The Rugby World Cup A-Z: What to see, eat and do in Japan’s host cities
Bring plenty of yen, don’t tip the waiters and check out the Unesco World Heritage sites
France’s players attend a training session at the Fuji Hokuroku Park in Fujiyoshida, ahead of the Japan 2019 Rugby World Cup. Photgraph: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images.
A: About the event: The world’s top 20 rugby squads will duke it out over six weeks at 12 venues in Japan, from the opening match in Tokyo on September 20th to the final in Yokohama on November 2nd. Ireland plays four matches in the first round against Scotland, Samoa, Russia and host Japan.
Roughly 1.8 million tickets have been sold. Irish fans - the third largest national contingent (after the UK and Australia) of the 600,000 foreigners who have booked stadium seats – will cheer their team into battle out of Pool A and, if the Shinto gods shine, onto ultimate victory.
Also, alcohol: Like Ireland, Japan has a relaxed attitude to drinking. There are thousands of gastro-pubs called izakaya. Every big city has an ersatz Irish pub that will be screening the games. Rugby organisers fret that some may dry up before half time amid reports of Olympian feats of drinking by English, Irish and Australian fans. Pub owners have been warned to stock up.
B: Be prepared for natural disasters. Earthquakes are an unfortunate feature of life in Japan. Few countries are better equipped to deal with them but foreign tourists last year found themselves isolated and struggling after a quake in Hokkaido, Japan’s main northern island.
Take a bit of time before you leave to familiarise yourself with where you’re going and what to do if the worst happens. Make sure you carry some cash (see below) and a fully charged mobile phone with you at all times so the folks back home can reach you.
C: Bring plenty of yen. Despite its high-tech prowess, Japan is still a cash-based society. Yes, hotels and larger service businesses accept Visa and MasterCard but many smaller bars, restaurants won’t. You’ll find foreign-friendly ATMs in post offices, 7-Eleven convenience stores and some department stores, airports and train stations.
D: Leave your stash at home; Japan takes a very dim attitude to drugs. Possession of marijuana is punishable with up to five years in prison – seven if the intent is to profit from distribution. Cocaine is even more frowned upon. Tiny pot busts can still ruin celebrity careers.
E is for English. From being one of the more obscure holiday destinations, Japan has become the fastest growing tourist market on the planet. Over 31 million people visited last year, triple the 2013 figure; the government thinks 40 million might come in 2020. Some venues moan they are being overrun by badly behaved gaijin but one result of the tourist boom is that English use is now widespread.
Many restaurants offer English menus and hotels and other large shops employ English-speaking staff. There are also increasingly sophisticated apps to help you clear linguistic hurdles. Still, do have mercy on your hosts: unleashing your fast-talking Cork-man on an elderly taxi driver won’t work. Speak slowly and clearly, and learn a few Japanese words. Arigato!
F is for Fukuoka in the southern main island of Kyushu, where Ireland’s match against Samoa takes place on October 12th. The furthest venue from the capital, Fukuoka is also among the most beautiful, surrounded by forests and mountains and a rich local culture that includes wonderful food and some of Japan’s best hot-spring resorts.
G is for Gaijin – that’s us (foreigners). Japan has a reputation for being insular and it is still strikingly homogenous (the non-Japanese population just topped two per cent). Still, it’s different place to the country that hosted the Soccer World Cup in 2002. There are millions more tourists and the government has just voted to ease visa rules to allow more foreign workers.
H is for Lafcadio Hearn, the most famous Irishman in Japan. The Dublin-raised son of a British army surgeon and a Greek mother, Hearn (1850-1904) was one of the earliest foreign interpreters of Japanese culture. He married a Japanese woman and taught at the country’s top national university. Most Japanese know him better as Koizumi Yakumo.
H is also for health. Japan is uber-clean and safe but best buy travel insurance to cover medical treatment in the event that you take ill. Every major high street has a pharmacy that sells over-the-counter drugs for simple ailments. For more serious complaints you’ll need to visit a hospital. Check out the English-speaking clinics in your area before you leave.
I is for Ireland. The sad truth is that many Japanese do not know where it is or confuse it with Iceland or (worse) England. Still, few things help bridge the geographic gap better than international sporting fixtures. Robbie Keane and Damien Duff (remember them?) leapt into the hearts of millions of Japanese with their gutsy performances during the 2002 Soccer World Cup. Maybe James Ryan and Connor Murray can do the same in 2019.
J: The best way to make your trip more manageable is to buy a Japan Rail Pass before you leave. Japan’s matchless public transport system reaches into every into every nook and cranny of the country and rail is by far the best and cheapest way to see it. The pass is valid for all JR national trains, including the bullet train. A two-week version costs about 46,000 yen (€390).
K is for Kobe, the venue for Ireland’s game against Russia on October 3rd. You’ll find little hint of the terrible earthquake that leveled the port city in 1995, killing 6,400 people and leaving 300,000 without homes. Kobe today is a gleaming hub of 1.5 million people, which has emerged from the disaster more livable and with stronger interpersonal ties, says UNESCO – a testament to Japan’s remarkable ability to rebound from tragedy.
L is for love hotels. Pay-by-the-hour rendezvous spots for canoodling couples, these garishly lit temples to lust are ubiquitous. Like much else in Japan, the shrinking population has hit occupancy rates and many underperforming hotels are retooling for foreign tourists or being pressed into servicing the non-libidinous because of a shortage of accommodation. Well worth a visit, and not just for you-know-what.
Also, check out traditional Japanese inns, AirB&B and homestays.
M: Mt Fuji. You won’t be able to scale Japan’s national icon - climbing season ends in the summer. But you should catch a glimpse of it during Ireland’s game against Japan at the 50,000-seater Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa, or while you’re whizzing past on the bullet train to Kobe or Kyushu. Ask for a seat on the Fuji side of the train - and have your camera ready.
N is for Noodles. Another ubiquitous pleasure, ramen restaurants are to Japan what fish-and-chip shops are to Ireland: cheap, fast and, um, a bit oily. Soba (buckwheat) noodles are the healthier alternative. That but scratches the surface of one of the world’s great culinary cultures. Don’t forget to try kaiten sushi. While you’re in Yokohama, you could do worse than explore the ramen museum.
O: Stripping off naked in front of strangers is not very Irish but everyone should try Japan’s wonderful onsen hot springs. For centuries men and women communally bathed; the expression Hadaka no tsukiai (naked friendship) means they had nothing to hide. Most onsen now carry signs in English explaining bathing etiquette to foreign tourists in case they unwittingly offend.
Also for okonomiyaki, sometimes described as Japanese pizza, though that hardly does it justice.
P is for Pachinko: A mix of pinball, midweek bingo and slot machine, pachinko’s gaudy exteriors wreck architectural vandalism on high streets across Japan. Players are hermetically sealed off from outside by a thick wall of noise, smoke and gambler’s tension. The trance-like state pachinko induces prompted one commentator to label it “cut-price zen.” The Pogues once wrote a song about it.
Q: Queer culture is thriving in Japan. Tokyo hosts one of Asia’s most diverse concentration of gay clubs and bars: Shinjuku’s sprawling 2-Chome. Gay bars and saunas can be found in every major city and the Internet makes it all easy to navigate.
R is for Roppongi. A fixture of Tokyo nightlife and once known as a slightly seedy hangout for foreigners (including American soldiers on R&R), the district has been gentrified over the last two decades by glitzy new developments, including Roppongi Hills. Take a lift to the top for one of the best views of the capital.
S is for Shizuoka, where the Irish squad faces host Japan on September 28th. It’s a striking venue, surrounded by tea farms, rice paddies and temples, including the 600-year-old Kasuisai Zen Temple. If the weather smiles, there will be stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and iconic Mt Fuji.
T Tattoos in Japan are associated with Yakuza mobsters. Most tats are kept concealed except during bath time, so many gyms, pools and onsen (hot springs) ban them or insist they be covered up – and for good reason: The mere sight of a tattooed thug is enough to scare customers away. The arrival of mass tourism has created a dilemma for many businesses. Over a third of tourists take a dip in one of the country’s matchless onsen and many are tattooed. Best check before going to avoid disappointment.
Also, Tipping: It’s not done in Japan and can in some cases be considered insulting.
U: The rugby matches are spaced well apart to give you time to explore the country. Japan has over 20 major sites on the Unesco World Heritage list. Among them are the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, reminding us of the American atomic bomb that incinerated the city in 1945; and the remarkable Horyuji Temple, which houses the oldest wooden buildings on the planet.
Also underground – it’s considered rude to talk on your phone while riding the metro system.
V: Japan may be the world capital of vending machines. Most of the roughly 4.8 million units dispense drinks but you’ll also find umbrellas, fruit, pizza, sake, nappies and surgical masks. With many services struggling to hire staff, vending machines are increasingly popping up in restaurants. Instead of ordering food, you simply buy a ticket and hand it to the chef.
W is for Whales. Japan recently defied international criticism and resumed commercial whaling after decades fighting with environmentalists. A handful of restaurants in Tokyo and elsewhere serve up whale steak, bacon and curry but you’d be hard pressed to find them. Few Japanese have an appetite for it. Also wasabi: that green lump beside your sashimi is not a vegetable.
X: X-rated. Japan’s comparatively permissive attitude to pleasures of the flesh can be a curiosity for visiting foreigners. Some can be found wandering around Kabukicho, a crowded one-kilometre warren of striptease clubs, massage parlors and love hotels near Shinjuku Station. There are plenty of legitimate attractions here but be warned: Dodgy touts abound.
Y is for Yokohama, the venue for Ireland’s fist match, against Scotland. It’s Japan’s second-largest city, though it looks like the same sprawling metropolis. Take a day to sample its sights, including Chinatown and the ramen (noodle) museum.
Y is also for the Yamanote Line, the railway that loops around central Tokyo’s major stops in a one-hour circle.
Z: Cliché or not, Japanese culture owes something to Zen Buddhism, with its call for discipline and study as the path to enlightenment. You might detect its influence in the way that many items in Japan are flawlessly arranged, or the cultural emphasis on tinkering with something to perfection. And if it all goes pear shaped for Ireland, you might need some Zen yourself. Empty your mind and remember: No one returns from a long journey the same person they were before.
Tickets: Officially, the only place to buy tickets is on the ticketing site. There’s a resale service there too. The organisers’ advice for people who arrive ticketless is to register and create an account on site and to keep an eye on availability, as when another fan puts out their ticket for resale.
“Tickets purchased otherwise (like from Viagogo) will be deemed invalid, and the non-transfer rule is pretty strict,” warned a spokesperson. Some fans have complained of delays, crashes and issues with ticket confirmations on the official site and say tickets may pop up on Facebook, Reddit and Twitter.
The Customer Service Center is also listed there.
Advice from Irish Embassy in Tokyo:
• Regarding communication with Irish citizens in the event of a natural disaster, the Embassy will be operating a dedicated consular hotline for the duration of the tournament: +81 (0)3 3263 8508. We also encourage Irish citizens to download Travel Wise, the travel assistance and advice app from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in advance of travel. Registering their visit on TravelWise will allow citizens to receive communications from the Embassy in case of an emergency. The Embassy can also be followed on Twitter and on Facebook. In the event of an emergency, key information will also be shared through these channels. For general advice in advance of travel we also strongly recommend that citizens check our dedicated Rugby World Cup Travel Advice online.
• The Safety Tips app from the Japan Tourism Agency is a useful source of real-time updates and provides excellent information on emergency preparedness. Irish citizens should always remember to follow the advice of local authorities in any emergency situation that might occur.
• We strongly recommend that before travelling visitors purchase comprehensive travel insurance that covers their stay in Japan. Visitors may be expected to pay the costs of treatment received before claiming back from their insurance company. There are a number of clinics with English-speaking personnel, particularly in the Tokyo area. Irish citizens can contact the Embassy for further information on hospitals/clinics.