Omotenashi

This word defines Japanese hospitality. It doesn’t exactly translate, but it’s about doing more than your very best to please your guest. I have to say, as a guest in their country for the last 3 weeks, the Japanese have done everything possible to make us feel welcome and make sure we had a wonderful time.
The last week or so has been dominated by the weather and, while we were lucky that Typhoon Hagibis turned north and avoided Kyushu, I don’t think anyone who has been here will be able to forget the images of the damage done in the areas further north. Discussions on social media and with everyone we met at games, in bars, or on trains, showed that, for some people, the understanding of just what a typhoon can do is a bit limited, and most people here felt that the rugby shouldn’t be the priority. Not sure that attitude was reflected in what we were seeing from back home, where the assumption was that moving games to a different venue was easy, rescheduling should have been sorted and perhaps there was some ulterior motive from the Tier 1 teams involved. Bizarre.

A quick recap on our final travels; after our days in the sun at Kagoshima, a second trip to Oita finally gave us a competitive live game with Wales v Fiji. It was brutal, thrilling and passionate from both sides, on and off the pitch. A win for Wales seemed to come at huge cost, with Dan Biggar seemingly knocked out, and several others hobbling off before the end. Oita again was incredibly well organised, with hundreds of buses and much shorter queues, so for those lucky enough to have tickets for the next stage, you’ll be well looked after, admittedly at a price! Hotel rates were some of the highest we’ve paid anywhere, for some very small rooms, but again, service was excellent, friendly and the buffet breakfasts interesting to say the least.

Back in Fukuoka for the last few days, we explored the city, mainly on foot, finding fabulous parks and gardens, awesome shrines and museums, great food in weird little restaurants hidden away up in tower blocks and enjoyed the last few pool games in bars and the Fanzone. Our final ‘away-day’ was down in Kumamoto, for Wales v Uruguay and a chance to meet up with friends again, this time to watch the game. Our Sheffield Wednesday Football fan had never been to a live rugby game, and refused to wear red – couldn’t possibly be seen wearing any colour associated with the Blades. It was a fair mix of nationalities at the game – a couple of guys originally from Yorkshire, a Russian, a Kiwi, a Scot and a Canadian, plus 2 Roth supporters. The beer flowed, dodgy snacks were purchased, and eaten, and again we were bussed to and from the stadium very efficiently, although 50 minutes on a coach does feel a bit extreme!

On the way back to the city and the Shinkansen home to Fukuoka, the tv on the bus was showing the preliminaries for the game between Japan and Scotland. As we headed onto the train a few minutes later, there was a huge cheer from the crowds in the station and we assumed Japan had scored. We didn’t know then that Scotland had gone over for their first try before that.
Trains, buses, trams – all public transport in Japan runs almost silently. People don’t chat, there’s no ‘muzak’ or gangs of hen/stag parties heading for weekends away – or if they are, they do it quietly! That night the 40 minute trip back into Fukuoka was unlike any other trip we’ve ever taken, as the whole carriage was following what was happening via social media or live stream. They were absolutely enthralled and we just enjoyed the reactions of people around us. It felt very un-Japanese!

Getting off the train, the noise from the Fan Zone outside the station was deafening. We got there for the start of the second half but there was no way of getting inside! The gallery around the concourse was the best we could do. I have to say the last 10 minutes were some of the most exciting I’ve ever seen at a game, and the emotions running through that crowd were incredible. We couldn’t understand most of what was said afterwards, but just enjoyed watching the normally reticent Japanese really let their hair down and enjoy the moment.
As we left this morning, heading for the airport, there wasn’t a trace of anything left from the night before, apart from one Japanese guy asleep on a bench, clutching his phone. The entire Fanzone had been demolished, there wasn’t a piece of litter to be seen and it was as if the chaos had never happened. Apparently no-one expected Japan to reach the quarter finals so there’s no provision for an area for people to watch together next weekend. Or there isn’t yet!
As we left the Blossom Hotel for the final time we were bowed out of the door, with endless smiles and offers to help with luggage, taxis etc. We’ve been given sweets and snacks by Japanese families we’ve been seated next to at the stadiums, we’ve been bowed to and thanked for coming to Japan so many times, we’ve been looked after, and cared for by ordinary people and by those paid to do a job, always with a smile. This is a special country, with an attitude that, if it can be fixed, it will be.
Less than 24 hours after some of the worst flooding they’ve ever seen, I got a message from the train company to say all trains were back to normal from this morning. How do they do it? At the stadiums yesterday we all observed a silence to honour those who lost their lives because of the typhoon. The number dead or missing continues to rise and the damage shown on tv this morning looks horrendous. The ‘Brave Blossoms’ put their passion and determination last night down to their need to support their country and their people in what they are dealing with, and I’m sure that is going to drive them forward again next weekend.

I wish we had the chance to stay on and enjoy their omotenashi a little longer, and see just what happens next. For now, thank you Japan. We have had the most wonderful time.

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Down south in Kagoshima

After the rain and chaos of Oita, we headed south, to the very tip of Kyushu, to Kagoshima, home of the Satsuma clan, the last Samurai, tropical gardens, black sand baths (thanks for that experience, Ayumi) and a very active volcano.

Four days here was the plan, with a chance to meet Rich, a Handsworth lad, who sadly still supports Sheffield Wednesday, his lovely family, and spend some time away from the rugby mad areas of Japan.

Didn’t happen. The rugby bit that is. Rugby has definitely arrived down south as well, despite Kagoshima not having a match played there.

On Saturday we set off to watch the England game in a Brit friendly bar called Big Ben, with the promise of ‘proper beer’ at a reasonable price. As we settled into the space allocated, a small note on the table informed us that, as soon as the game finished, we were out, and se we would have to find somewhere else to watch the Japan game.

This did not go down well with the regulars – Rich, plus his mates – a Kiwi, a Canadian and a Scot, who’ve been patrons of Big Ben for years. They will not forgive the owner for removing us so abruptly, but I’m sure he made more money from the long queue of Japanese waiting for our space when we left. Another bar, craft beer (very expensive and rather peculiar to look at – see picture below) and a mixture of nationalities all settled together to cheer the Japanese home against Samoa.

It was a long day, with lots of history, beautiful gardens, whisky and shochu tastings, and the chance to catch up with a few years of events and experiences. Always great to see old friends and just slot back into easy conversations and enjoy their company.

The next day we experienced possibly one of the more bizarre episodes we have ever encountered in Japan. The Local Area Games.

Rich and his family live in the south of Kagoshima and each local area holds a sort of Sports Day in the autumn. It was organised to the minute, with races and relays from the 4 and 5 year olds up to the parents and even the grandparents. Each area had its own tent, with flags and matching coloured bibs and everyone contributed points to the overall scores.

Okay, so far, reasonably normal and straightforward, but then they brought in some other activities. The very old people got involved rolling balls at skittles, all highly competitive though, there was tug of war, and suddenly everything stopped for lunch. Bento boxes provided for everyone there (apart from us foreigners) for free!

We managed with a sandwich from the local 7/11 and the huge collection of snacks provided by the family.

There was a musical interlude, complete with marching band, baton twirlers and some mass participation dancing, all in 30+ degrees of sunshine.

After that it got even more bizarre, with ‘chuck hundreds of small bean filled balls into a small bucket on a pole’ and ‘run with a board with a hoop and a ball’, preferably with 2 people of totally different sizes. Again everyone was participating and having a whale of a time, despite the need for a crash helmet in the first event!

The end was a final relay series, using the smallest to the oldest in each team, some running a few metres, the rest half the track, or even the full circuit, depending on age and size, and our purple team seemed to do quite well.

As with any event we have attended in Japan, at the end everyone helps clear up, there’s not a scrap of litter left behind, and the family groups all headed home with some very hot and sweaty kids in tow. Amazingly after all that, down in the local community hall, there was yet more food, and an announcement of the final result. Apparently our purple team won the whole thing!

It was a wonderful way to end our stay in Kagoshima, with something so typically Japanese; slightly bonkers, incredibly well organised, involving everyone, the youngest to the oldest in the community, and so welcoming to us as foreigners and non-Japanese speakers.

The Shinkansen whisked us back up to Fukuoka in just under two hours – an incredible train, and so comfortable, and we took with us some wonderful memories of good friends, great entertainment, and yet more stunningly beautiful images of Japan.

Heading South for a maths challenge!

We finally found the rain in Oita. Which was a shame as the stadium is quite a way out of town, they’ve banned cars from going there, and they decided to transport nearly 40,000 by bus and taxi. In the rain.

So, do the maths. Each bus holds roughly 50 people, and takes 40 minutes to do the round trip. Match kicks off at 7.15 and the buses started moving people at around 3.15. How many buses do you need to make sure that the queues- oh the queues – keep moving and no one is standing about for too long…..?

We joined a queue at around 4pm. It stretched a whole block and a half before snaking into a park and splitting into 6 queues for 6 bus loading bays. As soon as the bus loaded, it left and the next one pulled in. We saw bus number labels of over 300 and they had come from all over the island of Kyushu. Someone said there were 1000 of them! It took us about and hour and a half to get to the stadium, including the last kilometre on foot through another park.

We didn’t really think about the trip back – possibly we should have done……

Anytime you get to watch the All Blacks live is worth it. Crazy fans, a spine-tingling haka and some moves and plays that made you gasp, as well as one or two blunders, especially that last one by Beauden Barrett! We found a few Canadians, and explained our links to Conor Keys, and were welcomed as honorary Canucks for the duration. Canada were obviously outclassed, but never gave up and, for all the players, a night to remember. It was lovely to see both sides swapping shirts and saluting all the fans together at the end of the game.

We even managed to find Conor at the end, had a chat with him and he really appreciated all the messages and support from back in Roth. Totally exhausted is the polite version of how he felt at the end of the game! He’s having the experience of a lifetime and can’t wait to go out and get battered again against South Africa!

So now you have 40,000 people, in the pouring rain, in a park, in the dark, with nasty concrete bollards all over the place, with one or two (!) having consumed a bit too much ‘beeru’ and everyone wanting to go home. Now!

It was chaos, especially when people collapsed, as several did in the crush, or fell over the blasted bollards in the dark (hands up who now has ‘bollarded’ knees 👆) or simply got in the wrong queue and couldn’t get out of the pens we were ushered into.

We left the stadium around 10, one of the last groups to leave due to staying to see Conor, and the queues outside were still enormous. Some sneaky diversions through trees and bushes got us away from some of it but two hours later we were still on a bus waiting to get back into town. We finally got to the very expensive, but basic, hotel way after midnight, and we weren’t the last to get home!

It was their first match in Oita so I think they may just have to rethink the logistics of it all for the next one – seems like a great idea but might need a few tweaks, such as closing the roads to other traffic on part of the route and maybe not stopping for every traffic light!

After that it was an early start, in bright sunshine obviously, to head for Kagoshima, right at the foot of Kyushu, and another set of friends, from Handsworth this time, for a few days of sun, onsens and generally being a tourist, before we finally get to see Wales in action. And hopefully get some decent singing at last!

If anyone fancies doing the maths – I’d love to know the possibilities as my brain gave up just on 1000 buses doing 40 runs each at 40 mins a time – didn’t work!

Is this the ‘real’ Japan?

Just one of our small travelling group has never been to Japan before. As we arrived in Osaka – big city – travelled to Kobe – big city – then to Kyoto – big city, she was beginning to question if the Japan of the travel brochures really existed. Japan does feel incredibly built up and industrialised all around the edges, and even hurtling through the wider countryside on their incredibly efficient train system, you don’t see many areas of wilderness, trees, open space.

On our second day in Fukuoka, we escaped the big city and headed for the hills. Chris lives and works here, and he and his family live on the outskirts, close to the University where he now teaches. He’s originally from Rotherham, an Aston lad, and he took us away from the city and up into the hills that back all the coastal areas. What a transformation. Bobbie finally found her ‘real Japan’.

Our first stop was a beautiful waterfall, set on a hill overlooking the flat plains, with a view of the sea in the distance. We had passed through fields of rice, through smallholdings being worked by one or two, mainly elderly, Japanese people, often working by hand or with small tractors and machinery. Our discussions ranged from the drift of the young to the cities, the need to import large amounts of basic food, such as rice, and the natural threats from earthquakes, typhoons and active volcanoes. Chris has experienced them all, and his University is actively working to stay viable, attracting students from all across Asia. Several universities have closed due to the lack of students.

It’s cooler in the hills, very welcome after the sticky heat of the city. Another conversation topic, as usually by now the temperatures are cooler, but this has been a long, hot, humid summer in Japan.

We’d done ‘fishing for your tea’ the night before and now it seemed that there was a new food-orientated game up in the hills. Catch your noodles with chopsticks…!

I’m used to being tricked by these 2 old friends in Japan, and I’m still not entirely sure Chris was telling the truth, but apparently you buy your noodles, then release them into the running water in the bamboo trough, and attempt to catch them with your chopsticks before they reach the end. Honestly!

Our second cultural stop was to an ancient shrine hidden away towards the top of the mountain. From the outside it looked small but it stretched away, both up and down, over acres of beautiful forest and streams. Originally the mountain had hundreds of shrines, but slowly they have died away, until now they are consolidated in this one beautiful space.

As it is still a working shrine, the monk on duty gave us a tour of the innermost sacred area, complete with incense, chanting, drums and sound bowls, explaining the history and religious significance of the 1000 year old carvings. He was even considerate enough to provide little chairs, although Chris, recognised as being ‘sort-of’ Japanese, had to sit on the tatami floor. It was a stunningly beautiful, calm, and serene place and will stay long in the memory when we leave.

After that it was back to the city, for food with Chris and his family, and more discussions about what life is like in Japan, especially for children. As we wandered along a fairly busy road, three small kids were heading home from school, backpacks, caps, uniforms, play fighting as they went. They were about 4 to 6 years old, and not an adult in sight. Kids in Japan regularly walk themselves to school, take the train or the bus, from a very young age, with no adult supervision at all, and it is seen as normal. Huge contrast to the UK!

Both Chris’ boys are well into the rugby, enjoying the rough and tumble of it, even if throwing the ball around indoors is banned! I got into trouble for that one.

Hopefully the schools will start to follow this interest more after the World Cup, as most of the sports we saw being played on school fields this weekend were baseball and football, for boys and girls. Growing the game here still may be a challenge despite the interest raised by the tournament.

Next stop, Oita, and the chance to see Conor Keys against the All Blacks!

Fukuoka and fish

We know the island of Kyushu as we have been here before; once to visit 2 friends who were working in two different, tiny towns, teaching English for a year after leaving university, and then twice more for their weddings! They’ve both now settled in Japan, with their families, and enjoy lifestyles that are very different, in many ways, to what they’d have experienced if they had come back to live in the UK.

Our first day in Fukuoka involved negotiating the mini-city that is Hakata station. It’s huge, on over 12 – possibly more – different levels. It was a zoo, as this is the entry point for the island, where there are 3 big RWC2019 venues. Half of Wales is heading this way next week, as they have games at Oita and Kumamoto, and tomorrow night there’s France v USA in Fukuoka and NZ v Canada in Oita. Lots and lots of rugby fans in a queue to get their Japan Rail passes, and working out the chances of getting a seat on a train to Oita. Not great unless you’ve planned in advance!

A bit of geography needed here. Kyushu is a volcanic island, and we will be getting up close and personal with at least a couple of them – Ato and Sakurajima. The centre of the island is covered in mountains, with just the one Shinkansen line down the West coast. Oita is south east of Fukuoka and doesn’t have a Shinkansen link, so it’s a much slower train trip, and there’s not a lot of availability for match day. Not a hotel to be had either, unless you go outside the city to Beppu or even back up on a 2 hour trip to Fukuoka. Some people are going to be struggling if they arrive on the day and hope to travel/stay over. The staff in the ticket office were doing their very best, but tomorrow could be interesting when the hordes arrive.

Our experiences of eating out in Japan have always been interesting – I’ve still not forgiven Richard for feeding me horse meat and saying it was beef – and last night’s dinner added another new experience to the list. We went to ZAUO – a sort of big warehouse in the Tenjin area of the city, where you literally catch your own dinner!

Chris’ two boys loved it – a huge flounder and a bream ended up on their lines, drums were beaten, chants and celebrations were made, and our fish eventually arrived in many different forms, to be eaten alongside tempura vegetables and some chips with ketchup. Fish in batter, fish in butter, breaded fish, and even the heads and bones, in broth and making a miso soup. Not a bit wasted.

The place was huge, and very busy by the time we left. I’ve no idea what it all costs as Chris kindly paid for us all, but it looked highly complicated as there were pages and pages of menu options.

Next on our travel list is a waterfall and a temple, way up in the hills, away from the busy city and out in the rural Japan that is squeezed into the few small flat areas around the coast, or up the mountains on terraces. This is a land of contrasts and surprises. Fish and chips aren’t quite the same, but the ketchup is!

Hiroshima

Hiroshima is a beautiful city; lots of trees, rivers, parks and gardens. It has wide boulevards with shady pavements, and it feels open and spacious.

When you look round the Peace Museum, it becomes obvious as to why this is. Complete obliteration of what was once a thriving, bustling city.

There was almost complete silence as we walked the route around the displays, many too awful to look at, yet it felt wrong to look away. I took no pictures inside. It simply felt wrong. If you ever get to Japan, please go and bear witness for yourself, and for the generations to come. This must never happen again.

Like many people, the chance to sit quietly in the beautiful gardens outside was necessary after what we had seen, to try and digest the history behind the events of August 1945, and the determination by the city to remember events and the people involved in the right way.

Away from the river and the memorials, the city showed some other interesting choices. Lots of designer shops; Chanel, Vuitton, Westwood, but alongside them a large number of ‘pre-loved’, vintage and just general junk shops, and the style and craziness of some of the younger Japanese was reflected in this. Some of the more bizarre clothing choices, different colours for hair, crazy shoes – real individuality and style which we hadn’t seen in the more business-orientated Osaka. I’ve been avoiding buying ‘stuff’ I don’t need, but a secondhand, ‘pre-loved’ yukata just couldn’t be ignored. It will always remind me of Hiroshima.

Hiroshima also has its own food speciality – okonomyaki – and the recommendations from our hotel led us to a slightly run down area at the back of a shopping mall.

We were the only customers at this particular stall, one of 4 or 5 on the second floor of a block, but everything looked spotlessly clean and the smell was fantastic.

So how do you make okonomyaki? Pancake batter to make dinner plate sized pancakes. On top of them add shredded cabbage, bean sprouts, spring onions, seaweed, savoury stuff which had no name (!) and various seasonings. Add bacon, flip over and cook.

Flip back when crispy. Now add cooked teppanyaki noodles, soy, plus other sauces. A spread out fried egg is partially cooked and the pancake flipped again so the egg is at the bottom and the pancake on the top. still with me?

More cooking, flip again and coat the whole lot in sticky sauce, more seasonings, and give you a shovel to cut it up with. Utterly delicious.

4 of these, plus 3 beers and a coke – around £20 – total. You can eat cheaply in Japan, if you stick to what is local and relatively meat free.

After that we headed off to watch Wales deal with the Australians – happy end to an emotional day.

I’m seriously considering how to copy the okonomyaki back home. Love cabbage and bacon, but information on the secret seasoning blend wasn’t available, in Japanese or English!

On the Shinkansen to Hiroshima – Sunday morning

What a night in downtown Osaka!

We’d spent the day in Kyoto, exploring temples and the geisha district of old Kyoto, Gion.

Again, we were fascinated by the strange signage, this time meaning ‘keep your hands off the geishas’! Not that we saw any, just lots of young people choosing to dress up in costume to walk around the area.

In our minds though, alongside everyone we met, was the match that evening between Ireland and Japan. One of our travelling companions, Di Haswell, has family here in Fukuoka and her 2 grandsons are hugely into the whole tournament, replica shirts and everything. Shame they were stuck in Saturday School for part of the match!

Even worse for their dad, Chris, he was supervising exams at his university and wasn’t allowed a phone!

We tried to find a space in the ‘English Pub’ on our street. Not a hope, even with an hour to go to kick off.

Everyone in Japan tries to be so helpful, so we basically relied on them not wanting, ever, to say no, and bullied the staff in our hotel to pulling down the big screen and putting it on in our bar. They weren’t entirely happy as most of the bar was reserved for a Japanese business’ training evening, complete with snacks and nibbles.

Check out the back table here:

By the time they all arrived, full suits, jackets and ties in 30 degrees and high humidity, the bar was rocking, as a crew of supporters from the Argentina game turned up, painted faces, happy drunk, plus the Swaffam RUFC who’d just landed from the UK, a few assorted locals, and the tv and media crews who use the hotel as a base and were also back from the Argentina game. A mixed collection, and with local Japanese watching through the plate glass windows, lots of interest from outside too.

You had to admire the dedication in that training session. Not once did they react to what was happening around them; they kept on working right until after the last whistle. Even then most headed home without a glance at the big screen, although one or two wandered over to join us and so probably will never progress further with that company!

Everyone else made up for it though. We were very noisy, lots of beer was consumed, which kept the bar staff happy, and the people on the pavement outside got so involved that one guy crashed into the glass in his excitement at the try and almost knocked himself out cold! Our new friends from Argentina explained that although they were pained blue and white, in Argentine shirts, they were actually from Mexico and choosing to follow Argentina instead of Uruguay as it’s closer to home…..

At the end of the game the Swaffham guys tried to drag us out for karaoke and more beer, but I decided the fate of Roth depended on me following the game, live. I checked out the Cambridge twitter and from that, updates from the Tiser, from Connor Field who volunteered to update me, and from Rotherham Rugby News, and managed to chew my nails throughout most of the next 2 hours! It’s awful and there’s 2 more games to endure this way.

Today, the Shinkansen- bullet train – is whisking us 2 hours down the coast to Hiroshima. In a car this would be a 5 hour journey and for about £40 for an air conditioned, reserved seat, with loads of legroom, it’s a bargain. Love the whole Japanese train system, cheap rail passes for foreign tourists, and huge stations you could live in for days!

Next game live for us is Wednesday in Oita, NZ v Canada, but tonight it will be another bar to watch my absolute hero, Alun Wyn Jones, break the record for number of international caps. Please, please, please let us beat the Australians.

And your job is…?

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Stuffing small children through a hole in an 8th century wooden pillar, so that they may achieve eternal life……

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As there was no rugby today, we went to Nara. It’s a small town, about an hour by train from Osaka, where about 1200 deer roam free. Literally. Across roads, inside shops and buildings and across the acres of a stunningly beautiful park containing the worlds largest wooden building, the Todaiji Temple, and the world’s largest bronze Buddha statue,

According to Shinto tradition, Nara deer were the sacred messengers of the gods.  These days the deer are no longer considered sacred, but they are national  treasures, and they bow to you if you bow to them!

Apparently deer are not stupid and learnt that daft humans provide food if you do cute stuff. Not all of them are cute and cuddly though, as they’re quite aggressive round the Deer Cookie stalls, and bite and butt you if you’re not quick enough to feed them, as I found out!

We went because I’m a sucker for cute animals and I’d seen pictures of the deer and the park. However it was the temple and the Buddha that will stay as a vivid memory of the best of Japan.

It’s huge. It towers over you as you walk up to the main door, and the drifting incense adds to the calm atmosphere, even with hundreds of people and loads of school parties, with their very bossy guides.

The ponds outside contained huge carp, and some cute terrapins, and everywhere you turned, there were deer. With people trying to get selfies with them. They were some of the most tolerant creatures I’ve seen, when faced with hordes of people doing stupid stuff. Perhaps it’s the Buddhist influence.

Anyway, back to the weird jobs people end up doing, especially in the tourist industry. Ancient shrines made of wood must cost a fortune to repair and, while there was an ‘exit via gift shop’ section, with an incredible amount of deer-themed tat for sale, watching one guy paint the most gorgeous kanji onto beautiful paper was wonderful.

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The smiling young lady, kneeling for ages on a stone floor, to push a long queue of smallish children through the hole in the pillar, takes my prize for doing the best, most bonkers, job of the day. Total respect. Also respect to all those deer, putting up with stupid humans, in return for a few measly cookies.

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Nara was a joy. One to live long in the memory.

Real, live rugby – at last!

Kobe Fanzone was down by the water, packed with people to watch Italy v Canada. I managed to snap the picture of our very own Conor Keys during the anthems and he looked to have a bruising game in the first half, and hopefully the tape round the boot won’t stop his World Cup journey. We have tickets to see him against the All Blacks next week!

The Fanzone was staffed by volunteers who were delighted to try and help, even if they looked bewildered by the fancy dress options of some of our more extreme supporters! Knights of the Round Table – check. Escapees from Rourke’s drift in full uniform – check. Dodgy boating blazer outfits – check. Possibly the kamikaze head bands added to many outfits puzzled the Japanese volunteers a bit.

My favourites have to be the geishas in England yukatas!

All very friendly, and the trains whisked us away to the stadium well in time for kick off. In fact the last connection even held the train in the station to pack on more fans – a Japanese train leaving late is unheard of but this one did. Thank you or we’d have missed it!

I don’t know what I was expecting for the rugby stadium but it was a bit of a surprise. We got off the train at a tiny station, platform just about long enough, and just one little gate into a residential street. No signposts, so followed the throng though more small residential streets to the stadium itself, hemmed in by houses and a bit of grass, which was packed with picnicking Japanese families. Huge queues for everything; food, merchandise, beer but all very well ordered.

Inside the queues continued and the heat really hit when we climbed to our seats right up at the top. Cheap tickets – not really at 15,000 yen each so god knows what those down the front had paid!

So who decided the roof should be closed, when the heat was 30 degrees and the humidity was over 70%?

I’ve never watched a rugby game in a sauna before, my asthma wasn’t helping, and as for the players who did the full 80 minutes, they deserve medals for getting through that! Not surprised there were handling errors. Lots of dropped pints in the crowd too, due to the humidity of course!

As for the match, it felt like a very stop/start affair, with some pieces of brilliance from England and poor old USA never getting much time with the ball. Great to see one of Roth’s loan players get his first try for England – well done Lewis Ludlam!

There were a few MAGA hats in evidence but most of the USA fans were just up for a good time. The local Japanese fans seemed evenly split between the 2 sides, and often one half of a couple or pair were in England gear, the other dressed for the USA.

We met one Exeter Chiefs fan who had converted a 20 year old Land Rover ambulance into a camper van and driven it all the way from England! They left in May and are planning to ship the Landy home and return via the Trans Siberian railway. His blog is https://swinglowsweetchariot.blog/ and the whole conversation just sums up what this weird and wonderful trip is all about. Great rugby, fantastic people and one of the most bizarre countries you will ever experience.

Off to cuddle the deer in Nara today, then onto Kyoto tomorrow and Hiroshima on Sunday, before our next live game down in Oita, All Blacks v Canada. Fingers crossed for Conor Keys ankle being ok……

Things we got wrong….

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Arriving into Osaka, after 18 hours of travelling, I suppose it was inevitable that my brain wouldn’t be working well. Collecting the rail passes went very quickly (should have seen that as a bad omen) and we set off to navigate the railway system to our base in downtown Osaka. The nice man at the ticket gates suggested the 16.02 train would take use direct to the main station, close to our hotel. At the suggestion of some Australians, we hopped on an earlier train, labelled ‘Express’ to Osaka but I think their definition of ‘express’ needs work!

 

Over an hour later we were still trundling round the Osaka Loop, stopping at lots of interesting stations and collecting more and more people heading home from work. When we finally made it to Osaka Central, the decision was made that a taxi would be a sensible option as google maps showed it was quite a walk. Not ideal in 30 degrees, dragging suitcases.

Nice taxi driver looked at the paperwork, said it was fine and off we went. Next time I’ll track on my google maps as I trusted his satnav and I shouldn’t have done. He dropped us off at an Ibis hotel, but just not the one we had booked! A second taxi ride finally got us there and we could actually see the station from our room……

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Out for dinner, in a bid to stay awake as long as possible, we found a tiny restaurant with some English translations on the menu. Ignoring the ‘beef offal with noodles’ and ‘superior beef offal with noodles’ (!) we went for noodles with chicken and cabbage and a side dish of fried chicken, plus a few deep fried prawns. Healthy!

Next time any menu says ‘Mega’ we now know to avoid it. So much food arrived, plus the beer order got confused as well. Al ended up with a bucket of beer despite us thinking we’d ordered small. No way could we finish any of it – apart from the beer.  The only consolation was they’d not been able to deliver the side dish of chips as they run out of potatoes! We needed at least a couple of rugby players with us to do justice to what we managed to order.

 

The quality of the plastic food examples outside restaurants is still amazing, and what we had to eat and drink for about £10 a head was great value – just left us feeling guilty about not being able to finish it all!

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This morning the chaos continued as Al and I set off for a quick sightseeing trip to Osaka Castle, before we head to Kobe later this afternoon for the England game. Within 5 minutes we were totally lost, yet again. Paper maps, google maps – they just don’t match what’s on the ground, or the labyrinth of subways, shops, offices and restaurants that seem to join all this area together. It’s called Osaka City Station and it feels like a mini-city in its own right.

 

So we gave up, finally found our hotel thanks to a kind Japanese guy who came to the rescue of two bewildered foreigners, and we’ve decided a cup of tea and a cake might make us feel less incompetent before we brave the subterranean maze again for our trip to Kobe. There’s a few England supporters wandering about, as confused as we are, and quite a few Americans, predicting that they’ll get stuffed later today. If we can catch Italy v Canada in the fan zone in Kobe, we should, see Conor Keys make his first World Cup start. If we manage to find the fan zone……

After that, I’ll start worrying about getting us home again tonight – more subterranean wanderings I’m sure. We might figure this city out before we have to head on to Hiroshima on Sunday but I wouldn’t bank on it.

#ConfusedInOsaka – or maybe it’s just the jet-lag….