.C. Tokyo have achieved numbers of 35,000+ in recent seasons. All in all: decent view, very okay game(s), interesting stealth KFC catering and a good support for the home team (despite the numbers not being there). Would go again.