I always wanted to return to Shizuoka one day after England got beaten by Brazil in the quarter final of the FIFA World Cup in 2002. Today was that day. The last time I was there, we had the best time, despite the result This day was to be as good. This time I was supporting by beloved Italy who were facing a very, very touch game against the Springboks.
We travelled back from Kawaguchiko via a bus to Mishima where we would rendez-vous with our old friend Mrs Shinkansen to get to Shizuoka. The bus was great. It was branded Thomas Land and it was therefore it was meant to be that I would sit in Percy’s chair. Mount Fuji was in view, of course, pretty much all the way to Mishima. A quick change form bus to train and we were on our way.
We landed in Shizuoka, it was hot, clear blue sky and reminded me exactly of the day 17 years ago when the sun’s anvil baked the England players so much that it wore them down against a Brazil team who were a little more used to the heat than our lads. We walked a short distance to our hotel, checked in and decided to find something to eat in town. We found another amazing place with amazing Japanese food. Next to us were three people about my age, two Aussies and an English lady, who all lived in Australia and were here for the World Cup for the whole seven weeks. They had an Airbnb in Tokyo for a month, before planning some travelling in Japan once the knock out stages got underway.
We were due to meet our friends Lizzie and Alec for the game and they let us know where they had plotted up so we could head there. It was a place called Aino just a short train ride out of town and walkable to the stadium, which like a lot of stadia in Japan is not exactly in the middle of the city. But the residents of Aino had put their own fanzone together and it was just brilliant. It felt like a village fete, and was typically warmly welcoming and incredibly sweet. There were notices stressing that the merchandise was unofficial.
We gravitated to a tented area where there were a lot of school children dressed in their uniforms assembled as a band. They played all sorts from Queen to The Commitments, every song played with such passion and gusto it really was quiet emotional. Fans from all countries were enjoying the music which was interspersed with other crazy displays of drumming, dancing and some kind of martial arts meets jiving mash up. Alex and Lizzie’s friends, Lewys and Paula had just flown in from Wales and joined us. Paula was fascinated by Japanese culture and had loved her experiences thus far. Lewys was decked out in an Italian shirt to match my Italian gear, and seemed to know plenty of Italian phrases. Impressed with his dark, latin looks, I assumed Lewys was Italian. It was hilarious when Lewys revealed he was just Welsh but had decided to go full method so to speak, by learning some Italian. This was a trait that Lewis would continue as the trip went on.
In the middle of all this I got an email from The Royal Albert Hall flagging up a sale of seats to a one night only showing of a documentary made in 1969 about a day in the life of Jimi Hendrix culminating in the legendary Jimi Hendrix Experience performing live at the same Royal Albert Hall. Given Kirsty’s love of all things jimi, I had to get online and get tickets. After much queuing and some frustration, I managed to land a couple of tickets for the day we were due to land back in the UK.
After much song, dance and drinking we walked to the stadium which was apparently only 15 minutes away. That soon became30 mins and as the sun went down the weather began to change. On the walk I met Yoshi, a short man who seemed to know a lot about rugby. I think Yoshi had had a beer or two, but he would not let me go and insisted on telling anyone who would listen that ‘me, Yoshi winger, he, Andy, number eight’. Yoshi was hilarious and summed up perfectly how the Japanese embraced this World Cup and really made it their own.
The game went according to plan, another full stadium and Italy let themselves down with a red card early doors. The final score was 49-3 to the Springboks. During the game, sitting behind us were Ryan and Ian who would also become friends on this trip. They were both very happy with the final result and we discovered that they too would be headed to Oita to see Wales vs Fiji the following week, so we swapped numbers, sang and hugged a lot and vowed to meet up again.
A rare bit of good work from Italy
We headed back somehow on a train to Shizuoka central station. I must confess Kirsty and I were pretty hazy. It had been another long day and we had enjoyed plenty of Japanese beer. Ahead of us was England vs Argentina the next day and another tight schedule.