When Japan was selected as one of the co-hosts of the 2002 World Cup, there were few venues in the country capable of handling the crowds that would attend. The Japanese Football Association started a building frenzy, creating eight new stadiums that all opened in 2001. Chief among these was Saitama Stadium, located about an hour north of Tokyo. With a capacity exceeding 60,000, it was the biggest new football venue in the nation and held four matches in that World Cup, including Brazil's semi-final win over Turkey. After the tournament, the J League's Urawa Reds took over and have enjoyed great success and fan support in the years since.
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It feels strange giving a perfect rating to the culinary options available here, because there is nothing to note inside the stadium itself. Instead, there is a large outdoor plaza at the south end of the facility with several food trucks and an area with tables and chairs where you can sit and enjoy your meal. The food here is reasonably priced with good variety and doubtless far superior to the fare available once you are inside. I heartily recommend arriving here early and partaking in these outdoor options as the selection and cost are unbeatable. As an example, I had some yakitori (chicken on a stick) at 100 yen per stick at one of the trucks. Take your time and check out each option, there are so many here that you will be spoiled for choice.
There are no vendors in the aisles during the game, but you can bring anything you want inside, remembering to pour your canned beverages into paper cups when entering.
Despite the large size of the venue, when it gets full, it is loud. To be fair, the game I saw featured the league leaders playing in the final game of the season, where a victory would clinch their first ever J1 championship. The visiting fans were rabid, but the home fans, despite their team's poor showing on the season, were even more noticeable, naturally helped by far greater numbers. The place was hopping long before kickoff right through the final whistle. With the visiting team having won the championship, there was some celebrating afterwards as well. Japanese fans take their soccer seriously and Saitama Stadium provides a fantastic atmosphere throughout the afternoon.
The stadium is in the middle of nowhere, taking at least 45 minutes from Tokyo and then a 20-minute walk along a footpath. There is nothing in the immediate vicinity and there is no reason to explore before or after the game. The nearest station is Urawa-Misono, at the end of the Saitama Railway, but even this is devoid of anything interesting. There isn't a lot of real estate in Japan, so new stadiums are often pushed to the perimeter of the urban area, and this one is no different. The best idea is to come here early to avoid the crowds and head back to Tokyo immediately afterwards.
This is a football-only venue and having the fans that much closer to the pitch really adds to the excitement. The Urawa supporters are famous for their total commitment to their team, and it shows. The team averages over 40,000 a season and these are vocal fans. When the team president came out to speak after the final game, the booing was intense. The cheering section was perhaps the best I've seen here, with flags waving and everyone wearing red and jumping in unison throughout the match. They take up the entire north end zone and don't stop making noise until after the game is over. Those fans not in the cheering section were just as good, and I was impressed by the knowledge displayed by fans of the visiting team after their victory.
Despite being a somewhat neutral observer, nobody around me paid any attention; they were focused on the game at hand. Great fans of both the visiting and home team make the stadium a pleasure to visit.
I already mentioned just how far away the stadium is, but let me reiterate: it is a pain to get to. You are looking at least an hour from Tokyo if not longer. Furthermore, the trains are crowded both coming and going which makes it more of a hassle. There are 100 yen shuttle buses from Urawa-Misono station but the lineups to board were huge, so I would suggest following most people and walking along the footpath.
Once inside the stadium, the lower concourse is spacious but washrooms are crowded, and the upper level walkways inside the seating bowl are too small for the number of people that it holds. As you leave the stadium, expect large slow-moving crowds as you make your way down the stairs.
When you get back to the station, the trains will be crowded as they depart but they clear out just one station down the line at Higashi Kawaguchi, where there is a JR line. Regardless, those few minutes can be excruciating as people pile in, so you might want to wait for a train where you can board first and get a seat.
Tickets here are reasonably priced, with the best seats going for just 4,500 yen and the unreserved seats 2,000 yen. The stadium is divided into four quadrants (A, B, C, D) that are color-coded, with A and C along the sides and B and D used for the end zones.
You can enter the lower concourse via any gate and walk around, as long as you are not wearing the visiting kit. I recommend you do this as there are a number of displays that recall those heady days of the World Cup. In order to reach the upper deck, you have to enter the specific gate on your ticket and walk up several flights of stairs.
The stadium is one of the most attractive in Japan, which is used to seeing functional but boring arenas. Here, the upper deck seats taper from the center to the end zones and are covered by curving roofs, while the end zones are open. This allows views of the surrounding countryside from the upper deck, although there isn't much to see.
As this is a football-only venue, the seats down below are close to the action and make for a good investment, if you can get them. Even the upper deck seats are good; there is plenty of leg room here, and no problem seeing the field with the upper deck steep enough so that people in front of you don't block your view.
Overall, Saitama Stadium is a great venue to watch soccer. The proximity of the seats allow the supporters to be part of the game, and the unique architecture and souvenirs from 2002 make it a special place for students of the game. The only problem here is the access - it is far from the city, far from the station, and there are not enough walkways or washrooms. Keep that in mind if you ever decide to pay a visit here.
There are many 2002 World Cup memorabilia displays that you should definitely walk around the lower concourse before the game. You are not allowed into certain areas if you are wearing the visiting team's colors, so if you are supporting them, hide your jersey until you reach your seat.
There is a park with several smaller soccer and futsal grounds near the stadium, which can provide a respite from the crowd if you get there early enough.
This is one of Japan's best stadiums which sadly is not seen by as many people who could, due to its distance from the center of the city. I still think that visitors should make an effort to get out here, if only for the atmosphere. With only 19 league games a year plus a few cup matches, you'll have to plan well to ensure that you can see a game at Saitama Stadium. When you do so, remember that the trip will be worth it once you get there.
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