Sunday 20 October 2019

Ruaidhri O'Connor: 'Locals unfailingly polite on the slow train back to Toyohashi'

Commuters are pictured on a Japan Railway train in Sapporo, Japan September 23, 2019. REUTERS/Edgar Su
Commuters are pictured on a Japan Railway train in Sapporo, Japan September 23, 2019. REUTERS/Edgar Su
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

BEFORE he sits down in the empty seat, the elderly gentleman asks politely if we mind him doing so.

Manners are everything on the slow train from Toyohashi where the Welsh fans and the local commuters rub shoulders without really mixing as they wind their way through the towns and past the paddy fields towards the City of Toyota.

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When he glances at the lap-top screen and realises we’re watching Ireland’s win over Scotland, our neighbour is energised.

He, it turns out, is well-travelled and has decent English. He even made it to Cardiff once a long time ago on a business trip. Although he never got to Ireland, he’s fond of a Guinness and says there are ways and means to find a good pint locally.

Our friend imagines Ireland is much like Japan, but colder and we find common ground in the fact that things will be tough for the hosts against the "very strong, very big" Irish on Saturday.

Making the three-train, two-hour journey north-west from Hamamatsu in the Shizuoka prefecture (province) to Toyota in Aichi proves more seamless than feared.

The initial plan outlined by Google Maps suggested two buses would be needed as well as the trains, with changes at complicated transfers looking tricky enough but when we got to first potential mistake there were local officials with big signs pointing us in the direction of the World Cup.

Unfailingly polite and overwhelmingly friendly, the local volunteers go to real lengths to make sure your stay is an enjoyable one and you don’t get lost.

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Invariably, however, those exchanges are superficial; especially when your Japanese lexicon extends to three phrases: ‘Konnichiwa’ (hello), ‘sayanora’ (goodbye) and the ever-reliable ‘arigato gozaimasu’ (thank you).

The ubiquitous use of the latter, delivered in the best Japanese accent and combined with a slight bow, appears to be the key to getting out of any situation presented by the language barrier.

As it winds its way towards Toyota, the slow train offers a chance to see a bit of the country and experience a little of the life outside the big city.

Around Tokyo, where Ireland were based for in Chiba and Yokohama for the first 10 days of their World Cup odyssey, the packed trains are full of locals silently scrolling through their phones. A bit like the morning Luas, but with jingles and public service announcements constantly assaulting the senses.

Joe Schmidt’s men move further south as they go, before they return to Tokyo on quarter-final weekend.

Not that it’s all greenery and scenery; the train approaches its destination and our friend points out the window and tells us the sprawling industrial complex alongside is the headquarters of the eponymous car-manufacturer, where around 20,000 employees ply their trade.

He begins to tell us of a famous shogun who once called this place home, but we were rolling into Toyotashi Station and we all had a match to get to so we said our goodbyes.

The World Cup certainly livened the place up on what would normally be a sleepy Monday night, with street-vendors and local bar owners out in force on the walk from the train station to the stadium.

The Welsh fans were out in force, while curious locals came for a look. There were more empty seats than we saw in Yokohama, but this was never going to be the same draw as the clashes in Yokohama over the weekend.

Home of Nagoya Grampus, formerly Grampus Eight of Gary Lineker fame, the 45,000-capacity ground rises above the city like a stretched-out Thomond Park.

We came to see if Wales were still reeling from the Rob Howley controversy and it turns out they weren’t. The Six Nations champions scored within 130 seconds and never looked back.

Like all of the Tier Two countries whose access to fixtures like this is deeply restricted, Georgia battled manfully in the knowledge that they hadn’t a hope of pulling off a shock.

For all that the World Cup provides great colour and exciting games, it also exposes the deeply flawed structure of the game of rugby and the competing interests are showing no signs of finding a common ground.

Georgia coach Milton Haig addressed that fact in his post-match press conference, while Warren Gatland looked ahead to the next big Tier-One clash against Australia on Sunday.

In the mixed zone, we grabbed a word with Munster-bound scrum coach Graham Rowntree and Leinster’s incumbent Robin McBryde slipped past as we did. One out of two ain’t bad.

For the Lelos and their formidable pack and increasingly evasive backs, Uruguay and Fiji are the focus. They’ll reset and go again, knowing the big guns will be beyond their reach as long as they’re kept at arm’s length administratively.

Many had returned to the bigger, more vibrant Nagoya by the time we returned to the city but the bars that were open were packed with red jerseys and doing a roaring train.

On the slow train back to Toyohashi and on to Hamamatsu, things were suitably quiet as we rolled through the paddy fields and back towards that familiar world of Ireland injury updates and injury updates.

Monday wasn't wasn’t much of a game, but it was worth the trip all the same.

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