Kyoto: Field hockey culture invigorates rural town

The Yomiuri Shimbun
People play field hockey at the Greenland Mizuho Hockey Ground in Kyotamba, Kyoto Prefecture.

KYOTAMBA, Kyoto — A mountain town in Kyoto Prefecture boasts an artificial pitch on which children dreaming of a place on the field hockey world stage chase a ball every day.

The Greenland Mizuho Hockey Ground was created for the 1988 National Sports Festival, which was held in Kyoto, and the field hockey culture of the small town was born on this beautiful green turf. (Mizuho is the name of the former town before it was merged into the current town Kyotamba)

‘Elephant’s ear pick’

The players’ shouts and the cracking of sticks smacking the ball echoed on a mid-November day during a match between Kyotamba’s Shuchi High School and Ibuki High School, a field hockey powerhouse from Shiga Prefecture.

“Athletes from neighboring prefectures regularly come here to practice,” said Sachiko Takahashi, coach of the women’s team from Shuchi High School.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
High school students chase the ball on artificial turf.

“The pitch is the pride of our town.”

At about 90 meters long and 55 meters wide, the pitch includes stands and locker rooms. The facility was built in 1985 as a venue for the National Sports Festival.

Back then, field hockey was not well known in the local community.

“Some people used to laugh at the hockey sticks, saying they look like an ‘elephant’s ear pick,’ and others were disappointed to learn the facility was not going to be a soccer pitch,” said Mamoru Nonomura, 62-year-old chair of the Kyoto Hockey Association.

However, people had a lot of fun at the sports festival, and field hockey gained a following.

“We showed the community how amazing field hockey can be, such as the fierce battles for the ball and how it’s such a fast-paced game,” said Masashi Nishida, who played at the festival and currently coaches the men’s team at Shuchi High School.

Promising players

Field hockey planted its roots in the small town as entertainment that appealed to the whole nation.

After the National Sports Festival, several field hockey clubs for juniors have popped up in Kyotamba. In 1991, two junior high schools in the city contested the final at the national field hockey tournament.

As Kyotamba is about an hour’s drive to Kyoto City, local children sometimes chose to go to private high schools in the bigger city that have strong field hockey teams.

However, having the Greenland Mizuho grounds has kept promising players at Shuchi High School. The school has become a field hockey powerhouse, with wins at both the men’s and women’s national championships. It has also produced members for Japanese representative teams.

“I’m blessed that there’s a place like this in the town where I was born. It allows me to concentrate on field hockey,” said Sena Tabuchi, 17, captain of the women’s team.

“I will go to university and aim for the world, but eventually I’d like come back home as an instructor.”

The men’s team captain Taiga Sakamoto, 16, said: “It’s part of the local culture for kids to play field hockey. I started playing in elementary school. We can practice four or five days a week on a real pitch, which makes us strong enough to play in the national tournament.”

Increase player numbers

The population of the town, about 13,000, has been falling due to a chronically low birth rate and aging. However, the number of visitors has not changed much since the opening of the grounds, with numbers hitting around 10,000 each year, according to the field’s operating company.

The Kyotamba government has been making efforts to encourage interest in the sport, with the town promoting itself as the “town of field hockey.” In 2015, the municipality replaced the original grass pitch with artificial turf so the ball would not slow down as much, which prompted the women’s national team to hold training camp there in 2017.

Lighting for night games was installed in 2020, and the town went so far as to invite the New Zealand national team to use the facility as their training camp ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, although the camp was canceled due to the pandemic.

Local volunteers also instruct beginners every Saturday night with the aim of making the sport more popular in the community.

“Field hockey is part of the charm and culture of our town,” said Hiroaki Nishiyama from the Kyotamba town board of education and who is a referee for the national league. “Even with the low birth rate, we’d like to use this field hockey pitch as a base for our activities to invigorate the town and hope that we will one day boast having Olympic athletes.”

— Extend your trip!

Kotodaki falls

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kotodaki falls

Water gently cascades down the surface of a monolithic rock about 43 meters high. When there is a great amount of water, the waterfall takes on the appearance of a 13-string Japanese harp, called a koto. The sound of the water echoes in the forest like koto as well, giving the waterfall its name. The location has been used for TV advertisements and period dramas, with the waterfall not far from the nearest parking lot. The remains of Shuchi Castle are on the northern mountaintop, and the area has a popular walking trail.

— How to get there

The Yomiuri Shimbun

It takes about 25 minutes by taxi from JR Sonobe Station. It is a 5-minute drive from the Kyotamba Mizuho Interchange on the Kyoto Jukan Expressway. The Greenland Mizuho Hockey Ground is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the daytime, and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. at night. There is a mini field hockey ground for children at nearby Michi-no-Eki Mizuho no Sato Sarabiki roadside rest area.