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Official Review by Sean MacDonald, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
When F.C. Tokyo joined the J.League in 1999, they lacked a regular home ground and were forced to play games throughout the capital. To remedy this rather embarrassing situation, Tokyo Stadium was built in the western suburb of Chofu and opened in 2001. One of the city's hidden jewels, it was immediately dubbed Ajinomoto Stadium after it became the first sports venue in Japan to sell its naming rights.
Despite being opened a year before the 2002 World Cup, Ajinomoto Stadium was not used during the tournament. Having two larger stadiums in nearby Yokohama and Saitama was the primary reason for this, but one has to question the logic of building another huge white elephant in the distant countryside of Oita when there was a centrally-located facility that would have been more than sufficient.
Ajinomoto Stadium currently hosts Tokyo Verdy, a J2 team, along with F.C. Tokyo who are back in the first division after winning the J2 championship in 2011.
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As you approach the stadium, you will notice a KFC and a couple of other restaurants to your right. Avoid these as they are easily obtainable elsewhere in the city and instead proceed up the staircase to the main gate.
Once you enter the stadium, you will find yourself on a very spacious outer concourse that circles the entire venue. This is where you will find a decent variety of concessions. Fried food dominates the selection here, with a rolled taco one of the relatively rarer finds. At 300 yen, it's not much, but it whets the appetite for heartier fare such as the fried chicken and draft beer combo for 800 yen. Avoid the kushiage (deep fried meat on a stick) as they dip it in sauce before giving it to you and by the time you reach your seat, it is a soggy mess. That's too bad because at 100 yen per stick, it would normally be a bargain. Another tempting offering was the Ajisuta Rice Box, named after the stadium itself and a very popular choice from the lineup at that particular stand. There are a number of different unique choices here so as usual, take the time to walk around and see everything that is available.
Canned beer is available for 500 yen while the draft variety is 650. You can bring in your own beer, but you will have to pour it into cups as you enter.
I attended an AFC Champions League game and only 9,537 fans showed up, about half the average for a J.League match. Unlike Europe where the Champions League is big business, these international club competitions don't get much respect here in Japan, which surprises me. I personally appreciate the opportunity to see a team that I would not otherwise be able to witness live and can't understand why the Japanese think differently. Even then, the Champions League matches have a distinct atmosphere, with English announcements and a lot of fanfare before the game. The roof seems to keep a lot of the cheering inside the stadium and made things quite lively despite the rather low number in attendance.
The stadium is located a short 5-minute stroll from Tobitakyu Station on the Keio line, which is about a half-hour west of Shinjuku. Tobitakyu is really a residential suburb and there is nothing here to make you stay after the game. Instead, your best bet is to head east to Shinjuku where there are countless bars and restaurants that stay open until the first train the next morning. One good bar that caters to Westerners is Dubliners, an Irish Pub near the south entrance of Shinjuku Station. Always packed, it is a good place to meet both locals and visitors. Below it is a Ginza Lion that offers a unique Japanese beer hall experience if you want to see how the average salaryman spends his evenings.
If you prefer to stay in the area closer to the stadium, there is a Shoya, a low-end izakaya that offers the typical Japanese staples at cheap prices.
Despite the disappointing attendance, those supporters who did make it out were loud and proud and kept chanting throughout the game. All of them were wearing the club's signature blue and red striped kit and it made for a cool sight. Before the game they sing "You'll Never Walk Alone" and I don't like to poke fun but it is rather amusing to hear this traditional soccer song with a heavy Japanese accent.
The visiting Beijing team even had a few supporters make the trip and they made some noise as well, although it was fairly limited as they lost 3-0.
The stadium is a short walk from the station and has a very wide concourse. The seating bowl is spacious and aisles are wide. The washrooms are located underneath the lower stand and have arrows so that the lines move speedily during halftime. There were really no problems here with access; you can pretty much get around the stadium as long as you are not wearing the colors of one of the teams. Should you be so clad, you will not be allowed into the opposition's seating area, but that is normal for soccer and no reason to dock points.
As you approach the stadium, you walk up a set of stairs to the main gate, where you will find the ticket windows off to your right. There are two categories of games for F.C. Tokyo but ticket prices don't differ by more than 500 yen. My advice is to get the unreserved home seats at 2,500 yen for the Category 1 games which give you the whole lower deck in the back stand to choose from.
If you prefer the upper deck, it will cost you an extra 1,000 yen, a surprising twist on the usual pricing policy. The benefit of sitting up top is that the entire bowl is covered by the roof, while only the last ten or so rows in the lower sections are similarly protected from the elements. This is supposed to be a multipurpose facility and as such, the seating area is somewhat far away from the pitch even though there is no running track currently separating them. Most fans prefer to sit in the upper rows of the lower bowl as the angle from down low is not that good.
There are video scoreboards at each end that showed replays. Otherwise there is little of note. It is a very nice stadium, but as is often the case here, purely functional, without a lot of bells and whistles. It's a very affordable game but the stands are just a bit too far away.
Ajinomoto Stadium was the training ground for the Saudi Arabia team in 2002 and a plaque notes as much just outside the main gate.
Before you enter, you might want to wander around the stadium and take note of the countless plants along the walls. I don't know why they are here but someone has a tough job watering them. There are also lots of trees in the area including some cherry blossoms trees that were just coming off bloom during my April visit.
The technical design and roof are pretty cool and merit another point here.
Ajinomoto Stadium is worth visiting simply because it is a very interesting structure. It is certainly too big for its current purpose, but I always enjoy seeing a game where fans are not crammed in like cattle. The supporters here are good and the atmosphere doesn't suffer much with a smaller crowd, so if you notice an FC Tokyo (or Tokyo Verdy) game here when you are in town, make an effort to check it out.
Follow all of Sean's journeys at Sports Road Trips.
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Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 171-0021
Chofu-shi, Tokyo 140-0004
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