How Japan is making the most of the Rugby World Cup

New Zealand Herald reporter Michael Burgess travelled to Japan supported by an Asia New Zealand Foundation media travel grant to report on the preparations for the Rugby World Cup. Here, he shares some of the highlights of his travels.

Of all the fascinating experiences I enjoyed in Japan, one of the most memorable was spending a few hours over coffee, and then sushi, with national rugby captain Michael Leitch.

Leitch, who is originally from Christchurch but has been based in the Asian nation for more than half his life, is the face of the sport in Japan. His image adorned massive billboards the length and breadth of the country, promoting the upcoming Rugby World Cup. I had walked past one, which covered a huge Tokyo office building, minutes before meeting Leitch.

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Japan captain Michael Leitch on a billboard in Tokyo. IMAGE: Michael Burgess

He was an enthralling interview subject, with a deep appreciation of the culture of his adoptive home. As we walked back to the subway station, gazing over Tokyo harbour, I asked how it felt to have the expectations of tens of millions of people on his shoulders.

“It’s going to be amazing. It’s an unbelievable opportunity for me, and for Japan.”

The country intends to make the most of the occasion, and I witnessed the detail Japan is putting into the preparations.

In Tokyo, I met the CEO of the local organising committee as well as other top Japan Rugby Union officials, who explained their strategies for the event and its potential impact.

The following day, I visited Yokohama and its international stadium, which will host the All Blacks’ opening match with South Africa and a swag of other games, including the World Cup final. It was a privilege to sit in the dressing room where Steve Hansen will deliver his final pre-game team talk, while the cup holders on every seat in the 77,000 capacity arena stadium were a clever idea.

While in Yokohama I went to their famed Ramen Museum and also explored their historic bar area, where a smart voucher system makes it easy for travelling fans to drink and dine.

My next stop was Beppu, a hot spring town on the southern island of Kyushu. I met some local rugby identities, toured one of the ‘hell onsens’ and tried the free foot spa in the middle of the town. Even though Beppu won’t host a World Cup match, the excitement there was palatable, as they will host three countries for pre-World Cup training camps, including New Zealand.

I saw the state-of-the-art All Blacks training venue, visited their hotel and marveled at the thoroughness of the Beppu hosts, who are building a new temporary team building for the New Zealand side in the carpark beside their training area, because the existing facility (located just down the hill) was judged to be too far away. I also visited Oita city, where the All Blacks will play Canada.

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New Zealand Herald reporter Michael Burgess at Oita Stadium.

From Oita I travelled up through the country to Nagoya — about the same distance as Auckland to Wellington — but it only took around five hours. From Nagoya, where I stayed in a business hotel close to the huge train station (a great 'slice of life’ experience), I explored Toyota, something that many travellers probably don’t do.

It’s synonymous with the automobile giant, as around 70 per cent of the city’s population work for Toyota or an associated company. I visited one of three Toyota museums (highly recommended), and wandered through the historical village of Asuke. But the unexpected highlight of my day there was the vertigo-inducing Toyota Stadium; a truly space age design, and with incredibly steep grandstand seating, on the same angle as an alpine ski jump. Standing near the top is not for the faint-hearted but it allows an incredible view of the action from anywhere, and will create a cauldron-like atmosphere.

The final chapter of my trip was back in Tokyo. I attended a 2020 Olympics press conference (along with more than 150 Japanese media) where the final competition schedule was unveiled, and was able to speak to Japanese coaches and athletes about the impact and legacy of the Olympics, as well as senior officials from the Japanese Olympic committee. I also learned about the remarkable plans to use robots at the Games!

And I was fortunate to take in a Sunwolves match in central Tokyo, one of the best sporting atmospheres I have ever witnessed, with their colourful, loud fans. I caught up with Hurricanes captain (and All Blacks halfback) T J Perenara and also interviewed Sunwolves coach Tony Brown, who is also the Japan national team assistant coach.

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A family of Sunwolves supporters in Tokyo. IMAGE: Michael Burgess

READ: Inside the Sunwolves den: Why the Super Rugby atmosphere in Tokyo is hard to beat

The trip to Japan was undoubtedly one of the best work trips of my career. It provided me with a wealth of material for stories for the New Zealand Herald, about the Rugby World Cup and also next year’s Olympics.

Perhaps just as importantly, it gave me a new appreciation and understanding of Japanese society and culture, and a desire to learn a lot more. It has also inspired me to put work into my language abilities, which barely got beyond a few basic greetings.

Main image: Supplied by Michael Burgess

- Asia Media Centre