JON CARDINELLI reflects on a week of free sake, traditional dining experiences and locals with a taste for Springbok rugby.
‘I hope that New Zealand don’t win the World Cup,’ an All Blacks fan told me as we sipped our Sapporo draughts and occasionally glanced at the Ireland-Scotland match on the TV.
The broom closet of a bar in Fushimi, Nagoya was packed with an interesting mix of local and international rugby fans. I considered myself lucky that I had a place to stand – even if it was next to the door of the one and only toilet.
— Jon Cardinelli (@jon_cardinelli) September 26, 2019
How did I get here?
I’d been walking the streets of Fushimi in search of a late lunch when a storm broke and sent dizzy tourists and locals alike running for cover. After standing under the awning of a convenience store for 10 minutes, I spotted a couple of fans – one in an All Blacks jersey and the other in the red and white stripes of Japan – running under the small torii gate that marks the entrance to this district.
The fans headed down a staircase and into a pub that I hadn’t noticed before. I decided to follow them and see what was happening underground.
‘The ABs are just too arrogant, mate,’ my new friend continued. Others in the bar cheered as Ireland powered over for yet another try.
A Canadian joined the conversation and asked me if I could score him tickets for the pool game between South Africa and Canada in Kobe next month.
‘I just hope that we don’t embarrass ourselves against the Bokke,’ he said.
We ordered another round. East Coast Radio presenter Gareth Jenkinson arrived to catch the end of the second half.
As we finished our drinks and made a move towards a nearby restaurant famous for its udon ramen, the owner appeared with a bottle of clear liquid and several short glasses.
‘Sake,’ he said.
His tone and expression brooked no argument. It would have been rude to refuse.
Been a long day shuttling between the Bok hotel in Nagoya and the training ground an hour’s drive away in Ichinomiya.
— Jon Cardinelli (@jon_cardinelli) September 24, 2019
Last week in Tokyo, my experience of Japanese cuisine was limited to a few late-night snacks from a nearby convenience store.
‘You can’t go wrong with an onigiri or three if you don’t have time for a sit-down meal,’ Duane Vermeulen told me. The rice balls with the chicken or tuna centre certainly filled the gap when I was returned from the Tokyo or Yokohama Stadiums after midnight.
I’ve eaten far better since arriving in Nagoya. A few of the South African journalists got together to experience an izakaya on Monday evening. The tapas were second only to the lively atmosphere. You know it’s loud when you’re struggling to hear a Gavin Rich-soliloquy about the Natal rugby side of the 1990s.
I had my best dining experience by accident the following night.
I popped across the road to what I thought that I was another izakaya. My phone – which was using the hit-and-miss Google translate app – was struggling to decipher the Japanese characters on the menu outside.
‘Delicious! You try,’ a couple of patrons leaving the establishment assured me. I put my phone away and decided to take their word for it.
A husband-and-wife team welcomed me with a deep bow. I took off my shoes and was shown to my seat, which had a view of the chef preparing the food. A recently deceased octopus hung from a hook two metres away.
The menu was in Japanese. One of the owners spoke a bit of English and assured me that the set menu was the way to go.
I thought that the set menu had arrived all at once when six bowls filled with sashimi, salad and fish livers were laid before me. To be fair, it wasn’t a bad spread.
Then my waitress arrived with a small charcoal grill and a cut of swordfish, yellowtail and octopus. I barely had time to cook the food before my next course – a large grilled fish – was set down.
An assortment of tempura arrived next, and finally a giant bowl of uomeshi (fish rice). The accompanying bowl of miso soup was a meal in itself.
The owners chatted to me over the course of the seafood marathon. I asked them to teach me some Japanese, and they patiently endured my attempts at pronouncing a few simple phrases.
They told me that they planned to go and watch the Japan-Scotland game in Yokohama at the end of the pool phase. They were very interested to hear that the Boks were staying at a hotel less than 100m down the road.
— Jon Cardinelli (@jon_cardinelli) September 25, 2019
The Boks trained in Ichinomiya this past week. While it was a bit of hack out to the ground – I caught a ride with four other journalists in a modestly sized Toyota for the two-hour round trip each day – the facilities and local support were first-class.
When we arrived at the open training session on Wednesday, we were greeted by a horde of fans waiting patiently for the team. The Bok bus hadn’t arrived yet, and it slowly dawned on us that some of the fans thought that we were players.
One man wearing a Bok jersey older than some of the current players asked if we could sort him out with a 2019 World Cup shirt. He wouldn’t accept our explanation that we were writers and demanded that we pose for photographs.
— Jon Cardinelli (@jon_cardinelli) September 25, 2019
I had a similar experience at the coffee shop across the road from the Bok hotel in Nagoya. I’ve got to know the staff behind the counter over the past few days and they have started to ask me questions other than ‘Ogenki desu ka’ (how are you)?
I tried to explain that I’m a South African and that I’m in Japan for the World Cup. One of the servers took this to mean that I am a South African playing in the World Cup.
‘Writer! Writer!’ I said over and over, and did a little pantomime in the hope that it would eradicate confusion. It did not.
She grew more excited and called her co-workers together until they were in a huddle directly in front of me. They cheered and laughed and jumped up and down.
‘Springboks!’ one of them said and then clapped her hands in delight.
It was no use. I put my invisible pen away, paid for my coffee, bowed and then beat a sheepish retreat.