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Letter From Japan: World Cup Set To Kick Off Amid Cultural Extravaganza

Japan World Cup

Sean McMahon reporting from Yokohama.

It’s finally here. 

The 2019 Rugby World Cup has arrived.

It’s been 1,419 days since Richie McCaw lifted the Webb Ellis trophy at Twickenham and the journey to see who lifts it on November 2 begins tomorrow as Japan host Russia in the tournament’s opening game in Tokyo.

Since I arrived in Japan last Sunday – jet-lagged, disorientated and uncomfortably warm – my experience of Japanese culture had been confined to what the Chiba Prefecture has to offer.

Chiba lies about 40km south-east of Tokyo and it is an area which is famed for its shopping malls, concrete skyscrapers, hotels, conference centres and incredibly wide-streets with monolithic overpass walkways.

Peter O’Mahony takes a selfie with fans in Chiba

Think Las Vegas except with no colour, gambling or craic.

You get the picture.

Of course, this was an ideal location for Joe Schmidt’s Ireland to base themselves as they quietly went about their business in the first couple of days since they arrived in the country last Thursday.

Thankfully, after an initial couple of days of press conferences in Ireland’s base at the towering New Otani Makuhari Hotel, which have been dominated by the narrative of the availability of Keith Earls and Rob Kearney for Sunday’s clash between Ireland and Scotland, I got the opportunity to live the real Tokyo experience by travelling into the country’s capital which is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world.

Naively, as someone who has never been to Tokyo before, the city, for some reason, always conjured images of Ridley Scott’s 1982 film, Bladerunner (despite being set in a dystopian Los Angeles). Of course, there were glowing neon signs, heavy rain and a general sense of the unknown but where this comparison ends is the people.

Omoide Yokocho district in Tokyo

The Japanese are incredibly respectful, diligent and fascinating.

If you are travelling to the Rugby World Cup at any stage over the next few weeks, bear in mind, you are entering a society which prides itself on politeness, friendliness and an ethic which demands respectfulness.

Buying a bottle of water in a 7-Eleven? You best bow your head ever so slightly as you receive your change. Eating food in a restaurant? You better make sure you finish your plate. And waiting to get on to a packed subway train? Whatever you do, despite the packed platform, wait until the passengers get off before you embark on this remarkably efficient and punctual transportation system.

This may sound like an ordeal to us who have grown up in a westernised society but it’s this ethos that makes this culture truly remarkable.

Traditional Yakitori grill in Tokyo

In a country of 126.8 million people, there is no wonder why World Rugby are so keen to lay down the gauntlet and deliver the most successful World Cup ever – legacy-wise and commercially, they look set to succeed.

Unlike other World Cup hosting nations, rugby isn’t the dominant, or even in the top-three of the most popular sports in this country, but there is an overwhelming sense of pride, fascination and anticipation among the locals ahead of kick-off.

Ireland have since moved to Yokohama, a bustling city just south of Tokyo where they await Gregor Townsend’s Scotland on Sunday.

The International Stadium Yokohama where the All Blacks play South Africa and Ireland play Scotland this weekend

But the major highlight is the opening game between Japan and Russia on Friday.

The rugby has finally arrived, as have the fans.

When Nigel Owens blows his whistle to kick-off what is expected to be a historic tournament in what is still a burgeoning era of professional rugby, we could truly experience something special on the pitch.

Just make sure you open your minds and ears to what is off it, too.

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Author: Sean McMahon

Sean is Deputy Editor and head rugby writer. You can contact him by email [email protected] or on Twitter