I find that I now bow at everyone. I’ve never said please and thank you so much in my life and the very thought of not clearing up after myself is abhorrent. Heavens, I don’t think I’ll fit back in in London at all…
All right, this has to rank among the most amazing, surreal and culturally extraordinary three days of my life.
Day 8 – As anticipated, Sapporo digs are miles from nowhere an hour south east of the city where the internet is only heard of in myth and rumour. Huge plus is that it’s right in the country. Jokanzei Springs (for tis where we are) is built on a hot springs and is an ugly 60s prefab architectured town surrounded by beautiful tree-clad hills and more hot spring baths than you can shake a stick at. A river runs through the middle and all is traditional Japan. Our room is typical Ryokan style. Smallish, centred by a table which is removed so that beds can be unrolled for the night time. Dinner is served in the room.
We eat at 7pm, decked out in our trad Yukata gowns.Here you can seem me me hard at work boiling up my crab legs soup before tucking into the sashimi and assorted bits and bobs. I’d love to tell you it was all lovely but some of it is too much for the untutored western palette. Seaweed is just slime, raw scallops are not to be trusted and some of it literally defied description. But, a great experience and one to be repeated on another trip.
Here’s where it started becoming surreal. Here we are, middle of nowhere, and by now gathered around a table in the lobby lounge watching the French fail to beat Uruguay (snigger) along with a few other English lads. This is not five star living, though tis a cultural treat. A movement catches my eye as two men stroll in through the front door. One classic double take later and what I thought at first turns out to be true. George Burley and David Sheepshanks are staying at my hotel. (My disbelieving mind is still in evidence in the ‘Nice smiles lads’ shot and for those not in the know, these are, left and right, the Chairman and Manager of God’s own Ipswich Town Football Club). The pair stay for the remainder of the first half and Sheepshanks returns for the second half. It is every Ipswich Town fan’s dream and I end up talking to my chairman for half an hour as we watch the footie and drink beer. He really is as open and honest as he appears in the media and after our chat, the future for ITFC is bright, his son will read all my books and I’m going to write some features for the club website.
Not a bad night’s work.
Day 9 – The Big Game
It all comes down to this. England v Argentina, Sapporo Dome, 8.30am. Woke up feeling vaguely gutty but that could have been the shrimp sashimi. Discovered that the pillow was filled with rice husks so skull is thoroughly massaged. Pete and I decided to chill out all day. Eventually left Jozankei at about 4pm and arrived at the ground in very good time to drink in the building atmosphere and eat a few ham and egg sandwiches. Our view is terrific, the stadium magnificent and the crowd are up for noise from very early on.
This was the most tense I can remember being at a football match, the last twenty minutes, I swear my watch started going backwards. But it’s a night I’ll never forget. The Sapporo Dome is an extraordinary structure both from the outside (Boys at Sapporo pic) and the inside. And where Saitama had been muted, this night, the English let rip. The sound echoed off the roof, cascaded around the inside of the stadium and TV could not possibly have done justice to the sheer noise. It was wonderful to see. Twenty thousand odd English (with our Japanese friends of course) in an arc from behind the goal across under the scoreboard and beyond, clapping and singing in unison. Sent shivers up and down the old spine, I can tell you.
Again, I don’t have to tell you about the match. England were infinitely better than against Sweden. No player had an off game and the Hargreaves injury was as good for us as it was bad for the lad himself. The cacophony when Beckham scored was beyond belief (I ended up hugging the Japanese couple next to me as well as everyone else I could find) and during that sublime period in the second half when we should have buried them, the sense of righteousness oozed from every England fan. This was payback and did we celebrate come the final whistle?
Not so as you’d notice. I think the Police finally broke up the Odori Park party at 3am.
Day 10 – Hungover, well yes. But who cares? You know that feeling of intense well being you get when something really good has happened? Course you do. Every England fan we met wore a vaguely disbelieving smile. We knew it hadn’t been a dream but still… Another lazy day was spent gloating and ambling. A long forest and river walk was followed by a couple of cold beers in the afternoon. I hit the Japanese baths at around 5pm. No pics, I’m afraid, they wouldn’t have appreciated it since no one in that 35,000 square foot space of ten baths (from cool to very bloody hot) was wearing any clothes. Felt so relaxed after lounging in the healing springs I could hardly get going again. Still, found enough energy to win the night’s pool tournament…
Day 11 – Travel to Osaka. Talk about a change of culture. From the gentle peace of Jozankei, we flew into the packed buildings and crowded skyline of Japan’s third largest city. From the airport, we drove around and across a massive dock area, home to heavy industry from steel, to petrochemicals, oil and cars. Fishing boats vied for space alongside the cargo ships and cranes and the road system intertwined it all. Twenty minutes of pipework and warehouses until we were in the city itself and travelling on a raised ring road looking down on cramped streets and cars. Cars everywhere.
Initial impressions not good but our hotel is unbelievable. The room is so big it has it’s own doorbell. We’re so high up that you can sit in the bath with a beer and watch planes land at Itami airport. And we’re surrounded by Yakitori bars and a few stops from the heart of the city. Great location.
The party has started in Japan now, by the way. The win over Russia has been greeted with such delight and fervour. They buy into the World Cup more each day which is great to see. But still the only words most seem to know in English are, and rearrange them yourself. ‘David’, ‘England’ (‘Engrand’, actually), ‘Owen-san’ and ‘Beckham’.
That’s two fewer words than I know in Japanese.