When I was a kid loads of toys were labelled ‘made in Hong Kong’. They were generally cheap and pretty rubbish. At some stage when I was growing up it seemed that toys started to be ‘made in Taiwan’. They were also pretty cheap and pretty rubbish too. The first time I really came across the label ‘Made in Japan’ was Deep Purple’s double live album, which alongside ‘It’s Alive’ by The Ramones, are my favourite live albums ever.
‘Made in Japan’ also went on to signal amazing technology, gadgetry, videogame consoles, videogames and Hi Fi gear all of the highest quality and all incredibly innovative, and it still does today. Japan is a country of innovation, miniaturisation, design, precision and lots, lots more, including manners, civility, respect and appreciation of nature.
So when it was announced that Japan would be the host country for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, I knew I just had to come. To add to the reasons why we had to make the trip, Kirsty had never been to Japan and had always wanted to visit. And, Japan had jointed hosted with South Korea, the World Cup football in 2002. Which was quite simply a game changer for football in every single good way possible. I had to return.
We took a night flight from Hong Kong to Tokyo on Thursday night and arrived a little bleary eyed on Friday morning. In Japan things tend to be incredibly precise and timings are highly respected. When the hotel says it’s a 3pm check in, it means it. Kirsty did well to stay the distance after we dropped our bags off and tried to keep awake in order to get some crucial admin done at Shibuya railway station.
For those who know, Shibuya is simply enormous. It’s a vast underground construction which literally goes on for miles. Shibuya is also famous for its pedestrian crossing known as Shibuya Scramble, reckoned to be the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. Fans of Fast & Furious, Resident Evil and Lost in Translation will be familiar with this place. Our friend Gary who we were meeting in Tokyo was unimpressed with the Scramble, but at 9.30am the number of people are simply not at peak. So no actual ‘scramble’, that comes later.
We had time to kill before the Japan Railway office at Shibuya was open, so we decided to have a walk down Cat Street which is a place full of hip shops in the warm autumn sun. I am pretty certain this street did not exist when I was last in the area in 2002.
As the clock ticked achingly slow, I decided to show Kirsty the Pachinko arcades. These are crazy places where you bet using ball bearings in slot style machines. The arcades get around the gambling laws by offering to exchange accumulated ball bearings for prizes which winners then exchange for cash. Confused? You will be.
It was 08.30 and already the queues outside competing Pachinko arcades were forming together with their caller teams who were hollering all sorts of cries to drum up business. The male callers were dressed in regulation white shirts and black trousers with hats and the female callers in the weirdest Cosplay style costumes. Apparently the odds of success are better the earlier you queue up and take your tickets. What was clear was that there was a mad dash to move between arcades snagging the early odds tickets.
We grabbed an amazing coffee to perk ourselves up and then queued to get our train passes at the Japanese Railways (JR) offices. As always one is struck by the efficiency and grace of the staff. In Japan people not only do their job well, they take absolute pride in what they do and how they do it. This is a universal trait and it means things just work and their is a sense of continuity about how jobs are done. There are no zero hours contracts here. People do a job and they not only take it seriously, they also seem to do it for a long time.
We booked all of our seats for all of the railway journeys Kirsty had booked back in the UK. It was a pretty seamless task aided by the ridiculously helpful staff. Feeling somewhat jaded and jet lagged, we headed to our hotel and negotiated an earlier entry. Kirsty really is the master of organisation.
A few hours kip and we felt refreshed. As the hour approached for the kick off of the Rugby World Cup 2019 we found a bar, Irish of course, and watched Japan vs Russia there. All the Japanese are super friendly and eager to engage in discussions about all sorts. The Japanese are naturally humble and when it comes to rugby not that confident. I assured the group we sat with that Japan would beat Russia despite making two howling errors in the first five minutes that led to them conceding. My advice was ‘stay calm, stay focused and Japan will prevail’. For once, my rugby punditry was spot on. We had a ball.
We then had to find our friends and the rendezvous was The Ninja Restaurant in Akasaka. Needless to say the restaurant is hard to find, as it’s Ninja, but eventually we found it behind some curtains, took our shoes off and went in. There were secret doors, traps and assault points, which we navigated with the help of our Ninja guide. We met Gary, Joe, Milly and Ian who were in our very own room and had a brilliant night with crazy food delivered by Ninjas, of course.
We topped up afterwards in a late bar, where smoking is normal and seemingly compulsory!! We decided to buy tickets for the All Blacks vs the Springboks the next day which we did on Viagogo, and surprisingly we got them! And therein lies the next part of our Japanese odyssey.