Monthly Archives: November 2019

Finally it’s not the winning that matters….

As that saying goes it really isn’t the winning that matters, it really is the taking part. Well for Kirsty and I at least, if ever there was a statement more apt to this Rugby World Cup then we don’t know of it. It’s been amazing, it’s been the best and we are a little sad to get back to reality.

We came back from Japan too early really, and so when the chance came to return we had to take it. Despite all the rumours and nonsense around about the costs of match tickets and flights, we managed to get our return to Japan all in for a really reasonable price.

We arrived back in Tokyo on Friday just in time to catch the New Zealand vs Wales ‘bronze final’ on TV. The All Blacks returned to winning ways and two great coaches, Messrs Hansen and Gatland, waved goodbye for now. It looked emotional from where we were sitting.

We then headed out from our hotel in Kyobashi over to Shinjuku and the famous Golden Già district. The Golden Già is a unique place. In half a dozen narrow streets lays about 80 of the smallest and wackiest little bars anywhere in the world. There are strict rules of engagement so to speak, noise and loitering on the streets is frowned up, loudness inside the bars is also not widely appreciated and all littering including smoking and drinking on the street is definitely verboten.

We met up with our friends Simon, David and Josh and visited a number of bars some at street level and some up the narrowest of staircases. Each bar is owner operated and has its own particular idiosyncrasies. It’s as if you are drinking in someone’s front room, decked out with all of their own ephemera, which can reflect pop culture, music, videogames, films and retro toys. All in all each bar is it’s own place and each owner is their own person. If you are ever in Tokyo you must visit the district.

It was a very late night and we had a very big day. It was the final of the World Cup and we didn’t want to waste any of it. We had our very good friends at Special Effect’s flag to take and get some pictures to share for this wonderful charity.

We headed back to Yokohama on the Shinkansen and headed to the street party which is was the mashup of The Hub pub and the Lawson. We met more mates there who had flown in for the final and drank, ate and made merry.

We had a very stressful hour or so trying to hook up with friends who had our tickets. The plus side was bumping into old friends who we had not seen for ages, Mark and later Tim. Small world! And we got some great pictures for Special Effect.

We bumped into Mark!

And then Tim!

After much rerouting we finally managed to get to the right entrance to meet our friends. Yokohama stadium has a very big footprint and is not the easiest place to get around. We found out later that the England team had underestimated their journey to the stadium and had arrived late too. Perhaps that was a bad omen!

We managed to get in for the kick off and anthems and it was an absolute pleasure to find ourselves bang in the middle of the main South African support in the ground. I also bumped into an old school mate Bruce and another games industry friend Alex in the ground.

And then Bruce!

The game was the game. The South African gentlemen we sat next two were more nervous than we were. After ten minutes I was convinced England were nowhere near the pace and I feared it was not our day. England had a good chance to score a try deep into the first half but the South African defence were too strong. Definitively a ‘what if moment’. At the end of the game the South African gentleman said to me ‘you should be a sports commentator ‘, which I found both flattering and a bit baffling. Pretty much everyone around us was as happy as they could be. Strangely enough Kirsty and I were both pretty circumspect and joined in the fun. In amongst the revelry, Kirsty borrowed one of the gentleman’s hats which was a rather wonderful customised yellow hard hat.

And this is Solly the owner of the hat!

In all the confusion and admittedly with an air of hazy inebriation, Kirsty ended up with the hat and by the time I went back to the owner he had left the stadium. I was not happy and it felt like bad karma.

The evening was fantastic and we enjoyed the sights and sounds of Roppongi and more idiosyncratic bars including a bar on the 8th floor of a derelict feeling tower block where the lift only went to the 7th floor!

Somehow we got that hat back to our hotel at 5am. We woke up late, looked at the hat and I said to Kirsty we have to find the owner and get that hat back to him.

So we took to Facebook , Twitter and Instagram tagging all our South African friends, asking if anyone knew this man who owned the hat.

We headed back to the Golden Gai again, this time to meet up with another friend called Simon (I know so many Simons). By the time we were safely ensconced in the 5 Gallons bar, named presumably because it could hold five gallons and no more, we got a message that the owner of the hat had been identified by an old mate of mine from school who now lives in South Africa, Dom. Dom only knew one South African in the stadium and it was the owner of the hat! Now that really is a small world!

This put us in fine fettle and closed the loop of guilt we were feeling. Thank you to Mark, Simon, James, H, Vikki, Laura, Harriet, Emma, John and the two Micks, one from Australia and one from South Africa for a pretty amazing 12 hours or so.

Monday morning we laid plans to meet up with our friends at the old Tsukiji Market, which is a legendary fish market, for lunch. It was great to meet Angela and James who had been in Japan since the England vs Argentina game, where we had last met up,. They, like us, had had the time of their lives and would never forget Japan. We hugged and kissed after another fine Sushi lunch and remembered we would all be meeting at Cheltenham in ten days or so for racing.

Our friends James and Angela

We then headed off to see the hat owner, Solly and his friends Tim, who I had sat next to at the match, and Anthony. They were staying in The Square in Ginza the same hotel we had stayed in for that England vs Argentina game. Coincidences just keep happening. We shared a few drinks with the boys, many laughs and felt good that that hat had been returned to its rightful owner. The Karma police could take the day off. And we felt good that South Africa had won the Rugby World Cup held up by one of the nicest men on the planet right now, Siya Kolisi. As I say, Karma.

The presentation of the hat back to Solly!

Anthony and Tim on both flanks

And that’s about it. As I write these words we are headed to Osaka to then fly to Munich and back to a cold and wet London. The sun is out here, it’s autumn and everything is calm. Calm is a great feeling and Japan has given Kirsty and I so many fantastic memories, we simply can’t wait to come back. To all the Japanese people, the families old and young and especially to the children all of you just threw yourselves into the spirit of rugby and being very active, welcoming hosts, we cannot thank you enough, you all made this World Cup so, so special. Sayonara Nippon. You have been the absolute best.

Sayonara Japan. We love you. Until the next time

Footnote – aside from the friends mentioned in this post, I would like to thank Gary, Milly, Joe, Tom, Ian, David, Darren, Alec, Lizzie, Lewys, Paula, Victor, Jim, Andrew, David, Carl, Ian, Ryan, Tim, Solly, Anthony and Maria all of whom made this trip exceptionally special.

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It’s like coming home

We spent an amazing time in Thailand starting in Bangkok and finishing up in Krabbi. All the time we were there, I kept looking for tickets for the England vs Australia. Bingo, I finally got a basket with two tickets. All we needed to do was find flights back to Oita!

Kirsty didn’t appreciate the panic buying under time pressure of the RWC2019 site where the clock was ticking. It got hugely expensive very quickly and we ended up agreeing to stay in Thailand and maybe think about the final if that was ever to happen.

We watched Scotland play Japan in a bar in the Japanese quarter in Bangkok with our long lost friend Maria, thanks again to Facebook for making that happen. That was another incredible night of emotion and passion. Typhoon Hagibis was a bad as predicted and at the time of writing this blog over 80 people had lost their lives. The Japanese beat the Scots to win their group and dedicated their win to the victims of Hagibis.

We hooked up with Maria after 9 years!

We ended up watching the England vs Australia quarter final at Bagkok airport. What a game and what a performance by England. We also watched the All Blacks sweep aside the Irish to set up a semi final against England. Surely England would be up against all the odds in the semi final?

Well the rest is history. We watched the semi final before we went racing at Cheltenham last Saturday. Kirsty has gone with our friend Mary to see some horses and by the time she got back to our friend Mick’s house, I had booked flights to Tokyo and was on the case to get final tickets. Our friends Mick, Jack, Sinead, Drew, Beth, Alex, Rosie and Ruth all enjoyed the game and it was fantastic when Ruth persuaded her parents James and Angela who we had met up with for the Argentina to stay for the final.

And here we are now. At Heathrow ready to fly back to visit our old friend Japan. So many idiosyncratic and contradictory ways and yet my favourite country on the planet bar none. A country with the best people who make me laugh and cry with their humility and politeness. A country of order and yet one where cycling on pavements without any protocols seems to be mandatory. A country where you hear crazy cover versions of computerized Beatles songs in shops everywhere you go. A country where smoking is allowed in bars and restaurants but never in the street. A country where vending machines are ubiquitous but there are no litter bins because the Japanese take their little home with them. A country where you hear synthesized bird song on escalators, in lifts and at traffic lights. And above all a country that has once again made sports fans so welcome it makes grown men cry. Japan we have missed you and we can’t wait to see you again.

Brilliant in flight video on ANA

And we’re back!

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Oita – an honorary Welshman for the day

Another early start in Beppu given we wanted to make sure we experienced the hot sand bath. A short bus ride and we were there. Along with many other mainly Welsh fans. Basically you register, pay and take your place in the queue or go off and come back at your allotted time.

Once in, you separate into male and female changing rooms which were small to say the least. In there you strip down naked and then clean yourself via the Onsen style bucket and water and then put on your Yakata. You emerge from the changing room to be ushered into a long hole dug in the grey volcanic, hot sand. Our resting places resembled shallow graves. Once you are on your back the female team set about covering you in this incredibly hot sand until your head and neck are only visible. 15 minutes in there and you completely relax, get warm and feel incredibly peaceful. And 15 minutes is about all I could handle. Once you have been dug out of the sand, you head back to the changing room, shower off and discover that your skin feels like.you are two years old again, a rather wonderful feeling.

Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide

But we had no time to mess around. We swung by ours, changed, grabbed some Sushi from the supermarket and got weaving. We needed to get to the station and take the train a short hop, skip and a jump to Oita to meet our Welshfriends Lizzie, Alex, Lewys, Paula and our South African friends Ryan and Ian at one of the fan zones.

I was very pleased to be dressed in red as an honourary Welshman for the day. The Welsh supporters were out in force and in fine spirits. Today was going to be a real test for the team, but beat the Fijians and Wales were on track to win their group.

We found a great fan zone just the other side of the station and managed to talk ourselves into the ‘sold out’ big fop to watch the Argentina vs USA game. The layout was typically Japanese and idiosyncratic feeling like a mix of a big darts tournament and a family crèche. As usual there were all ages of Japanese there to experience the atmosphere. We met some lovely families all of whom seemed to enjoy the fact that we were visiting their home town, which we found out was not really on the tourist circuit so to speak, and this World Cup had definitely brought more foreign tourists than ever before. And that was positively welcomed by the locals.

I loved these two with their pints!

This armband ‘Team No Side’ sums up why this World Cup has been so special

Before our friends joined us in the big top,Kirsty started talking to a Welsh gentleman who turned out to be called Glynn who was a lovely chap. When Alec, Lizzie, Paula and Lewys joined us, the Welsh were in full voice and the atmosphere was cracking. Much like the Irish and Scots, the Welsh know how to have a good time and many people know each other often quite randomly. So we shouldn’t have been so surprised when it turned out that Glynn had built Alec’s Mum and Dad’s house back in Wales! Small world eh?

Here’s Glynn

Lizzie and Daffy

And Lewys and Paula enjoying the Daff

We met up with Ryan and Ian again and then descended on the 7Eleven to get some beers for the bus journey to the stadium. As always the stadium was out of town seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Kirsty led the singing on the bus much to the amusement /astonishment of our fellow Japanese travellers.

Note my red shirt – Ryan and Ian were in non Bok civvies today

Loving the recycling

Alec post fanzone and pre match loading

When we got to the ground at dusk it felt like an invading army had descended, given the sheer numbers of Welsh at the game. Kirsty and I finally met up my friend Mel and her husband Gavin who were over from Australia supporting Australia and Wales. Facebook can be an amazing thing, and yet again had enabled old friends who hadn’t met for 30 years to meet up. That was a lovely moment for me, it was so lovely to see Mel after all this time.

Brill to see Mel and Gavin

The game was brutal, both teams really going for it and each other. Eventually the Welsh prevailed and won the game, but this had been the closest and best match we had seen thus far.

Another amazing stadium

Getting back to Beppu was surprisingly easy given plenty of buses being on hand and we only had to queue for about 30 mins. If England went through to the quarter final knockout stage, either as group winners or runners up, they and Wales, if they did the same, would play in Oita and we were pleased that this relatively unknown region of Japan and that would be a win win for everyone.

Kirsty with Simon

The biggest rugby ball ever

Artwork made by the local school children in honour of their visitors. Amazing

We got back to ours, pretty exhausted and definitely ready to sleep. We had an early start the following day as we planned to head back to Tokyo for the next stage of our adventure. England’s next game was France in what would be the group decider.

Next day we took the bus back to Oita airport. All the talk on the news was about the impending arrival of Typhoon Hagibis which was due to be very severe and it was clearly worrying pretty much everyone in Japan. We heard that there would be a decision about some key final group games the coming weekend, most notably the group decider between England and Wales and Japan and Scotland.

Love this lot. Seeing everyone out of Oita with a smile

We were handed some amazing Origami from the women who were at the airport to see us off

More amazing plastic food

Watch out for those hazardous bananas !

What an airport at Oita

Kirsty and the Btave Blossoms

By the time we arrived at the airport, it had been announced that there would be a press conference at 12.30 local time about the England, France, New Zealand and Italy matches.

We met up with Lizzie and Alex who were heading home, sadly and all heard the news that those games had been cancelled and declared 0-0 draw. The Typhoon Hagibis was due to arrive and wreak its havoc.

Kirsty and I decided to head for Thailand for some R&R and a chance to consider what to do next.

And that was that, the end of our Japanese adventure, at least for the time being. As we left Japan, I for one, had a nagging doubt that we must go back for the knock out stages. Time would tell.

One more time for the great Mount Fuji

n

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Did anyone mention Beppu? 6-8.10.19

And so we headed to Oita, or more accurately Beppu which is a seaside town just outside of Oita, set in the south, or the west end of Japan, depending on how you look at these things on the island of Kyushu. For once we took a flight and sadly increased our carbon footprint, as the train journey would have wasted time we didn’t have to waste. So we duly flew out of Haneda and down to Oita. We arrived about 9.30pm on Sunday night alongside the ITV RWC crew, led by Jill Douglas. A really helpful station master helped us find the bus to Beppu, I am not really surprised that he was so helpful, as that is the way in Japan as I have written so many times before, but this guy waited by the bus and waved us off. So sweet.

Finding our way through Beppu at night

We soon got talking, or more accurately Kirsty got talking to a fellow traveler who had just arrived for the rugby. His name was Paul and he was off to see his son and his friends. Paul mentioned that his son Tom, was a musician and had justfinished a long tour. It turned out his son was Tom McFarland, the founder of Jungle a band I had seen at Glastonbury earlier in the year.

We decided to get an early night and settled in to watch Inception, which had been left hanging on Netflix by the previous occupier of our hotel room, purely by chance. And then it all started to come back. When I was in Kyoto, I kept referring to Mr Saito and Kirsty would wonder what I was talking about. I also remember, when walking through the Nijo Palace, where photographs were forbidden, thinking to myself I had seen this before, somewhere. And that was it. It was in Inception, the Nijo Palace and Mr Saito. What a coincidence! Here’s a little video of our room…

Next day we laid in for a bit and I recorded some more for BBC 5 Live and got those files delivered before deadline which was a load off my mind.

We decided to explore the local area of Kitahama which was known for natural hot springs. We jumped on a bus and then walked a pretty long way and decided to visit a couple. It seemed that there were a total of seven of these hot springs all of which were known for a particular feature. The Hell one, the blue one, the live geyser one, one that had some crocodiles, one that had bubbling mud resembling a monk’s tonshure and some that we weren’t sure what the unique feature was!

This was Hell…

This needs no caption

This was the blue one and so beautiful

We visited three of the seven and decided to call it a day. It has to be said, they were pretty spectacular and well worth the effort.

We headed back to base, jumping off the bus early so we could see the sun go down on the beach. Beppu was a mix of 1960’s seaside style town with some pockets of technology and plenty of illumination at night. It was a little tired and yet very, very charming.

The Asahi Tower by day

And by night

Beppu at night

This was a brilliant restaurant come bar….

Eventually we decided to find somewhere to eat and ended up in the equivalent of the greasy spoon, but instead of a fried breakfast, the two old guys served just two choices of dish, Ramen or Gyoza and one brand of bottled beer. Everywhere we looked the walls were pasted with old magazine pages and newspapers. In a corner I spotted pasted magazine pages featuring Thunderbirds, then I spotted The Saint, James Bond,,Godzilla and loads more 60’s pop culture icons. Anyway, given we love Gyoza, it was a no brainer. And what Gyoza it was. Probably the best I have ever eaten, so simple and so perfect.

The Greasy Gyoza

And the beer fridge

We then went onto another bar come restaurant for a drink and ended up eating some more amazing food. This bar also had a retro vintage toy theme, this time there were cabinets full of the kind of toys I have carefully looked after since I was a child, and for those who know me well, you will know what I mean. I was literally in my idea of toy heaven.

My idea of heaven

Our amazing toy restaurant

Before we left we met an Aussie called Mick and his daughter who was half Fijian. Mick only needed a big knife and a crocodile to actually be ‘that’ Mick’, but he turned out to be a font of knowledge about all things rugby in Australia. Mick had clearly played the game, given that one look over his facial features confirmed he had seen plenty of real action. Upon further investigation we found out that Mick had played rugby league and when I asked him about Australia’s chances in this World Cup, he was pretty damning. He told us that the Aussie team was badly coached and was packed full of ‘tweed wearing public school boys’. He said categorically that if Australia played England in the quarter finals, England would win by a considerable margin. We parted as friends and shared plenty of laughs. You just new you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of Mick, ever.

And so another great day and night in this wonderfully weird and quiet town full of bizarre surprises drew to an end.

But we were on a roll now and in danger of setting a new world record of consecutive nights in the same bed! Tomorrow, Tuesday would be our record breaking third night in the same place. We decided to take the air and head to the Takasakiyama monkey sanctuary down the coast. Against all my better instincts, this place turned out to be pretty cool with two groups of monkeys numbering around 800 each taking turns to come down from the hills and get a free feed and observe us humans. The monkeys were well looked after and rules of engagement for human visitors were strict and for good reason. We spent hours there and the time did not drag. After the crazy schedule we had, we were grateful for some tranquil down time.

These monkeys groomed each other all day

If a monkey walked under your legs it was good luck. I got 7 monkeys through mine.7 games to win the World Cup anyone?

We just missed the famous Beppu hot sand bath by about 10 minutes, which was a shame given it was a lovely evening but we resolved to revisit the next day, which was match day. Wales vs Fiji.

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