I knew Tommy a little over the years but only spent time with him really in Tokyo last year when everyone else had departed after the Rugby World Cup. This circumstance was sadly in a hospital ward with, by then, few other visitors.
I was glad and pleased I was available to go in as much as I could. There were many hours spent, and, in lucid moments, tales told of his adventures and laughs in other far flung places. These usually related of course to following a team in green, of all codes and genders.
One funny story I recall off hand, and everyone that knew him has one I am sure, was when he blagged his way into the Irish women’s cricket team’s hotel bar in Bangladesh, the only place open, by claiming he was their ‘physio’!
With his banter and antics he made all the staff in the hospital laugh too. They were very fond of him and he was the ‘celebrity’ on the floor. We parted during that particular journey, his journey of recovery, with a “See you in London”. Sadly that journey didn’t end and there will never now be a ‘see’ in London.
As the often quoted saying goes, but the exception is so true in Tommy’s case,
Postcard from Japan – Joe Loughran/Gemma Bullivant
After doing what we needed to do against Russia, albeit ‘uninspiringly’ (thanks for that BBC Sport), we wait with bated breath for the fourth and final match to determine whether we advance to the knockout stage, and if so, whether we want to be shot or poisoned…. All Blacks or Springboks.
The usual post-mortem discussions included ongoing doubts over Sexton’s fitness, the Henshaw no-show, and Jordie Murphy’s popped rib. Happy days (not).
And so, fuelled with alcohol-induced optimism, we headed south to distract ourselves with some more cultural sights and sounds. From Kobe/Osaka, we headed to Kyoto, the historic capital of Japan. More temples than you can shake a stick at, kimono-clad Geisha everywhere, and a build-your-own-bed scenario.
Clearly there’s only so much culture we could squeeze in before the next rugby instalment, which involved taking a sitting through a very long Australia v Uruguay match, in order to secure prime seats for England v Argentina that followed, and then the highlight match of the day – Japan v Samoa. The locals were in fine voice and large numbers.
The Irish and Scots contingent supporting Samoa, though seriously outnumbered by the enthusiastic Brave Blossoms, both inside and outside the pub. The place positively rocked every time Japan scored, and the final score puts Japan ever closer to progressing to the knockout stage for the first time in their history.
So, with this result, it seemed likely that Ireland and Scotland would be competing for second place in the group, and with that the pleasure of playing the All Blacks next. At this point, while we knew a super typhoon was brewing in the ocean nearby, we didn’t know exactly where it would land, or the impact it would have.
So on we went to the next port of call… Hiroshima. A place that knows all to well about destruction on a huge scale. It was a sobering place. The Peace Museum is an absolute must for every visitor to the area. We headed there early to avoid the crowds and then took a walk through the Peace Park, to take it all in.
Only 30 minutes from Hiroshima is a fabulous island – Miyajima – and the perfect day trip to recalibrate after Hiroshima. It is home to arguably one of the most photographed shrines in Japan. It emerges majestically from the sea at high tide, as if floating on water, and is quite breathtaking from every angle.
The crestfallen faces of the tourists arriving by ferry with cameras at the ready said it all. The shrine was covered in scaffolding! Gemma decided not to be defeated by such inconvenience, and after a quick pit stop at a souvenir shop, proceeded to improvise at every photo opportunity…
And so it was onwards to the last match of the pool stages in Fukuoka. Safely out of harm’s way of the typhoon that was battering the country further north, we prepared ourselves for one last match. The usual madness of match day commenced. We had, by now, become accustomed to meeting Andre in a bar in an obscure, hard to find location. And this was no exception. Tucked neatly past ladies’ perfumes in the Fukuoka station shopping mall, we found him in a great bar, full of locals, who were joining in the excitement of the tournament (and no doubt still revelling in the victory over is in the previous week!)
After a sumptuous local delicacy birthday lunch (thanks Andre) for which I have solid witness statements that I ate it all with only a hint of an idea of what it was (back me up here Matt and Paul!) we went to the stadium for the final match.
Saturday 12th Oct 2019: Joe’s Birthday – 1 year short of the big 50. Ireland v Samoa (Rugby) and Georgia V Ireland (Football). A “sportstastic” day lies ahead.
After respectfully observing the impressive Samoan challenge, the Irish Team proceeded to get “stuck in” – a little bit too much by Bundee Aki (now out of the quarter final). High tackles are being heavily penalised in this World Cup. Despite playing for much of the game with 14 men Ireland ran out convincing winners 47-5.
Meantime, in Tbilisi – Georgia and Ireland play out a very uninspiring (boring) draw. Definitely a chance missed by the Boys in Green. Switzerland away next does not fill me with confidence.
Flying back to London tomorrow after 3 cracking weeks in Japan. Super Typhoon Hagibis is making its way up the coast towards Tokyo to wreak havoc.
The Japanese have been superb hosts and we are left with many fond memories. Definitely a country to return to in the near future.
The lives-up-to-its-billing Shinkansen (bullet train) arrived in Shin-Kōbe Station at 14:14, just like the timetable says. One stop on the metro later I’m in Sannomiya, checking into my hotel (the b Kōbe, smart, utilitarian, close to the night life) and ready to explore Kōbe, host city for Ireland’s third match in the Rugby World Cup.
Perched on a hillside sloping down into Osaka Bay, Kōbe is an attractive, compact, walkable city (humidity notwithstanding). For an overall view of the place, I get on the Hanshin Regional Rail line at Sannomiya – up there with Shinjuku in the easy-to-get-lost stakes – and head east to Mikage Station, where the number 16 bus takes you to the cable car which will carry you up to the top of Mount Rokko. It’s best to sit in the cafe and wait for dusk to descend to fully appreciate the panoramic vista below lit up by the city lights. Nice though it is, it doesn’t live up to its nickname of The Ten Million Dollar View (how exactly do you assign a monetary value on a sight?). And of course Mount Rokko is afflicted by that blight of modern tourism, hordes of selfie stick-wielding, Chinese tourists. Such is life…
Returning back to Sannomiya, I take a wander to further explore Kōbe. Much of it appears to be deserted at night and I somehow end up rambling down to the port district in the south. In this day and age it should be theoretically impossible to get lost what with smartphones and Google Maps and somesuch. That assumption predicates on working Wi-Fi or a strong phone signal, things my increasingly wonky travel phone is lacking. But having been to Kōbe many moons ago, I knew to head in the opposite direction of the Port of Kōbe Tower that illuminated the night like a giant red beacon. Eventually I stumble across a metro station and end up back in Sannomiya for dinner.
Kōbe Beef is Wagyu beef from the Tajima strain of Japanese black cattle raised in Hyōgo Prefecture according to strict rules. The meat is a delicacy, valued for its flavour, tenderness, and fatty, well-marbled texture. And it is not cheap. But when in Kōbe, you have to take the one time hit and try it at least once. So I search for a suitable place (i.e. speaks English, accepts cards), eventually finding one in an upstairs teppanyaki joint and chow down in the company of a couple of Russians who are also in Kōbe for the match. Over dinner, they tell me that only about 200 of their countrymen are here for the tournament, and though the talent is there, the Russian rugby team will only improve once they start playing against Tier 1 nations regularly but they won’t for political reasons. And the food? Yes it was very flavoursome and you could see why Kōbe Beef is prized. The final bill came to about £80.00 for me, which didn’t seem too bad. Maybe I’ve been living in London too long…
It was now just after 10pm. I was only intending to stop off for a wee nightcap on the way back to my hotel. Next thing I knew, it was 2am. Basically, Avery’s Irish Pub was packed out (it only takes about 20 to fill it) and people were being turned away at the door. Consequently there was a group of about a dozen Irish fans gathered outside in the street drinking cans. They invited me to join their “Can Zone” (geddit? Instead of Fan Zone?). Feeling it would be impolite to ignore such a request, I dash up the road to the Family Mart convenience store – which must have done a roaring trade in tins that night – to stock up and made merry with them in the warm Kōbe night.
I can remember starting a rendition of Amhrán na bhFiann (why not? It certainly wasn’t going to be sung at the match). I can vaguely recall giving my insect bite antidote to some poor girl who wasn’t spared by the mossies. There’s also a dim recollection of the local plod politely moving us along. And there is evidence on my phone of ending up in some back alley dive bar. But I definitely know I had the kind of fun times that almost certainly would not have occurred had it been with any other group of folk.
Much as I drank, it wasn’t bad enough to induce a much of a hangover Thursday morning. I was up and out to Sannomiya station for breakfast at Mcdonalds (bad form, I know. But I can’t be doing steamed fish and rice for brekkie). Then it was onto the metro down to the Harbourland district. On the 17th of January 1995, one of the worst earthquakes of the 20th century struck Kōbe. 6,000 people were killed and over 300,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. One of the worst hit areas was Kōbe Harbour, a maritime gateway from the earliest days and amongst the first ports of entry to Japan when it ended its isolation. The completely destroyed harbour has since been rebuilt, and there sits here an open air memorial museum telling of what happened through artefacts, a video presentation (with English commentary in an Irish accent) and most starkly of all, part of the harbour preserved exactly as the earthquake left it. It was good to see also the many Irish folk here too, belying the cares-only-about-drinking Paddy stereotype.
Next was a metro ride back to Shin Kōbe station. For behind it lies the revered Nunobiki Falls. Getting there though, is a slog; a steep 400m climb up many dodgy steps that obliterated lofty presumptions of my fitness levels (I blame the humidity. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it). That said, the resultant views were totally worth it. There’s actually four separate waterfalls, the tallest of which rising to 43m. They looked positively mystical in the midday light and it wasn’t hard to see why they have inspired art, poetry and worship for centuries. Back down to Shin Kōbe station and as I make my way to the metro, by a complete million to one chance, Emeldah spots me. She is the fiancé of Tommy Feely, legendary Ireland supporter, RISSC London stalwart and my fellow WONS Orphanage cohort. They had just arrived in Kōbe from Tokyo and were lunching in a station restaurant when she saw me walk by, so I joined them for a quick drink. It was good to finally catch up with the couple having missed them in Tokyo.
Onward I went to lunch at a place not 100m from my hotel. Wanto Burger is an American-type diner, the twist being that it serves towering burgers made with Kōbe Beef. It’s a place highly recommended by the Lonely Planet guidebook and by the time I get there, the queue – Irish to a man (and woman) – stretched out the door. I’d condemn them as blind followers of guidebooks but for the fact that’s why I’m here too. Thankfully the wait was only 20 minutes to get seated inside, service however was terrible and the second queue to pay the bill was just as bad. It’s saving grace however, was the outstanding food. It really takes the humble hamburger to another level when you use wagyū as your main ingredient, giving the beef heightened flavour. Very messy to eat, but I cared not.
Fully fed, I head on to meet Andre the Treasurer at Ootoya, 100m the other side of my hotel. He is there with John McGinley and wife Susan, Joe Loughran and wife Gemma (this was practically an RISSC London Committee splinter group meeting!) where I finally collect my match tickets. As I set off for the match, the patchy drizzles that had blighted the day morphed into outright monsoons by the time I reach the Noevir Kōbe Stadium, But it mattered not, the roof was going to be closed and my Rugby World Cup had started at last. As the crowds entered the Noevir Kōbe Stadium (renamed the Kōbe Misaki Stadium for the purposes of the tournament) I could finally get a sense of the occasion. Kōbe folk, who couldn’t have been nicer and helpful to us visitors as it was, had turned out fully to support the Irish team. Many of them decked out in Ireland rugby jerseys, and a significant few were wearing Ireland football shirts (a curious number of them unsponsored!). The 10,000 travelling Irish fans were clearly going to be augmented with local support. Collectively we roared on Ireland to a win over Russia that was not as comfortable as it might have been. The Irish team clearly took their foot off the pedal in the second half and only when the Russians threatened to get back into the game did Ireland pull out a couple of tries to round off a 35-0 win. I had a great time here, not least because proper SLR cameras were allowed in the stadium, and telephoto lenses too. So I made full use of my 70-300mm zoom and captured some spectacular shots. And if that wasn’t enough, Maiko was here.
Maiko from Kanazawa did post-graduate studies at Galway University and became a fan of Galway United (and Supermacs onion rings!). For many years afterwards she travelled at great expense from Japan to follow the Irish national football team around Europe (so much so that Maiko was made an honorary member of RISSC London). These days such adventures aren’t viable now that she is married and with three children, but Maiko was determined to come cheer on the Irish rugby team, even if it entailed a five hour drive to get here. I knew she would be at this match but didn’t think I would see her as she was off home straight afterwards. But as fate would have it, Maiko and her kids were sitting just two rows away from me. It was a delightful unexpected bonus to see her before my visit to Kanazawa the following weekend. However it took forever to leave the stadium, because Maiko and her three children were togged out in Galway GAA jerseys for the occasion and so many Irish supporters wanted photos with them that it was nearly two hours before I was finally able to see them off in town.
I hadn’t eaten yet, and here begins another unplanned night out with Irish fans. I stop for a bite to eat at a cheap diner near my hotel and got chatting to pair of siblings from Cork. They persuade me to come join them for a quick drink afterwards. That ‘quick drink’ involved squeezing into an absolutely heaving Hub pub, where getting a drink at the bar is a non-starter and we resort to illicitly smuggling in cans (hello again , Family Mart), fuelling a sing-song the likes of which has never been heard at this basement bar.
For all that, I have no difficulty making it to Shin-Kōbe station the next morning. Kōbe was wet, boozy, delicious fun. It’s nine days until Ireland’s last pool match against Samoa, so I’ve planned out an entire schedule before then; first to Matsuyama (for a J-pop concert), then all the way up to Kanazawa (to visit Maiko), then onwards to Nagoya, Osaka and Yamaguchi before ending up in Fukuoka for the last game. Not a typical Ireland supporter’s itinerary. But then in so many ways, I’m not a typical Ireland supporter…
Picking up from where Andre left off, we are in recovery mode between the first and second match.
Ireland v Scotland was a great start to the tour, with green shirts and tartan as far as the eye could see. We strongly refute Andre’s inference that we are always late – just occasionally… and he did seem happy enough with his carafe(s) of wine while he waited!
So with a few days after the first match to see the sights, we ventured west (or possibly north) to the other coast – Kanazawa for a bit of culture. There was a large castle, traditional Japanese garden (apparently one of the best in the country), and an ice cream while we watched the kimonos walk by.
And while we cooked our own dinner, there was plenty of time to reflect on the demolition of Scotland, and preparation for the weekend when we take on the best that 126 million Japanese can muster.
Not content with the castle etc, my wife decided we must see Mt Fuji. So the next day we were back on the train, heading south towards the Big Famous Mountain, where I was promised a hotel on a hill (she omitted to mention it was a 30 minute climb), and fantastic views. Mt Fuji is an elusive fella, generally found hiding behind clouds and annoying the hell out of tourists who’ve travelled for miles. But see it we did, so another one ticked off the list. Nice cycle around a whale-shaped lake while we waited patiently for the clouds to part, and cycling off the alcohol from previous days.
On return train from the Big Mountain, breaking news on RTE informs us that Schmidt has made 5 changes to the team for the Japan match. Of note, Jack Carty to replace Sexton (ongoing injury concern? The wife reckons he may have broken another nail), Kearney and Earls to return and fight for their places, Chris Farrell (Ireland’s current best centre), and Jack Conan at number 8. (Conan subsequently out of the World Cup having sustained a broken foot in training).
Thursday 26th Sept was an evening of Welsh madness with a somewhat random Manic Street Preacher’s concert (are they funding their tour here? Nice work if you can get it). First half of the gig was poor – Big shout out (aka heckle) from Andre (we all agreed) – second half much improved, only for the news of Richard Keogh’s car crash to reach us. Duffy & Keogh both out and two qualifying games fast approaching. Damn or similar wording was used.
Match Day – Japan V Ireland Saturday 28th Sept 2019 in Shizuoka. Early train from Tokyo to travel to the stadium and soak up the atmosphere. We arrived at 9am – the fan-zone and food stalls did not open until 11am. I was advised there was not much to do near the ground and sure enough we had multiple cups of coffee and a burger to pass the time in the only open café. The Japanese owner let us in at 9.15am. Another example of Japanese kindness and hospitality.
Our two travelling companions joined us – Rhian Hughes – she of the Welsh shoes fame – and Gary Hughes – 50th Birthday today and all set to enjoy the occasion. A win today and then Ireland can rest our best players against Russia and Samoa.
Unfortunately the Japanese had not read that particular script and out-fought and out-thought us on the pitch for 80 minutes and deservedly won 19-12. The Samurai Warriors in front of us were delirious and even Godzilla to our left was ecstatic.
The inevitable Irish post-mortem to follow on the train journey back to Tokyo. Still, a cracking day and atmosphere and nice to be part of Japanese rugby history.
Ireland v Scotland – Yokohama, Japan – Sunday 22 September 2019
Boarded flight ANA608 on Friday morning from Miyazaki to Tokyo Haneda. As usual I was the only foreigner on board. This time it felt stranger than usual. I was going to an Ireland Rugby World Cup match!
I spotted a few Japan shirts in the terminal. One local lad was clocking my Leinster rugby jacket and trying to work out where I was from. We had a short chat in the security queue. He was going to the opening ceremony while I was off to the Ireland match in Yokohama. But, I had some other business before.
Friday night was the opening ceremony and Japan’s first game so I headed to the “Hub” (British style pub chain) in Kamata early doors, to get a seat. Was not just fortunate to get a prime seat, but also got a free glass of red as a belated birthday present from the bar manager. My birthday was early June.
Japan started nervously and had the mainly local crowd in the bar seriously worried. But as yer man with the hair, Kotaro, started running in the tries, the roars and cheers were deafening! A chance meeting and conversation with a new acquaintance, Kodai san, led to him taking my spare tickets for the Ireland Scotland match, I didn’t tell him he was going to have to sit with John McGinley and Paul Boyle, I didn’t want to put him off!
I was up at sparrow’s fart on Saturday morning, down to Yokohama to find Paul Boyle, to give him his rugby tickets, because I was off to the Bloodaxe Festival in Kawasaki. A full day of local hardcore metal bands and a few travelling over from America. One of the bands I wanted to see was on at the ungodly hour of 2pm, so I was watching the clock.
On the way, I was planning to go to a standing bar, also in Kawasaki. I had seen it featured on a television programme hosted by Yoshida Rui san, who travels the country finding interesting pubs and bars. This standing bar is very unique, selling booze, tinned fish & meats, nuts & snacks, and…..retro model aeroplane kits, tanks, ships, etc. There is room to fit five customers at the bar, any more would be a squeeze. The other three customers when I arrived were drinking cheap cans of beer. Panicking slightly (don’t drink beer), I was relived to see, out of the corner of my eye, “ワイン” scribbled on a poster above one of the fridges. So I ordered a glass of red, or three!
As 2pm fast approached I was on my toes over to Club Citta, in the very European looking part of Kawasaki. I knew the gig was sold out but did not expect to find it rammed just before 2pm. Maybe there were more than just me wanting to see the band Varials? Not a rugby fan in sight. The next bands I wanted to see were not on until 8pm so a quick exit for a “break”. Stumbled across another “Hub” and went in to see if there was anyone in there I knew. It was not an Ireland away soccer match so, alas, no familiar faces! Nevertheless I met another three great people that I hope to meet again, from Edinburgh, Laois, and North Wales.
Sunday arrived and I arranged to meet Kodai san, Joe Loughran, and John McGinley at a cheap restaurant chain (Saizeriya) near Shin Yokohama station. I texted the Irish lads at 10am and gave them location and said I would be there about 11:30am. Got the usual responses: on my way, be there in about an hour, etc. Joe and Gemma arrived at 1pm and John at 2pm! I texted Kodai san and arranged to meet him at same place at 2pm – he arrived at 1:55pm – I rest my case.
Seventeen years ago I was lucky to have been to the Ireland vs Saudi Arabia match in Yokohama. It was great to return to the same stadium. Paul Boyle was waiting for me and he had loads of stories from the night before. You can ask him all the details! What a fantastic person to sit beside. Paul reads the game like a professional. The comments, reactions, and exclamations from him during the game are better than some radio commentators.
Kodai san and his fiancée, Tomo san, are a truly wonderful couple. They arrived in matching green shirts and had the tricolour painted on their always smiling faces. They are to be married on November the 1st. Should Ireland make the final scheduled for the next day, John McGinley has threatened to gate crash their wedding! I hope they misheard that bit of the conversation.
of all the bars….
After the final whistle we decided to go to the bar Garvan Hickey was in pre-match to see if he’d be there again. Garvan wasn’t there but Tommy Feeley was, and Emelda. She had arrived the night before and was smiling, despite the 27 hour journey. We found Garvan in the bar next door. In reality, Shin Yokohama really is quite small! Tommy was in great form, planning trips, buying drinks, and of course reminiscing.
The world cup continues on for Ireland in a southerly direction to Shizuoka, Kobe, and Fukuoka. And then a quarter-final in Tokyo. After that the semi-final and final are back in Yokohama, we would love two more trips back here. Can the dream become a reality? We live in hope.