Tag Archives: Football

Travel by Tweet: How to Throw Away Your Guidebook in Japan

I was in Shizuoka City looking to find a nice little bar I’d read about for a celebratory pint (I’d just got a new job), when once again I was reminded how little people know their own cities and towns.

Everyone I asked had little idea about where I was talking about. In fact, at one point I was stood almost beneath the sign of the bar in question, as usual unable to spot anything that isn’t directly under my nose.

Eventually I asked two gentlemen where I could find the bar; not a clue, never heard of it. We were ten feet away.

On my second lap around the block I did eventually spot it and rather embarrassedly walked up the stairs to find ‘Beer No Yokota.’ Fortunately it was more than worth getting a little lost for.

It’s understandable I suppose that people don’t always know their own towns so well. When it’s the place you call home it’s easy to get into a routine, to only dine and drink at the usual familiar places, to discover new places through the recommendations of friends, family and co-workers. In Japan, with the tendency for restaurants to be tucked away on the fourth floor of a non-descript tower block it’s easy to never know a place even exists.

Now this can be a problem for those of us who live in Japan and speak a little/a lot of Japanese. So how much more difficult must it be if you’re in Japan on holiday, what do you do if you’re trying to escape Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka or any other tourist friendly location for a slice of real Japan?

Go with your guidebook?

Hardly.

With the Lonely Planet Japan guidebook devoting around one hundred pages each to the big three of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka it’s easy to understand why other areas get fewer pages assigned to them.

Even then it’s inevitable that otherwise great travel writers are going to miss some local gems when they haven’t got the time to search out every hidden corner of a town.

Indeed even if you’re local it can be pretty tough to get recommendations from Japanese people. Particularly if you’re a teacher out here, as many long-term foreign residents are, then your students will often be reticent to offer recommendations for fear that you won’t like the places they enjoy.

However, there’s another reason why it’s so hard to stray off the well-worn guidebook paths and in likelihood it’s the one you’re worrying about.

The language.

Leaving Tokyo and it’s English menus behind can be daunting for many travelers but even if you haven’t had time to master some few thousand Japanese kanji there’s no reason why you shouldn’t try to enjoy a bit of real Japan. Armed with a couple simple phrases and a little local knowledge there’s no end of places to discover outside of the big three.

So how to go about finding them?

Go local. Get specific.

Not literally.

Digitally.

I discovered Beer no Yokota via the gastronomic musing of one Shizuoka Gourmet

If you’re a craft beer fan like me then you won’t go wrong with the Japan Beer Times a bilingual go-to-guide for all you Hop Heads out there.

Fancy catching some footy while you’re out here? Then take a look at the fan blogs for a quality English resource. My local team, Shimizu S-Pulse is followed by the UK Ultras who offer the complete lowdown on everything you need to know to get to the games and sing along with the fans.

For those of you who’d prefer to spend your holidays in a more healthy fashion taking in all Japan’s beautiful outdoors has to offer then head on to Outdoor Japan.

However, if you want to track down somewhere with a limited web presence, a pretty common thing in Japan, then look no further than Twitter. Once you’ve found one person or company who shares some of your interests then Twitter handily starts recommending more of them to you. On top of that it’s one of the few forms of publicly accessible social media that Japan has truly embraced.

It’s also an easy way to discover real life connections between places as most independent places know the other people running shops and restaurants in their town and follow them on Twitter.

So there it is. A little prep, a little wi-fi and possibly a lot of google translating later you can be sat in a little antique café, eating local ice-cream or supping the local brew.

And when you do, don’t forget to blog or tweet about it so the rest of us can enjoy it too.

 

 

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A Different Ball Game: Welcome to the J-league

There’s something not right about Japanese football fans. It’s like they haven’t got the memo. Don’t they know that football is supposed to be endured?

It’s an affliction, an addiction that blights the lives of supporters across the world.

I mean, teams are supposed to be owned by morally dubious Russian Oligarchs or Arab Sheiks, not by local companies, local government and certainly not the fans themselves.

It’s supposed to be the last bastion of masculinity, not a place where women, children and babies in tiny replica shirts venture or even god forbid participate as fans.

You’re supposed to randomly hurl abuse at the referee, a man or woman who has devoted countless hours to the game, who knows the rules inside out and yet still doesn’t know better than you. You are most certainly not to be respectful of them.

Then of course there are the songs and chants; these should at least be mildly offensive to the other team and its fans. However, if you can manage to incorporate, racism, sexism or homophobia into them, all the better.

They should not include dance routines.

But most of all and this really is quite important… you’re not supposed to enjoy the game!

Actually, on second thoughts, Japan might be onto something here…

Let’s face it, Japan has got fan culture down pat. They are Zen masters in the fanatic arts, fully in tune with Wa, their sense of a communal Japanese identity. Their football is still like all football worldwide, tribal at heart, but this tribe at least is open to most.

Even at my hometown club, Huddersfield Town AFC, a club voted Family Club of the year a number of times, I still wouldn’t want to take a young kid all the time. Exposing a kid to the kind of red faced, vein throbbing, eye popping anger and vile language that can come out of some supporters isn’t exactly high on my to do list. I may not blink when I see or hear it but I’ve seen little kids absolutely stunned by it. I can still remember the look on the face of a little four year old girl, just staring, mouth agape as a man nearby turned a bright shade of red as he hurled invective in the direction of the fella with the whistle.

My experience at an Shimizu S-Pulse game was somewhat different. The contrast was in fact pretty stark at times. The S-Pulse fans, all decked out in bright orange replica kits and homemade fan t-shirts, spent almost the whole ninety plus minutes singing their hearts out. Simply put, they were enjoying the sing-along and the football too much to be incensed to such a degree by one decision not going their way on the pitch. On top of that, the friendly, though no less passionate atmosphere was welcoming enough that a girl who couldn’t have been more than ten years old spent the entire match bouncing and cheering away, cajoling her rather less interested older sister to do the same. She must have picked up this habit at a young age, much like the one year old a few seats away who had already mastered the fist pump to, “ore!” Yes, “ore.” The Japanese ‘l’ isn’t ready for a full Spanish “ole!” quite yet.

So, what is it about Japanese football that makes it so different from that played on British, European and every other nation’s soil that includes kicking a ball as a national pastime?

First of all, age. The J-League has only been in existence since 1992/1993. The historic rivalry of clubs like Liverpool and Manchester Utd in England, Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain, Inter and A.C. Milan in Italy and Rangers and Celtic in Scotland cannot possible have had time to emerge in such a way here in Japan. In addition, the political, historical and in the case of Rangers and Celtic, religious differences have no equivalents here in Japan. Also, by starting their existence within the last twenty years Japanese clubs benefit from a supporter environment that would not have held the inbuilt sexual and racial biases of those in countries that have played football far longer.

There is also the rather complicated fact of culture to contend with. If you ever wonder why Spain plays pretty football while the English hoof it and the Scottish cheer slide tackles like goals, think of the weather. Have you ever tried to play the beautiful game on a rain sodden pitch? Wind blowing too? Not so simple. Ever slide tackled on dry soil? Not so easy.

What about mentality?

What do fans traditionally value? The British; a player busting a gut, appearing all over the pitch, a one man whirlwind devoted to team play. Italy; catenaccio, otherwise known as the door bolt. The Japanese, a beautiful passing game, but one that rather lacks in a cutting edge as said cutting edge requires a degree of selfishness rather lacking from their sporting mindset.

Although perhaps the most telling difference comes with the alcohol. Japanese fans can bring their own. Three hours before kick-off even. In contrast it’s banned in Scottish football stadiums, though not in Rugby ones. The mentality is simply different.

But is it better? Well…

Frankly it’s a matter of taste. If you bleed, sweat and cry your team’s colours and so did your father before you and his before him, then it may not be your pint of bitter.

But for me? For the kids and families filling the stadium? Passing football, cheap beer, food aplenty, friendly fans and a victory dance called the Roko Roko (the loco loco, again struggling with the ‘l’)?

That’ll do us just fine. And with the Nadeshiko Japan (Japan’s women’s team) having brought home the world cup. You have to assume it’s only going to get bigger still.

Viva S-Pulse!

 

Brazen Oldies

I’m used to being stared at in Japan, but one hundred and fifteen senior citizens all staring at me at once is a new experience to be honest. That they were expecting a speech from me was all the stranger. Yet, there I was in front of a collection of silver haired, wrinkle faced, smiling and occasionally snoring faces about to have a one hour ramble on all things Japanese and British.

I should perhaps clarify before people begin to think I make a habit of strolling into old folks homes and regaling a room full of pensioners with tales from a long dead empire. I’d actually been hired to do this as part of the usual rent-a-gaijin service my employers run, ‘Need a pale faced young man from rainier shores to promote your local service? We have your gaijin.’ There’s no harm in it, usually they just want someone to write a few words in English on their service. I did just that for a local river rafting company; that I ended up wearing a traditional peasants hat and blue happi (essentially the top half of a heavy cotton kimono or yukata) and posing for a photo was sheer coincidence. This time however, I was stood at the front of a large meeting room on the third floor of the local government building and sharing my thoughts on weather, sport and food in Japan and Britain.

The way it worked was that I’d reel off a short sentence or two and then a very nice English chap who’s been out here for many a year would translate my peculiar ramblings into much clearer Japanese.

My nervousness in such events often translates in an infuriating way. I can speak perfectly clearly, but my hands will shake a fair bit. It’s certainly not as bad as it was when I was kid, a year or so of bartending and now teaching everyday means I’m pretty confident when it comes to holding the attention of a table full of people but it’d be fair to say that a hundred and fifteen people is outside my usual comfort zone.

I started to ease into it all pretty quickly, even managing to get a few laughs when I mentioned how I became a Hiroshima Carp fan because supporting a winning team just doesn’t feel like… well like supporting a team really. Supporting England and Huddersfield Town is hardly the quick path to glory after all.

Eventually we reached the question and answer portion of the event from which I hadn’t really expected too many surprises. This is after all a nation of infuriatingly polite people and as such not prone to asking difficult questions. Usually never straying beyond, ‘is this delicious?’ But I’d forgotten that I live in a country where the elderly rule and inappropriate questions come not from the mouths of cheeky teenagers but from brazen oldies.

Militarism. Check. Nuclear weapons. Check.

It’s quite fortunate that on these two topics I generally agree wholeheartedly with the Japanese otherwise I’d know what one hundred and fifteen disapproving old Japanese people sound like.

Disappointingly I was asked the difference between England and Britain, some Japanese being blissfully unaware of the existence of Scottish people beyond scotch and the Welsh beyond… well they don’t know Wales is there really.

Fortunately one man had some inkling of the construction of our Kingdom and asked me whether all the countries in the UK still hate each other. No of course not, I told him.  They all hate England.

Though when abroad, they just hate that no one seems to know that Scotland isn’t a prefecture of England.

Going Dutch in Japan: England v. USA

The ambassadors to the Court of St. James (Great Britain) and the United States of America had wagered a steak dinner on the outcome. The British had even made a vague and possibly ill-advised attempt at smack talk. Sledging, in the cricketing sense, we can do. American style smack talk, god no. It’s just not cricket.  My American friend and I aimed a little lower to be honest. The largest plate of fries available in the somewhat grotty late night bar that would be showing the game at three thirty a.m. Japan time was our bet.

Yet, thanks to Rob Green’s charitable howler in goal, we, much like the ambassadors, were forced to split the bill on our fries as they intend to do on their steak dinners. A goal keeping error forcing those of us who wagered on the result to go Dutch, when the Oranje had nothing to do with the game no less.

Starving, the wagered fries were bought before the game even began, in what turned out to be a stroke of luck, as they were finished long before Green could tarnish them.

By three a.m. the bar had pretty much emptied out. Only myself, my American friend and a long term British ex pat in Japan who happened to stroll in looking for a place to watch the game were in residence. A group of young Japanese men with annoyingly large hair were around for the first half, blocking sections of the screen with their tenderly coiffed locks. Yet again though, this was good fortune as this merely spared me from seeing Aaron Lennon’s excuse for a cross.

Soon after these guys left, the bar gained a few late night regulars, some of the hostesses from the local snack bars came for a drink and something to eat after their shift. Paying little attention to the football unless the lone yank or myself rose to our feet and then collapsed back down onto the sofa lamenting the poor efforts of our respective teams. Though this being Japan they did become markedly more interested when David Beckham made fleeting appearances on screen, decked out in Marks and Spencer’s grey, looking, ‘Kakouii desu ne!’ or, ‘Good looking isn’t he!’ Compared to what was on the pitch, I was forced to agree. Unless of course it was Rooney in all his potato headed glory.

All the while, one of the bartenders, clearly exhausted after a long shift, had curled up on the sofas like a cat next to the hostess girls. Sleeping quite soundly through the cacophony of English swearing and accusations of pre-marital birth aimed at Shaun Wright Phillips.

As the match finished and I walked outside to begin my wander home I was once again confronted with reality’s harsh light; it was morning and England still aren’t up to much.

At least the fries were good.

Forza Júbilo!

With rapidly burning arms in the hot Shizuoka sunshine I was beginning to look like the archetypal British tourist abroad. Towel draped over my neck and beginning to turn a medium rare pink on every inch of my body exposed to the midday sun. Just to complete the stereotype of a hooligan Brit abroad I was shouting at the football. Now before you think I’d somehow discovered a Red Lion pub in Eastern Japan and draped myself in a white napkin knotted at the corners I should point out that I was in fact attending my first Japanese football match (Júbilo Iwata v. Kobe Vissel), the towel was the Japanese equivalent of a football scarf and… ok the sunburn I can’t defend.

Last weekend, with an adult student of mine acting as my guide I ventured out to my first, though hopefully not my last, Japanese football match. An eight hour round trip to Iwata in Shizuoka prefecture the cost of getting the fix of live football that has been sadly absent from my life since I left Britain’s shores last year.

Arriving at the tiny stadium on a quiet and beautifully sunny Saturday afternoon around half an hour before kick off I was surprised to see so little a crowd edging their way to the stadium. The reason it turned out was that the place was already more than three quarters full. Some six thousand or so fans already lining the terraces, snacking on yakitori, kebabs, fries, sandwiches, iced drinks, cold beers and as usual in Japan a few edible items of indeterminate origin. Every single fan sporting a scarf/towel hybrid in Júbilo Iwata sky blue or a replica shirt from any number of seasons and sponsors past. The safe standing area in what most British fans would know as the cow shed end of the stadium was already packed (but in an orderly Japanese fashion) and bouncing to a drum beat from a Brazilian fan, cheered on by some huge flags that looked to have poles long enough to jab the goalkeeper with. Of course such mischief would never occur to these fans. Unfortunately. I may or may not have been envisioning a giant foam finger on the end of a flagpole…

As I noted in the Hiroshima Carp post a while back, Japanese fans are crazy and I love them for it. Their enthusiasm is simply boundless. The players arrived for their warm up around twenty minutes before kick off and the fans immediately burst into a full throated round of songs and chants declaring their love for every player and all things Júbilo Iwata.

This is also probably one of the few places in Japan beyond Tokyo and the port cities where internationalism is clearly visible. To begin with Júbilo is Portuguese for, ‘exultation’ while the score board declared, ‘Forza Júbilo !’ A frankly wonderful declaration of support for a Japanese team using a mix of Italian and Portuguese that I guess means, ‘forward exultation’. Frankly I’d march to that, nevermind bounce on the terraces.

Inevitably though, when the goals did come it wasn’t from a Japanese boot. This is a country seemingly socially incapable of producing a striker. The team ethic is so well honed and drilled in children from such a young age that the creativity, individuality and downright selfishness required to be a decent striker doesn’t exist. So like any other nation in the world, they brought in some Brazilians to do it for them. The goals in this game came from the boot of one Gilsinho, his first a sublime effort after cutting in from the left wing and his second a neat finish after some chaos in the box.

You can find the match report here.

As the final whistle blew I waited for the anticipated rush from the stadium that so characterizes the end of English football matches, that mad dash to the car in an often ill-fated attempt to avoid the traffic. Yet it never materialized. No mad rush, but instead half the stadium gathering as close to the pitch as they could get as the players took a long stroll around the pitch to thank the fans. A more appreciative group of fans would be really hard to find.

So, a hint of carnival, kids running around and my twenty five year old student screaming like a demented toddler who thinks he’s just spotted Santa coming down the chimney in an attempt to catch the attention of his favourite player.

It’s no cold day at the Galpharm but it’ll do nicely for now.