20-22 September 2019
Always up for a travel adventure, I heartily agreed with Christian’s suggestion of attending the Rugby World Cup 2019 since it was to be held in Japan.
Having been to Japan 4 years earlier, we decided to split the trip into the key bits we hadn’t seen on the previous trip, with an add-on hop to South Korea, to which neither of us had been before.
With the rugby ticket lottery so far in advance, our travel arrangements being made months before and a lot (more than usual) going on on the home front, the trip kind of snuck up and it was quite surreal arriving at the airport for our departure.
We had been squirreling Skywards Miles hoping to upgrade our flights for the long haul to Japan, but there was no chance; the flights were full to bursting. The first leg (Joburg to Dubai) was not so bad in a big new airbus, but it was a bit of a squeeze in the 777 on the second leg (Dubai to Tokyo).
On the brightside though, the menu reflected that our holiday had truly begun, with a salmon teriyaki for breakfast and sweet and sour perch with fragrant Japanese rice for lunch. Even the drinks trolley had switched tea for green tea.
The plane was packed with rugby fans – lots of Saffas and a collection from all over the UK – so the fact that Emirates (excuse the term) flights matches live was a massive hit. And the plane very soon ran dry of its beer stocks and a great deal of its single-serving bottles of hard tack, mixed with a splash of cola in very impractical little plastic cups. I wish I’d taken a photo from the back because I’d imagine that it’s pretty rare that almost an entire planeful of people watch the same thing when there are over 2500 content options to choose from!
We cleared customs just before midnight and were glad we’d booked a driver to take us to our hotel. He was ready and waiting for us and obliged our request to wait while we got a SIM card with a smile and a head bow.
Our hotel was a little tricky to find, but after circling the block we were deposited at the front doorstep. Reception was on the 20th floor and we were soon checked in to our 15th floor room… And out the door to get ourselves welcome drinks from the 7-11 on the ground floor, which we enjoyed while surveying the harbour across the road.
After our very late night, we had a bit of a lie-in on Saturday morning. Our pre-scoping of Yokohama had revealed very little tourist value so the rationale was to renew energy levels at the expense of sightseeing time.
A peep out the window revealed a grey and overcast day. It was little surprise as the weather forecast – which I’d consulted for packing planning purposes – had been “20 degrees and raining” for the day.
Decked in jeans with hoodies and rain ponchos in our backpack, we hit the streets.
And didn’t even get to our trusty 7-11 downstairs before Christian turned backs and traded jeans for shorts. Their 20 and our 20 are clearly very different. The coastal mugginess added a blanket of warmth – and if the rain stayed away, it would be perfect!
Our first impression of Yokohama by day was how clean it was. Every road was spotless, without as much as a cigarette butt or a stray plastic wrapper flapping in a gutter. Even with all these filthy foreigners in their town, Yokohama had sustained its pristine Japanese orderliness. They’ve got it so right.
Moving down the street revealed the magnitude of this skyrise city. Our hotel, at 20 floors, was dwarfed by our neighbours! And the vast number of massive blocks and shops along the street front alluded to a live-work-play apartment lifestyle.
We took a turn past the Rugby World Cup Fan Park, which was already buzzing with activity. We passed several people also in Springbok jerseys and did the obligatory head nod and ‘howzit’, expressing kinship like we all knew each other.
First stop was Chinatown for lunch. It might sound off for our first excursion in Japan to not be a local venture, but this Chinatown is credited as being one of the best in the world. Plus, it was the farthest point from the stadium relative to our hotel, so made practical sense too.
We wandered up and down the narrow streets, adorned with patterned buildings, decorated with gold trim and bright red lanterns, and completed with street-level food stalls, boiling, steaming and frying all sorts of deliciousness.
Our first course choice was an easy one. A delicate Peking duck parcel, like a tiny schwarma. It oozed flavour and the duck was tender and juicy with a crisp crisp skin. For main course we chose to sit in a restaurant because the streets were so full – and they had an English menu. We had pork mince noodles (essentially a salty sticky spag Bol) and a chicken stir fry.
By contrast, our walking tour took us to Motomachi with its structured streets and elegant grey buildings, skirted with the world’s top label brand stores.
There happened to be a ‘Charming Sale’ on for the weekend so the pedestrian walk was heaving with people amped to get their bargains. And the many restaurant snack hatches had queues of people waiting patiently for their turn to be served.
With severe baggage restrictions on our internal flights, we resisted the urge to investigate any of the stores or their sales and moved along swiftly to the Landmark Tower, from where there are supposed to be magnificent views of the city and beyond.
Being a grey day though, there was small promise of being able to see anything, so we just went to the mezzanine viewing level which had pretty good near-sight views of the harbour.
We were now perfectly positioned to jump on the metro at Queen’s Square to head through to the stadium, giving ourselves lots of time to get there based on the warnings that the trains get crammed and the security process into the stadium was bound to be beyond thorough.
With precious little English instruction to guide us, we managed the 2 train combination to get to the stadium and were in our seats (nosebleeds, riiiight at the back) with an hour to spare before start of play.
Christian enjoyed watching the players warm up, while I used the opportunity to write this travelogue.
The game was sold out so the stands were packed with spirited rivals, making for lots of pre-game chanting and warcries. Even for the uncommitted rugby fan (nudge nudge, wink wink), there was going to be plenty of energy and entertainment value both on and off the field to make for a memorable event.
We managed to work out way down to much better seats early in the first half so had a brilliant view of the field, along with 63647 other people. Our team, nothing if not consistent, started strong but then made some rookie mistakes, conceding 2 tries and losing the game.
After the game we made our way back towards home and stopped in at a metal bar called Thrashzone that served a wide selection of craft beers.
As the only Westerners in the tiny bar (with a capacity of maybe 40 or 50 people), we were fortunate to seat ourselves next to an English-speaker who had been a pro snowboarder in Canada for 10 years before returning home to Japan. He told us a bit about Japan and asked lots of questions about South Africa. We were the perfect ambassadors on the wonders of our country (consistency of rugby play aside).
It had been a long time since lunch and we had an early start in the morning so we made our way back to the hotel and grabbed a heat-and-eat meal from our trusty 7-11.
It was clearly quite late for dinner so we were limited in what was left and each chose a spaghetti meal; Christian’s with chicken and mine with shrimp.
Our pasta meals were heated in a minute and a half and, admirably, were still steaming when we got up to our room – and were surprisingly delicious. Easily on par with some of the Italian restaurant chains at home.
We wolfed them down while watching a completely unfathomable Japanese game show and then called it a night, leaving the blinds open to wake us for our next day’s adventure, taking us to Sapporo.