It’s a short ride from Kyoto to Osaka. And like all our other rail journeys throughout Japan, we accessorized the experience with snacks from 7-Eleven.
My rugby friends Nathan and Josh were partial to “sushi triangles.” It’s actually called onigiri (or omusubi), and it’s really nothing fancy. Just thick clumps of rice and fish molded into the shape of a triangle and covered in seaweed. I thought they were kind of gross. Nathan and Josh loved them.
Instead, this proud gourmet opted for some sort of meat-flavored potato chips. Might’ve been beef. Might’ve been pork. Possibly horse.
We finally arrived in Osaka and checked into one of Japan’s famous low-budget capsule hotels. These things are incredible. Basically, floors are divided by gender and you share common bathroom facilities with other guests. But you get to sleep in your own cocoon.
Sort of like a dog, I actually enjoy confined spaces. So, for me it was more than fine. And, in fairness, this particular capsule hotel’s sleeping pods were bigger than many others I’d seen online. We needed a bit more space.
Nathan is 6’2″. He fit. I’m 5’8″. I practiced breakdancing.
Properly settled in our Hobbit holes and shabu-shabu’d for lunch, we still had a few hours to kill until the big USA-England match, so we decided to use that time properly ensuring that we’d have to check our bags for the flight home. Which is to say we went knife shopping.
Osaka — particularly the Sakai area — is known for its craftsmanship when it comes to forging steel and making blades.
So, this was the town to find a new tool for the kitchen. And a few subway stops away from our hotel, we entered a popular upscale shop called Tower Knives. Inside, it seemed that many other rugby fans had the same ideas as us.
Which, if we’re being honest, was slightly concerning. Rugby fans aren’t violent. But they are keen on buffoonery. And now some of them had tiny samurai swords.
Anyway, all three of us walked out with fancy new knives. And we even got to meet the sharpener, Mr. Fuiji, who happened to be working that day at Tower, away from his personal studio in Sakai City. He’s an older gentleman, considered a master at his skill. And he’s a rugby fan.
Proudly wearing his Japan jersey, he walked out from the back, took photos, and presented us with small keychains that were made with excess steel from his studio.
Thus ended our shopping field trip which, at a nearby store, also saw the purchase of an insanely ornate Hello Kitty jacket for Josh’s daughter.
We could’ve thrown Yen at even more crazy gifts, but rugby time was fast approaching. So we dropped the knives off back in our capsules, and then took trains about an hour out to Kobe on the other side of Osaka Bay. USA was playing England at Kobe Misaki Stadium.
On one of the trains, a Japanese man asked me, “Is that Mount Fuji?”
I looked out the window like an idiot. We were nearly 500 kilometers from the nearest view of the famous landmark. Then he pointed to the fresh tattoo on the inside of my arm. “Oh, that! Yeah.”
This began a lengthy conversation with the man and his friend, both of whom were heading from work to the match. They later agreed to be our expert guides through a bit of train station confusion. My little Mount Fuji was paying off. See, kids. Always get tattoos.
At the final transfer point, Japan’s kindness and efficiency was on full display.
Knowing that after the match fans would require a return trip on this particular train, and foreseeing the inevitable chaos of thousands of people trying to figure out Japanese ticketing systems, event volunteers set up tables in the station with pre-printed return tickets and pre-sorted exact change.
One person handed you the ticket. Another took your money. A third gave you change.
Speaking as someone who loves organization and logistics, it was basically a sexual experience.
Finally, after a packed ride and another slow walk amongst traveling fans, we settled in an open space near the stadium where we spent a good hour or so before the match.
It was essentially a parking lot outside the Lawson Station convenience store. But, there, keeping with the theme of preparedness, vendors had already set up grills and icy bins stocked with warm food and cold beer.
No lines. No hassles. No problems. Just rugby fans from all over the world (mostly English) sharing drinks and laughs on a gorgeous September night. Japanese hospitality is second to none.
Inside the stadium, the good times and warm reception continued. In fact, the Japanese guy sitting next to me — just some fan — insisted I try one of his dumplings. No words were exchanged. He just smiled and motioned for me to help myself. And it was delicious.
See, kids. Always accept food from strangers.
The English fans near us didn’t offer anything like that, but they did sing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” about 400 times throughout the night. So, I guess they offered us song. The same song. Over. And over. And over again.
It’s sort of their thing. It’s a weird thing. But it’s their thing.
The match itself was a letdown. England crushed the USA 45-7. And at no point did it seem like an even contest. The USA team did have one player ejected with a red card. So, in that sense, there was at least some controversy and excitement worth talking about.
But, as I learned that night, even when rugby is bad, it’s good. It’s a bonding experience. Like a big family reunion. And now I was a part of the family.
After the match — the reunion over — it was another long slog back to the trains and an hour to Osaka. There, tired and hungry, we found a late-night ramen place, crushed some noodles, and then retired to our private caves.
I closed my curtain and slept like a happy dog.
The next day, after a final blow-out lunch of expensive Kobe beef and Japanese whiskey, the actual reunion was over. From Osaka, we flew back to our respective homes. Josh to Denver. Nathan to Phoenix. And I to Atlanta.
It was a quick trip. But, a special one. For me, it was a unique opportunity to learn the game of rugby. Baptism by fire. And it’s something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.
See, kids. Always play with fire.