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.

NZ Rugby World - - News - Gre­gor Paul was a guest of Oita City/Lo­cal Gov­ern­ment of Ja­pan.

KYUSHU,

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.

World

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.

Beppu

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.

The

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.

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