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.
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!
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?
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.
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.
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
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
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.