Japan is a big country. But rugby is a small world.
And it got even smaller when, after attending early Rugby World Cup group-stage matches near Tokyo and Nagoya, we opted for a couple of “days off” in Kyoto.
There were no matches in this city. So, without the distraction of having to venture out to a stadium and do stadium things, we looked at it as sort of a culture break — a chance to experience more of Japan.
Alas, with my friends Nathan and Josh, I spent much of those “day off” hours in pubs watching rugby on TV. Because, you know … culture.
Though, to our credit, we did also make time for traditional tattoos and Shinto shrines. So, it wasn’t a complete departure from the goal. But I also wouldn’t say we saw Kyoto.
What’s important is that we (sorta, kinda, maybe, but not really) gave it a shot. In fact, we even stayed in a traditional Japanese townhouse. Think small and rustic. Think sliding walls. Think bed mats on the ground.
Don’t, however, think stray cats pooping everywhere outside our door. There were stray cats pooping everywhere outside our door. Just don’t think it.
Tucked away in a small alley, our quiet little hideaway sat adjacent to one of Kyoto’s many tea houses. This area is called Gion, and it’s known as the city’s geisha district.
Many local men and women walk the streets in beautiful kimonos. And (sigh) so do some of the tourists. Because you can actually rent them by the day. If that’s your thing. Selfies have made us all really weird.
Now, like I said off the top, the world of rugby is small. And, on an otherwise normal Tuesday night, the streets of Gion were filled with traveling fans, all of whom, it seemed, converged at a pub called Man in The Moon to watch Russia play Samoa.
The place was completely packed, so we actually viewed the match on TV through an open window from the sidewalk outside. Which was where Josh randomly bumped into some of his rugby buddies from Denver. Further evidence of rugby’s small world.
Not small, however, was the beer one of his Denver friends soon held with both hands. It was literally bigger than his head. Legend has it he’s still peeing.
For me, it was another night to stand back and observe.
As someone who is brand new to the sport — who only went to Japan 2019 as an excuse to run around wearing a backpack with old friends — what really struck me even more than Josh somehow running into old teammates 6,000 miles from home, was the ever-present, global oneness of rugby.
Here, he and Nathan both had friends from all over the world. They just didn’t know them.
Because, among players and fans, there’s a unique and unmistakable bond. And, just like I witnessed earlier on our trip in a tiny bar in Tokyo, tonight this bond was proudly amplified through song. A rugby song.
You see, rugby people like to sing when they drink. And, at the conclusion of the Russia-Samoa match, as people were filing out and tabs were being paid, a Dutch guy near us reveled with a cheery tune that began, “I used to work in Chicago in an old department store.”
The rest of the song consists of delightfully crass, sexual innuendos and puns that aren’t suitable for print. But, regardless of where fans were from — be it Holland or Australia or America — the people around us all seemed to know it.
Like ancient fables, these call-and-response verses traveled across every ocean as one of the many common threads of the international rugby community.
Perhaps I was experiencing some culture, after all.
The next day, though, was specifically earmarked for local culture. And, for me and Nathan, it started with tattoos.
There’s a traditional Japanese technique known as tebori. It translates as “to carve by hand.” I suppose you could call it analog. Basically, instead of using an electric coil machine — the one that buzzes — the artist repeatedly jabs you with a short bamboo stick tipped with needles.
Personally, I didn’t think it hurt any more or less than a regular tattoo. It just hurt … differently. But the sound of your skin being punctured might haunt you in your dreams. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click.
We found our artist, Kyoi, online and, for several months, had been communicating with him about designs and logistics.
In the end, my final artwork choice was actually not traditional — just a small, thin-lined Mount Fuji in front of a setting red sun.
And, though Kyoi prefers to only do legit, traditional tattoos with the ancient technique, he agreed to do the sun portion as tebori. I was grateful that he allowed me to experience his craft.
After about three hours getting our new ink — the bulk of which was spent on Nathan’s traditional design — we met up with Josh at (wait for it) another pub to watch Fiji play Uruguay. We’d earned a beer break.
A little tired after a few pints and watching what turned out to be a really good match, we then sort of forced ourselves to get back on our feet and visit, perhaps, Kyoto’s most well-known landmark: The Fushimi-Inari Taisha Shrine.
Highlighted by about 1,000 bright orange torii gates covering a long, winding path up the mountain, it’s a visual feast. And to go all the way up takes about two hours. Which was more shrine than we were willing to experience. So we gave it maybe 45 minutes before deciding a nap would also count as a cultural experience.
That, and sushi. Our second night was a little more low key, and we primarily focused on eating things that weren’t cooked, including some delicious raw meat sashimi.
There were no songs. There were no head-sized beers.
Rugby may be a small world, but sometimes it’s nice to travel to another planet.