What to expect of Japan as host nation for Rugby World Cup 2019

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Next September, roughly 400,000 visitors will descend upon Japan as Asia's first Rugby World Cup kicks off, with the future of the sport's global appeal in the balance.

"For the travelling fans, there's no doubt, this will be a once in a lifetime experience," says Rich Freeman, rugby correspondent for Kyodo News, Japan's foremost news agency.

"It's the first World Cup to be played outside the traditional rugby heartlands of Europe and the southern hemisphere. It should be a great opportunity to grow the game and give fans a completely different experience to what they're used to."

Regardless of success or failure, it could be the last time the World Cup features in Asia for a generation. So what can fans expect when they arrive in 12 months' time?

"Don't expect things to run smoothly," warns Freeman. "Some cities are starting to have a real World Cup feel to them. And the Sunwolves Super Rugby experiment from a fan's' perspective has been positive in drawing a younger, more enthusiastic crowd to matches. But the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) and the local organising committee are still two separate entities."

So far preparations have been plagued by setbacks. The new showpiece national stadium in Tokyo, mired by design issues and spiralling costs, won't be ready in time so the final has been switched to Yokohama. Recent rugby matches in Oita - where two of the RWC quarterfinals will be played - have been known to run out of beer for supporters before halftime, while the broken roof at Toyota meant fans got soaked during the June test match between Japan and Georgia.

The final Bledisloe Cup game between New Zealand and Australia in Yokohama at the end of October and the following Japan match against the All Blacks in Tokyo will reveal if things are starting to improve.

Either way, it will be quite the culture shock for fans accustomed to the home comforts of more established international rugby venues. "Japan isn't used to hosting big [rugby] games," says Freeman. "Many stadiums are pretty inaccessible, taking as long as three hours to reach from the nearest major city." Ominously it will also be typhoon season when the tournament kicks off, while Freeman adds that "you can never write off an earthquake in this country".

Chris Cracknell, the former England Sevens star who is now Fiji Sevens assistant coach, has a somewhat sunnier outlook on what to expect, having played in Japan when the Tokyo Sevens was part of the World Series between 2011 and 2015.

"The cultural differences will be what sets next year's World Cup apart," says Cracknell. "The food, the travel -- it works and is bloody efficient but also complex -- and the language barrier will be a great shock but everyone is very courteous, polite and calm and it's one of the most beautiful countries to visit.

"Rugby is much bigger in Japan than we in western society realise. It's supported well come rain, shine or even snow, with great surf in the south and ski conditions in the north to keep fans entertained. I personally think it will be a great success and well supported."

Ultimately the success of the tournament could rely on the fortunes of the home team. Japan famously shocked South Africa and the world with a stunning victory against the Springboks in the opening weekend of the last Rugby World Cup in 2015, under the guidance of Eddie Jones. But the sport still trails a long way behind soccer and baseball in the national interests.

Yasuhiro Miyanaga, a former player and the JRFU's executive in Miyazaki, where England will initially be based next October, is similarly understated about the prospects for the tournament.

"A strong Japan will mean a strong World Cup," he says. "But if Japan lose, the supporters will have no motivation to watch the rest of the games. It's very important Japan do well."

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Tokyo Stadium, Capacity: 49,970

Notable group match: Australia v Wales, Sep. 29

With more than 38 million inhabitants, Japan's heaving capital, in the shadow of Mount Fuji, is the most populated city in the world. Ten percent of the nation crams inside its sprawling metropolitan area and the vast majority of the 400,000 predicted international fans are sure to pay it a visit. Tokyo Stadium, commonly known as Ajinomoto Stadium, is located in Chōfu, 20km south of downtown Tokyo. It will host the opening ceremony and match between Japan and Russia, as well as England's penultimate group stage game with Argentina.

For a chance to catch the iconic sumos in action, start your World Cup tour in the capital - Tokyo's Ryōgoku Kokugikan hosts The September Tournament from September 9 to 23.


International Stadium Yokohama, Capacity: 72,327

Notable group match: New Zealand v South Africa, Sep. 21

Japan's second largest city and capital of Kanagawa Prefecture -- one of 47 prefectures that divide up the country -- is well connected to Tokyo and the surrounding cities by the lightning fast Japanese bullet trains, known as shinkansen. Yokohama's cosmopolitan mix, proximity to Mount Fuji and the surfing hot spots of Enoshima beach and its historical rugby connections make it another must visit landmark.

North of the city the International Stadium Yokohama, aka Nissan Stadium, will host the heavyweight clash between the Springboks and three-time World Cup winning All Blacks. It is also the venue for England vs. France in the pool phase, as well as both semifinals and the final on Saturday Nov. 2.

Yokohama Football Club was founded in 1866, making it the oldest club in Asia and among the oldest in the world. Now recognised as the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club (YC&AC) it's also one of the only clubs in Japan with its own bar.


Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa, Capacity: 50,889

Notable group match: Japan v Ireland, Sep. 28

West of Yokohama lies Shizuoka, one of the most scenic areas of Japan's Pacific coast in the foothills of Mount Fuji and close to the hot spring resorts of the Izu Peninsula. Just note you might be refused entry to the traditional public baths -- known as onsen -- if you bear visible tattoos.

The Shizuoka Rugby Club will be sure to welcome visiting fans -- tattooed or otherwise -- with a pint of lager or cup of green tea, given the area is Japan's leading prefecture for the healthy hot beverage.


Hanazono Rugby Stadium, Capacity: 30,000

Notable group match: Georgia v Fiji, Oct. 3

The Hanazono Rugby Stadium is embedded in the Osaka Prefecture, recognised as the cultural and historical heart of Japan. It is more bold and brash than beautiful. In nearby Osaka, Japan's third largest city, fans will dine like kings. That is: to overconsumption. The city's unofficial slogan is kuidaore (eat until you drop).

The Minami district is the centre of Osaka's eating and drinking scene. Dishes are typically deep-fried or grilled and stuffed with locally caught delicacies, such as squid or octopus.


City of Toyota Stadium, Capacity: 45,000

Notable group match: Japan v Samoa, Oct. 5

Toyota City is home to the automobile giant and affiliated rugby side, one of the most popular teams in the domestic Top League, which will be sure to draw a deeply passionate home support for the Brave Blossoms' tie with Samoa on October 5. The all-African match between South Africa and Namibia a week earlier could be equally memorable for action in the stands, if not on the pitch. For the history buffs there will be plenty to explore with much of Japan's Samurai heritage traced to the region.


Sapporo Dome, Capacity: 41,410

Notable group match: England v Tonga, Sep. 22

Sapporo on the northernmost island of Hokkaido will host England's opening match of the tournament. It will likely be too early to embrace Japan's world class skiing conditions, but it should provide the chance to glimpse the famous autumn foliage known as koyo or momiji-gari, celebrated with festivals across the archipelago. As the weather cools from mid-September, deciduous trees become ablaze with shades of red, orange, and yellow.


Oita Stadium, Capacity: 40,000

Notable group match: Wales v Fiji, Oct. 9

The nature lover's paradise, with over 70% covered in thick forest or volcanic terrain. It's considered one of the first places where Buddhism took hold in Japan, with Buddha statues carved into cliffs, especially in Usuki. Oita's Beppu resort region is home to eight onsen hot spots known as jigoku meguri (literally, circuit of hells), where intrepid fans can also sample Ōita's infamous fugu, or poisonous blowfish, prepared by licensed chefs.

Even if that doesn't appeal, Oita will host two of the tournament's quarterfinals, including the winner and runner-up matches from Pool C, which will deliver two of England, France and Argentina to the last eight, making it an essential visit on your World Cup itinerary. It's also the nearest host city to the site of the world's first atomic bomb attack in Hiroshima -- a 4.5 hour shinkansen ride away.


Fukuoka Hakatanomori Stadium, Capacity: 22,563

Notable group match: Ireland v Samoa, Oct. 12

Fukuoka on the north of the southern island of Kyushu is one of the strongest rugby regions in Japan, thanks to its concentration of rugby playing high schools, universities and Top League teams. If the historic shrines, temples and castle ruins don't capture the attention of the visiting Irish fans, Fukuoka's rich food culture surely will. Don't miss the local delicacies of Hakata tonkotsu ramen noodles or famous grilled eel (unagi no seiro-mushi). There's even a decent selection of Irish pubs for homesick fans.


Kumamoto Stadium, Capacity: 32,000

Notable group match: France v Tonga, Oct. 6

Home to the Aso national park, one of the world's largest volcanic caldera, Kumamoto offers a good jump off point for fans to explore Japan's stunning subtropical southern islands of Okinawa and Ryukyu. For the culinary adventurous, you can also sample local specialities including basashi, or horse meat sashimi.


Kobe Misaki Stadium, Capacity: 30,132

Notable group match: Scotland v Samoa, Sep. 30

Kobe City is where Dan Carter, match-winning hero of the last Rugby World Cup final, is currently plying his trade with the Kobelco Steelers. The Top League will be suspended when the World Cup rolls into town, denying travelling fans of one last glimpse of the three time world player of the year in action. But the Nadagogo district and its countless sake breweries will provide ample cause to stop by this vibrant city.


Kumagaya Rugby Stadium, Capacity: 24,000

Notable group match: Argentina v USA, Oct. 9

North of Tokyo, Kumagaya prides itself as Japanese rugby's "hallowed ground of the East", thanks to its national high school rugby tournament, played annually in the spring. Framed by two rivers, the city is a peaceful off-the-beaten-track alternative to Japan's capital and a great place to soak up the nation's culture at your own pace.


Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium, Capacity: 16,187

Notable group match: Fiji v Uruguay, Sep. 25

The smallest capacity ground being used in the tournament, Kamaishi has been chosen as a host city to acknowledge the great recovery the region has made since the terrible Great East Japan Earthquake and consequent tsunami of March 11, 2011, which killed more than 18,000 people. In Kamaishi, 1,145 of the city's 35,000 population perished.

The annual Kamaishi Festival and famous tiger dances (Toramai) held during the third week of October will provide a much-needed party atmosphere for travelling fans.