© ATP

The futuristic tennis stadium at the Miki Disaster Prevention Park hosts the ATP Challenger Tour event in Kobe, Japan.

The Earthquake-Resistant Challenger Stadium In Japan

The site of the Kobe Challenger serves as a relief centre for rescued people from nearby disaster areas.

In the landscape of Japanese tennis, the Rakuten Japan Open Tennis Championships has set the standard for the last 45 years. The country's lone ATP World Tour event continues to shine brightly in Tokyo.

But on the ATP Challenger Tour, three tournaments have maintained their own standard of excellence since the late 1990s. The $50,000 event in Kyoto has thrived for more than 20 years, while the $75,000 tournament in Yokohama celebrated its 13th edition in February.

The newest tournament of the group is the Hyogo Noah Challenger in the city of Kobe. Founded in 2015, the indoor-hard court event has featured John Millman and Hyeon Chung among its champions. 

A bustling metropolis in southern Japan, Kobe is the sixth-largest city in the country and a thriving financial centre. Also one of the busiest ports in the country, many companies are headquartered there, including more than 100 international corporations. It is also the point of origin of Kobe beef, a delicacy around the world.

But venture a bit outside the city and you will find an integral part of Kobe's sporting culture. Drive 40 minutes west and you'll arrive at the Miki Disaster Prevention Park, home to this week's ATP Challenger Tour event. 

Kobe

On 17 January 1995, a 6.9 magnitude earthquake rocked Japan. Its epicentre was located just 20 km from the Kobe city centre. More than 6,000 people lost their lives on that day and, with the city residing on an active fault line, officials announced the necessity for a disaster prevention mechanism. At the time of the Great Hanshin earthquake, the city was ill-prepared to assist the thousands of people impacted. 

The Miki Disaster Prevention Park was constructed shortly thereafter, serving as a relief centre for rescued people from nearby disaster areas. One of the most sophisticated earthquake research facilities also sits next door and includes the world's largest indoor earthquake simulator. Also a multipurpose sports facility, it features two football stadiums and a running track, in addition to the tennis arena.

Made to give shelter to those in need, the arena was built with massive concrete walls and foundations burrowing deep into the earth below. Walk through its doors and you'll think you've stumbled into an airport terminal or a spaceship from the future. The 'Beans Dome' was constructed by renowned architect Shuhei Endo and is encased in a stainless steel shell mostly covered with grass. 

“Square buildings are too strong,” Endo explained. “Rounded, curved forms are more continuous and blend in better with nature.”

In the event of an earthquake or typhoon, supply trucks can drive directly into the 174,000-square-foot building, thanks to movable glass panels at four locations around the perimeter. The stadium holds nine tennis courts, with four on either side of a sunken centre court. Surrounding the courts are 10-inch-thick layers of reinforced concrete that rise from the floor and serve as the back wall and ceiling. 

Kobe

It is a sight to behold on the ATP Challenger Tour and one of the lesser-known gems on the circuit. No tickets are sold throughout the tournament, as organizers only request donations for the disaster fund as patrons walk through the door. On Saturday, the locals were well aware of the star power on display, with four Japanese semi-finalists competing for spots in the championship. A combined 4,000 people packed the tennis centre for both matches.

And on Sunday, a home hopeful lifted the trophy for the first time, as Tatsuma Ito defeated Yosuke Watanuki in the final. It was the 30-year-old's sixth title and first since 2012, snapping a streak of 10 straight finals lost. Ito has now won titles in three different Japanese cities, also including Kyoto and Toyota. 

ATP Challenger Tour 

More stories like this in: