Imagine a Conor Murray or James Ryan obliged to walk through pre-match drinkers outside pubs in Beggars Bush

Imagine a Conor Murray or James Ryan obliged to walk through pre-match drinkers outside pubs in Beggars Bush
Conor Murray.

Word has reached us that Chiba’s stock isn’t exactly high back home.

Concerns have been raised that the boys here are in quarantine, safely away from any World Cup giddiness in a spot which has been compared to the industrial estate hotel in Bordeaux that their predecessors had to call home and which came to symbolise the soulless performances posted at the 2007 World Cup.

Rest easy, folks, it’s not nearly that bad.

Chiba, or the part of it housing Joe Schmidt’s boys, is no paradise. It’s a strangely grey strip of land 40km southeast of Tokyo and the overcast and sometimes wet weather has done little to paint it in any better light.

Context, though. It could be much worse.

The Irish contingent landed in the wake of typhoon Faxai and a 16th typhoon of the season has already been spotted out near Guam.

Now that may be something to worry about.

As for Chiba, Kokusai-odori Avenue, which houses the team hotel, is a starkly functional street flanked by flatpacked skyscrapers, office blocks, shopping malls, and interlocked with raised pavements. Think the main strip in Las Vegas but without the glitz, the glamour, or the gambling.

Thing is, though, first impressions can be misleading. There is life in this place. Plenty of it.

The Chiba Marines baseball stadium is a home run away from the hotel and the Plena Makuhari mall a warren of hidden treasures, most of them involving traditional Japanese eateries or superbly-stocked sporting outlet stores.

The Makuhari Messe, Japan’s national convention centre, is just across the road and it hosted the annual Tokyo Games convention over the weekend.

An endless line of humanity poured off the commuter trains from the capital throughout Saturday and Sunday morning to take that in.

And there was still plenty of life left around Kaihimmakuhari Station both evenings as the locals gathered and the bars and restaurants, most of them hidden away on upper floors in malls or office buildings, filled and the drinks flowed.

The players probably saw little enough of that but, hey, that’s touring nowadays.

Shaking off the jetlag was the priority after their arrival last Thursday and there is plenty to occupy them in the hotel aside from Netflix and whatever games room has been set up for them.

The hotel boasts saunas, swimming pools, tennis courts, and an indoor driving range that should help keep the golf handicaps in check.

Deprived they are not, but you couldn’t blame them either for setting their sights beyond Chiba when Sunday came and they were let loose for a first day of leisure in Japan.

They scattered and made, almost to a man, for Tokyo, whose high skyline stands as an alluring vision across the bay.

The majority seemed happy to be simply swallowed up by the city. Instagram pictures abounded of bustling streets but Jonathan Sexton and Cian Healy took a defined path out to the Ryōgoku Kokugikan beside the Samida River where the Autumn Basho sumo tournament was in full swing and the unbeaten Okinoumi was stamping his authority on the senior Makuuchi division.

Johnny Sexton.
Johnny Sexton.

Legend has it that the very origin of the Japanese race depended on the outcome of a sumo match when the god Takemikazuchi won a bout with the leader of a rival tribe. Sport as a matter of life and death?

There should be a quote coined for that. As for tangible evidence of sumo and its religious origins, that goes back 1,500 years.

That tradition is its strength. Referees still read out the names of competitors from an elaborate paper scroll though smart phones have long removed the need.

There are dozens of bouts per day in tournaments that span two weeks apiece, yet there is as much time devoted to ceremony and pomp and pageantry. Matches themselves can end in seconds and often do.

Not everything about it remains rooted in the past. Mongolians, Hawaiians, Georgians, and Bulgarians have all made their mark inside the dohyō.

So much so that only one Japanese wrestler, Kisenosato Yutaka, has been crowned grand champion in the past two decades and he was forced to retire through injury earlier this year. Now, the Japanese again find themselves holding out for a hero.

Life for sumo wrestlers is strictly regimented. Most lived in communal training stables but the best earn renown and close to €400,000 per year, advertise products and earn all sorts of associated perks such as a year’s supply of shiitake mushrooms or gasoline for those who win certain tournaments.

These are big stars in every sense.

It was jarring, then, to see the wrestlers ambling through the adoring crowds outside the stadium and on into the arena as tradition dictates.

Imagine a Conor Murray or a James Ryan being obliged to walk through the pre-match drinkers outside the pubs in Beggars Bush before a game at Lansdowne Road. Thing is, we actually see far more of our rugby players.

There are only six professional sumo tournaments a year and they seem to dominate the media if this week is any barometer.

Okinoumi’s run has led the sports section of the Japan Times the last three days. The World Cup was relegated to an advert in yesterday’s edition and a tiny panel the day before when it was revealed that two octopuses had predicted a pool stage exit for the hosts.

That wouldn’t be good news. Not for a tournament that appears to be struggling for air right now, squeezed as it is between the eternal majesty that is sumo and the once-in-a-lifetime Olympic Games in Tokyo next summer.

Then again, the mollusks also ‘predicted’ that Japan’s only win would come against Ireland.

Don’t believe everything you hear, basically.


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