Nearly 10,000 kilometres separate Dublin from the small Japanese city of Fukuroi and, sad to say, it shows. Puzzled looks and mumbled replies greet your reporter’s question: “What’s your image of Ireland?”
“It’s very white,” ventures one city official, a sign he may be confusing it with Iceland.
“It’s part of Britain,” says another. The less said about that response the better.
The city’s mayor sounds like he knows his stuff: “Ireland is pretty cold and it historically doesn’t get on with England,” laughs Hideyuki Harada. “The rugby players are tough,” he adds with a theatrical grimace. “It takes three Japanese to take down one Irishman.”
That proposition will be tested on September 28th next year when the two teams meet in the Rugby World Cup. The match kicks off at the 50,000-seater Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa, on a rise overlooking this city, 170km southwest of Tokyo. The stadium is so imposing most of the surrounding population could fit inside.
Fans could hardly wish for a more striking venue. Outside, the lush Shizuoka countryside is dotted with tea farms, rice paddies and temples, including the 600-year-old Kasuisai Zen Temple (the place to go if you’re looking for an inexpensive vegetarian meal). If the weather smiles, there will be stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and the iconic Mt Fuji.
Shizuoka is hoping a sizeable contingent of the expected 400,000 foreign visitors will fall in love with this prefecture and pop into some of the local tourist attractions. Among the highlights is the immaculate Kakegawa Castle, the Mt Fuji world heritage centre and the many terrific onsen (hot spring resorts) dotted along the Izu Peninsula.
Ireland played here as recently as June of last year as part of a summer test series and they left an impression, recalls Chiaki Sawaki, head of business planning at the stadium. "The Irish players were like boulders," he says, laughing. "Very big and tall – they'll be difficult to beat."
He won’t find much encouragement in the record books. Ireland have yet to lose against Japan, who lost last year’s match by 28 points. That’s far from their worst result against Ireland: when they met at Lansdowne Road in 2000 the Japanese were outclassed, losing by a whopping 78-9.
Still, Japan are not to be taken lightly at all. They have beaten Scotland (1989) and Wales (2013). Three years ago the team scored perhaps the biggest upset in the sport’s history when defeating South Africa. The victory confounded those who believe rugby’s elite will always dominate the minnows of tier 2. And never underestimate the impact of playing in front of a home crowd.
It's not the city's first taste of foreign hordes. The stadium was built for the 2002 soccer World Cup and hosted three matches, including the quarter-final between Brazil and England. Despite fears of hooliganism, the fans were on their best behaviour. One result was an explosion of interest in the beautiful game and its then superstars, particularly David Beckham and the Brazilian striker Ronaldo. "Every community now has a soccer team," says Harada.
Rugby's popularity, by contrast, still lags well behind baseball, sumo and soccer in Japan's sporting pantheon, but the response to the World Cup has taken the country by surprise, said Akira Shimazu, head of the event's organising committee. With still well over a year to go, there are already 2.5 million applications for tickets to the 48 matches.
“We’ve seen incredible interest in matches featuring the host nation Japan, top-tier nations New Zealand, Ireland, Australia and England, as well as tremendous demand right across the knockout stages,” Shimazu told CNN this month. Priority ballot sales are closed so the next chance to buy tickets is in September.
In the meantime, Fukuroi is working hard to close the culture (and geography) gap. Schools have been assigned by lottery to study Ireland, Russia and the other teams. Shops and business are preparing to roll out the welcome mat. By the time the Irish players arrive, the local children will be waving tricolours and might even have a few words of Gaelic. “We’re looking forward to the fun and the chaos,” said one shopkeeper, who declined to be named.
The Irish kit is on display in the basement of the stadium, along with a thumbnail sketch of the team and the nation. The squad plays with a direct, single-minded style that makes it a tough opponent, it explains. A signboard helpfully explains that because players from both sides of the Irish Border play for the team, it uses the song “Ireland’s Call” instead of the national anthem.
One reason for hosting an expensive sporting event, Harada explains, is to bring such knowledge and the rest of the world to this small corner of Japan. “I want people to come to Fukuroi and mix with our people,” he says. “Japan is too conservative and inward-looking. We need to change the mindset that we can depend only on ourselves – that era is over.”
The main reason though, says Sawaki, is to enjoy the sporting spectacle and have fun. “That’s the aim of the game.”
Where and When: The Rugby World Cup runs from September 20th to November 2nd, 2019. Ireland will face Scotland on Sunday September 22nd in Yokohama before moving to Shizuoka the following Saturday to play Japan. From there it's on to Kobe on October 3rd to meet Russia before taking on Samoa in Fukuroi on October 12th.
How to get there: Yokohama is a short ride from Tokyo on Japan's peerless public transport system. For Fukuroi, Shinkansen bullet trains leave Tokyo Station every few minutes, arriving at Kakegawa Station a few hours later, then Fukuroi. The cost of a return ticket is about 15,000 yen (€115).
Where to stay: If your budget stretches to $300-$400 a night, the stunning Katsuragi Kitanomaru Yamaha resort, with its bamboo-garden bath and furniture made from 1,000-year old pine trees, is worth every yen. Fukuroi itself is too small to put up all the rugby fans, but nearby Hamamatsu and Shizuoka (20 minutes away by train) have plenty of fine hotels, and bars.
What to expect: The worst of Japan's toasty summer will have ended by the time the matches begin, and kick-offs are mostly in the late afternoon or evening. But September and early October can still be sticky, so bring shorts and T-shirts. Don't forget to take plenty of cash too – many small businesses don't accept credit cards.
Food and drink: Japan is one of the world's great food cultures, with everything from cheap noodle bars to Michelin-starred eateries. In the big cities, restaurants have plastic mock-ups of food displayed outside so you can just point to what you want. English-language menus are increasingly common. Most cities have at least one ersatz Irish bar but don't expect too much from the stout.
Also: Japan is nine hours ahead of Ireland during daylight savings time. The current exchange rate is about 130 Japanese yen to €1.