Convenience stores hit the spot on the World Cup trail in Japan.
In Japan on assignment for the Rugby World Cup, I made the Lawson store and FamilyMart my main sources of sustenance. That first week, while finding my feet, all time was spent either on trains, at rugby stadiums and hotel press-conference rooms, or in my own hotel room — the air-con blasting as I waded through notes and audio and images.
There was no time to sit down and enjoy a meal, so my colleagues and I became experts at Japanese convenience store snacks. The rice tuna triangles, very good. The egg, ham and lettuce sandwiches, surprisingly fresh. The mini chicken and coleslaw wraps, delicious. Pocari Sweat, a good substitute for Powerade. The ready-made pasta did the trick after a late-night match, when I was ravenous at midnight and needed something hearty.
That first week in Tokyo, though ramen and yakitori beckoned from every corner, it all had to wait. There were stories to tell, of people who had made the trip to the World Cup with their families, who had saved and planned for years, who were there for the experience as much as the sport. Stories, too, of the players who came straight from the Pacific to make a better life for themselves and their families; with no knowledge of Japan or its language, they threw themselves into a new culture, a new way of life, forced themselves to learn new things, cemented themselves here and became successful. And stories of the many happy fans, waving flags and with faces painted, singing and cheering on their teams; the loudest fans often barracked for the minnows of the tournament — no one expected them to win, but the fans hoped anyway, they chanted anyway.
When that initial flurry of work died down, when I got my first taste of Japanese food away from the stark white lights of the convenience stores, it was in Osaka. On a solo Google Maps mission, in the bustling markets of Namba, I tried a Michelin-recommended okonomiyaki restaurant, the long line giving the place away. And later, a ramen shop on the corner of a fish market, just a touch away from the lit-up Dōtonbori district. The taste was heaven, just as I remembered it from my first visit to Japan nine years ago. It warmed the soul, gave me energy.
There was also that small sense of achievement at venturing out on my own, discovering things for myself. Back in Tokyo on a day off, I would choose a direction and see where it took me. I stumbled across a hip cafe in Shibuya. Little travel triumphs.
I watched Manu Samoa twice live, drums welcoming the players onto the field. I let go of all journalistic impartiality to yell loudly at the players on the field, willing them to score, to tackle, to not get yellow-carded. I watched them again at a pub in Tokyo. They lost to Japan. There was some comfort in seeing how overjoyed the Japanese fans were in their team’s success. Plus, the pub made a strong gin and tonic. A hangover was avoided thanks to earlier field research — FamilyMart pasta and Pocari Sweat.
This piece originally appeared in the November-December 2019 issue of Metro magazine, with the headline "Food, sweat & rugby".