LAND OF MANY SURPRISES
The All Blacks have been drawn to play their second game of the 2019 World Cup at Oita Stadium. GREGOR PAUL recently flew to Kyushu Island to see for himself what the region has to offer.
NESTLED IN THE SOUTH-WEST, is Japan’s third largest island. It is significantly smaller than both Honshu and Hokkaido and, with 13 million inhabitants, is vastly under populated by Japanese standards.
That’s why the locals say Kyushu is Japan’s forgotten island – a kind of estranged little brother who is misunderstood or, at best, simply not appreciated by its siblings.
But those who live there are quite happy to be Japan’s secret little paradise, which is most definitely what Kyushu is.
It is an island of extreme natural beauty every bit as clean and green as New Zealand, if not more so, and breathtaking in its vistas.
For New Zealanders who make it there, it will appear that Kyushu is a perfect blend of the South and North Islands with towering, breath-taking mountains and geothermal activity. It is where Central Otago meets the Bay of Plenty and the result is spectacular.
As a result, Kyushu is an island with a seemingly endless supply of things to do and see. There is a lifetime of exploring and adventure to be had, and anyone heading to Japan for the World Cup in 2019 simply has to make the journey to Kyushu, and more specifically to Oita.
The draw has been helpful in pushing Kiwis in the direction of Oita. After opening their World Cup campaign against South Africa in Yokohama on September 21, the All Blacks will have a 12-day gap before they play an as yet undecided qualifier at Oita Stadium on October 2.
It is an almost perfect scenario for Kiwis looking for adventure, relaxation and a genuine sense of both traditional and modern Japan. It almost seems that the organisers of the World Cup have deliberately created a travel window for New Zealanders – perhaps as a reward for the All Blacks having won the last two World Cups.
A quick geography lesson is perhaps necessary here to explain that Japan has four main islands, each of which is divided into prefectures, which are the New Zealand equivalent of provinces.
Kyushu has seven prefectures, three of which will host World Cup games. The All Blacks are going to be playing in the Oita Prefecture, in the north-east of the island.
Oita isn’t a rugby stronghold by any means, but it is a venue – a city – with ample sports hosting experience.
It hosted FIFA World Cup games in 2002 and is a renowned athletics venue having hosted several major meets in the last decade. It is the home of the J-League professional football club, Oita Trinita, and earlier in 2017 it hosted a Top 14 rugby game, with about 17,000 people turning up.
Oita Stadium looks like something out a science fiction movie – it is a fiercely modern building, a kind of giant UFO with a retractable roof which is why it is dubbed the ‘all-seeing eye’ by the locals.
It kind of sums up Japan – creative, modern, innovative and different, and with a capacity of 40,000 it will also be hosting two quarter-finals.
But while it is clearly a world class venue that will deliver an immaculate playing surface and an intense and vibrant atmosphere, the real magic of Oita lies in what else it has to offer.
Cups are not defined solely by what happens on the field. They tend to generate a vibe of their own – with the atmosphere at each game reflecting the mood of the visiting fans.
That’s the real measure of the host nation, whether they can instil a sense of wonder, contentment and optimism in those who have travelled from afar to be there.
Can the host sell itself to the masses in terms of what it offers as a destination? The rugby accounts for just 80 minutes so the whole experience of being at a World Cup is defined by the time in between games.
And this is where Oita should be feeling quietly confident about what state of mind it will generate within those rugby fans who travel there looking for a full package, holistic experience.
The All Blacks will have a 12-day stretch in Oita between game one and two, which they will feel, in the modern climate, is more than enough time.
But fans may feel differently, that they would like the gap to be even longer as in Oita, the options on how to fill in time are endless – from monkey parks and geothermal wonders, to flower gardens, traditional bamboo craft centre and stunning temples with enormous stone carvings of Buddhas.
And then there is the food. Kiwis, having developed a taste for sushi, have a sense of what they think Japanese cuisine is all about. But forget what you think you know.
The reality of Japanese cuisine is that it is a miracle of subtlety. The food in Oita is about delicate flavours bringing out the best in locally-sourced ingredients.
The best advice is to arrive with a willingness to try everything and anything. For those brave enough to go outside their comfort zone, rich rewards await.
“...Kyushu is a perfect blend of the South and North Islands with towering, breath-taking mountains and geothermal activity. It is where Central Otago meets the Bay of Plenty and the result is spectacular.”
Oita is famed for its horse mackerel and puffer fish. Yes the fabled puffer fish, also known as blow fish, which can kill the unsuspecting diner if the toxic elements of it haven’t been removed.
But, frankly, the risk seems entirely worth it as there may be no finer pescatarian experience than tempura puffer fish. It is outstanding and not comparable to any other fish in New Zealand.
For the culinarily adventurous, it would be a travesty to go to Oita and not sample this delicacy or try the many different ways in which horse mackerel can be served.
On an equal scale, it would be wrong to go to Oita and not appreciate that the Japanese dining experience is not about volume. It is about cherishing the craft of the kitchen staff and understanding that each dish has been thought about and created to be savoured.
In many ways this is the key to getting the best out of a trip to Japan – to understand that it is a country that places the focus firmly on quality ahead of quantity.
City, which is about 30 minutes drive from Oita City, is twinned with Rotorua. They are sisters far apart, but only in distance.
Beppu is a geothermal wonderland, a constant billowing of steam from one of the 2000-plus natural hot pools hovering over the skyline.
It is moody, dramatic even to drive in from the elevated east and see the city below, alive with activity. There are ‘seven hells’ in Beppu – the name given to the thermal attractions that can only be viewed rather than bathed in. No doubt everyone’s favourite will be ‘Bloody Hell’ the pool which is a deep red given the presence if iron ore within it.
The fact they are called ‘hells’ is illustrative of the magnificently wicked sense of humour that runs through the country. The Japanese are warm, respectful, spiritual people but they also have a collective ability to laugh at themselves – to poke a bit of fun here and there and know when not to take life too seriously.
It is the most endearing mix and makes Japan – Oita Prefecture – a rich tapestry of experience. And one of those experiences in Oita has to be enjoy a hot spring Japanese style. There is infinite choice of where you can do this but two of the best are in Oita City and Nagayu.
The City Spa in Oita is, surprisingly, to be found on the 21st floor of a building located above the city’s central train
station. It commands stunning views from such a vantage point.
Nagayu provides more of a traditional flavour offering up an ancient – although recently renovated – bathhouse in the foothills of the Kuju Mountains
Location is hugely important because hot-spring bathing in Japan is not how it is in New Zealand. Don’t bring goggles because you won’t be putting your head under and don’t bring any togs because you won’t be wearing them.
It’s bathing in the buff, which may sound daunting but isn’t so much in practice. The genders are separated and as long as you pay attention to the procedural expectations, you can have the most tranquil, relaxing, meditative hour or so of total, blissful silence in water that has all sorts of restorative properties.
In Beppu you can also enjoy food cooked in natural steam – the wagyu beef done like this is just ludicrously melt in your mouth good – and stroll through the ancient part of the city which provides a genuine sense of traditional Japan.
And on the tradition front, in Beppu and countless other places in Oita Prefecture, it is possible to stay in traditional Japanese inns – know as Ryokans.
The list of things to do is endless. There is a fascinating bamboo museum displaying the best craft from the region, an aquarium with a uniquely Japanese show, and the Mount Takasaki National Park, where there are around 1400 wild monkeys is an absolute must.
The monkeys have been there for more than 400 years and the park, which has no fences or boundaries, has been open since 1953 as a way of letting humans get close without the primates being held captive.
The holiday town of Yufuin is less than an hour by train, or about the same by car. Best maybe to take the train as the roads are narrow and once you get there, you won’t need any transport.
It is the perfect place to stroll, to relax, sample an extraordinary range of foods and people watch as this is where the moneyed tourists from South Korea, China and other parts of Japan come.
An unexpected highlight in Yufuin is the opportunity to make your own chopsticks. For those who are sceptical, don’t be – the experience provides an insight of sorts into what makes Japan the special place it is.
The first question many Kiwis will ask is how hard can it be to make chopsticks? They are, after all, just two basic pieces of wood that create a form of cutlery. Right?
Not necessarily so. Chopsticks can be art. They can be intricate, detailed and stunningly difficult to make look good. And that’s the essence of the exercise, to see the depth of skill required to make something simple but presentable, to be patient, to be gentle, to be disciplined and to be painstakingly thorough.
These themes pervade throughout the Oita Prefecture. That same patience can be tasted at the region’s best sake maker Takakiya. It can be seen in the detail of the Oita Prefecture Museum, which sits in the middle of the city and yet offers a sanctuary of calm and tranquillity.
And it can be seen and felt at the Kuju Flower Park, a vast expanse of hillside with literally thousands of plant species.
All Blacks are going to spend most of their World Cup split between Yokohama and Tokyo, but their days in Oita may be the period the players and their fans remember the most fondly.
It will create the surreal experience of being a home away from home: of providing so many visual reminders of New Zealand and yet being so culturally different. Good different, though. Memorably good different.
“In Beppu you can also enjoy food cooked in natural steam – the wagyu beef done like this is just ludicrously melt in your mouth good...”
Oita offers a range of cultural activities.
The City Spa offers a stunning view of Oita.
The All Blacks will play their second game at Oita Stadium.
The Mount Takasaki National Park makes for a fascinating day out.
The food in Oita is world class.