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Official Review by Sean MacDonald, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
Consadole Sapporo came into being in 1996 when the Toshiba Soccer Club transferred their franchise to an ownership group based in Hokkaido, the northernmost island in Japan. The team name comes from a combination of the reversal of Dosanko (Ko-n-sa-do) which is the term for those living in Hokkaido plus “Ole”.
Since their move to Sapporo, they have been on a roller-coaster ride of promotion and relegation between the two divisions of J.League, falling down to the second division three times only to eventually come back to J1. They won the J2 title in 2011, which meant yet another promotion, but also more quality opposition and they have struggled early in 2012. Fortunately for their fans though, the team has one shining star: their home ground, the Sapporo Dome, which is one of the most technologically advanced sports venues in the world.
In 2001, the Sapporo Dome was built as one of the many stadiums that would be used in the 2002 World Cup. Naturally, Consadole began to use it as well, and now play most of their games there. As the stadium also hosts NPB’s Nippon Ham Fighters, some matches are played at Atsubetsu Stadium, an outdoor facility that is no match for all that the dome offers.
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Once you enter through your assigned gate, you will find yourself on the main concourse (1F), which is spacious and very clean. Most of the concessions are located here, with a few more on the second floor as well. My recommendation is the Prince Hotel stand which had a good variety of smaller snacks that looked better than the KFC or Subway next to it. The agemochi (fried rice paste) is an excellent choice for just 200 yen. Most booths have special soccer-only offerings. My favorite was the Consadole Burger, a pepper-chicken fillet with chili sauce and lettuce that is much better than it sounds and only 380 yen.
As usual in Japan, it pays to walk around and check all the different options as there are about 20 different vendors each with multiple locations and each offering something unique. For example, one had a cucumber on a stick for those trying to stay healthy, while another boasted a very appetizing Hokkaido Steak Donburi. The Luna Creperie on the second floor seemed like a popular choice if you had a sweet tooth.
There is a hot dog stand on the third floor behind center field but I had a look and the product was not tempting in the least. Stay on the first floor and you will be fine.
Outside food and drinks are allowed, but with prices and choice so good here, you'd be better off coming hungry and choosing from the wide variety available inside.
Before the game, beer is served by vendors running up and down the aisles, and at 600 yen is somewhat cheaper here than elsewhere. However, the vendors are relegated to the top concourse during the first half and half-time so as not to disturb the view during the action on the pitch. Beer sales end at halftime. Whiskey, shochu, and wine are available at one stand on the second level, along with a few tsumami choices (tsumami being the snacks that one generally eats when drinking). Try the ramen peanuts or sliced squid if you are adventurous.
If you want to sit down, Sports Stadium Sapporo is a full-service restaurant offering passable Hokkaido fare at reasonable prices. It also has a lot of memorabilia from international players that have visited the Sapporo Dome as well as dozens of TV screens showing sports.
This is a cavernous place, the second largest dome in the country (behind only the Fukuoka Dome) but it was around 1/3 filled at the game I attended. As such, the atmosphere really suffered, despite the best efforts of the hometown fans. Soccer is a game that really should be played outdoors; I often got the feeling that I was at home as it was just too comfortable inside.
The team has a dance squad known as the Angels who performed before the game and during halftime, but they don't spice things up that much.
Fans are also seated well away from the pitch, a consequence of the multi-purpose design of the seating bowl. Whereas a normal soccer stadium should have seats parallel to the field, here the configuration is more like a coliseum, so the midfield seats are further away than those at the goal lines. This distance does hamper the cheering somewhat, but generally it is the overall size of the dome that makes it difficult to get a good sports atmosphere going.
The dome is located about 10 minutes on foot south of Fukuzumi Station on the Toho subway line, which is itself about 15 minutes from downtown Sapporo. There were a couple of izakayas and a family restaurant on the way, but in reality this is one area you will be leaving immediately after the game.
Most Consadole games are in the afternoon, so you will most likely head back to your hotel for dinner before heading out on the town. The most popular area is Susukino, just south of central Sapporo Station. It is the city's night-life district with plenty of bars and clubs here to keep you busy until the wee hours. Hosui-Susukino is the nearest station and it is only five stops away from Fukuzumi. Two bars of note are Rad Brothers, which caters to the foreign crowd although its reputation is that a spot for said crowd to meet the locals; and Booty, a late-night disco that lies across the street.
Consadole has never drawn well as Hokkaido is really more of a winter sports place (Sapporo hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics). However, those that do go are excellent supporters, showing up early, cheering on their team from well before the kick-off until long after the game is over. They know their stuff and even "oohed" when the referee was announced, which was surprising. Turns out he was the first foreign referee to ever officiate at the FA Cup in England and is well known to soccer fans in Japan.
The club's trademark black and red stripe jersey was everywhere, and most of them wore #12, which is the number the team reserves for the fan as the 12th man.
During the game, they were in their seats and not fidgeting or moving in the aisles. The father behind me had his 3-year old with him and was patiently explaining the rules of the game. When the visitors nearly scored early on, the kid exclaimed "Almost a goal" and the father hastily pointed out that we were hoping that the ball would go into the other net. The kid got it much to his father's delight and those of us sitting around as well.
Walking from the station is easy enough; you have to go over a bridge to cross the final street at which point you walk up some stairs and find yourself at the entrance to the North Gate. This is where things get complicated. Tickets are separated into "priority" and "normal" with priority given to those who are members of the fan club from what I could tell. Whatever the reason, my ticket had no priority and I was told to stand in a line back down at street level.
At around 11:45 they marched us up the stairs where we stopped for another 10 minutes. A short march to the actual gate followed, but again we were stopped, this time for five minutes. When the clock struck twelve, we were finally allowed in. It turns out that the priority ticket holders get to enter the stadium before the poor fans who go less often and that is why all the rigmarole was necessary. Even then, there were so few fans that I got to sit exactly where I wanted. The whole system is just silly; when the stadium is only 1/3 full there is no real advantage to having a priority ticket, other than getting in a few minutes earlier. It's a typical Japanese set-up though, where common sense takes a back seat to over-regulation. If you are seeing a soccer game here, show up 5 minutes after gates open and you'll be fine.
Getting around the stadium is fairly easy and the large concourses generally prevent bottlenecks. However, they need to separate the visiting fans' section from the rest of the seating area since fan violence is a huge problem at J.League games. Ha! Fans ride crowded trains together before and after the game without a problem; again this is just for show. You can still walk around the entire stadium, but when you reach the visitor area, you are escorted outside the building where you walk about 50 meters before getting back in.
When you first lay eyes on the Sapporo Dome, you are likely to think that the city has been invaded by beings from another planet. The dome is a large, silver, beetle-shaped structure with what appears to be a protruding nose (that's the observation deck, which is not open during the game). Based atop a small hill, it is quite the arresting sight.
There are several different ticket options, but I would recommend the SB unreserved seats, which allow you to sit pretty much anywhere in the back stand for 2,700 yen. In Japan, there is usually the main stand and back stand, with the main stand having the advantage of being covered, so back stand seats are usually cheaper. In a dome, there is no difference between the two, yet the back stand seats are still less expensive than the same seat in the main stand and therefore the better option.
The team is back in J1 so you will get to see some better opposition, but whether Consadole can compete with them is still to be determined. So far they are struggling, so 2012 might be their only year at this level before another relegation.
The scoreboard is average at best and doesn't show replays. Or maybe they only show replays of Consadole goals, I never had the chance to find out.
A very affordable afternoon can be had here, the only problem being the crowd not filling the venue and making the experience somewhat sterile.
The West Gate has a number of interesting displays on the history of the Dome, including memorabilia from the 2002 World Cup, the Fighters and Consadole teams over the years, other sporting events that have been held there and even concert performers. Definitely stop by to take a look before you go in, because it is not accessible once you have entered the venue proper.
If you bring gym clothes, you can work out at the Training Room, a full gym that costs only 500 yen per entry and is at one end of the West Gate.
There is also a third floor above center field where the Kids Plaza is located.
The observatory is 53 meters above field level and is mildly interesting, but it is not open during the game. You can visit it during off-days or before noon if there is a night game, but at 500 yen, it is a bit much, especially as it costs about 500 yen in train fare to get there and back. If you are a stadium collector though, I recommend that you take the combination tour/observatory package for 1,200 yen (the tour alone is 1,000 yen), at least if you can understand Japanese. You get taken around the venue and can see the locker rooms and bullpen which is not visible from the seating area.
When walking outside behind the visitor's area, you will see city names painted on the glass wall. These are not visible during the game because they lower blinds to block out the natural light, so that even day games appear to be played at night. These city names are part of the Art Grove, 24 pieces of art scattered around the Sapporo Dome and its grounds. I saw a few of them while wandering about and would say that you'd have to be a pretty big fan of art to get much out of it though.
Two of Consadole's players were on the main concourse signing autographs and having their picture taken before the game.
The Sapporo Dome is a unique venue in Japan as it can host both soccer and baseball on two different surfaces. Baseball games are played on artificial turf, while soccer uses a grass pitch that slides into and out of the stadium. This in itself is not unknown elsewhere; the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale also features a sliding surface.
The conversion process takes about 8 hours from baseball to soccer and 13 hours in reverse, when the entire baseball turn must be re-laid. It is a technological marvel as you realize when you watch this process in fast forward. After the baseball field is removed piece-by-piece and stored, the seats at one end fold into themselves as part of a moving wall. This wall is eventually opened and the soccer stage, which is the pitch resting on air, is slowly moved inside. Then the entire lower bowl is rotated 90 degrees to complete the change. Due to the elimination of field level seats, the dome has a capacity of only 40,476 for baseball games compared to 41,484 for soccer.
It is unlikely you will see this process live, but the tour shows the 8-hour process in a 3- minute video.
There are so many good things about this venue that I'd have to say it is the best dome I have seen. That's not damning with faint praise as you might think, this place really should be visited by any stadium fan. The lack of local supporters affects the score here, but this place is really brilliantly designed and makes Sapporo a great sports destination. It's too bad the locals don't appreciate what they have.
**Follow all of Sean MacDonald's journeys at Sports Road Trips.
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Minami 7 Jonishi
Sapporo, Hokkaido 064-0807
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