25 September 2017

In the early hours of Sunday 6 August our senior rugby squad departed for Japan on a rugby tour of a lifetime. The squad was made up of pupils from the current Sixth Form. This was after an incredible 2017, full of fundraising events including: the production of fantastic tour brochures, selling tour wrist bands, a British Lions breakfast for the 1st test match v New Zealand and finishing with a wonderful black tie dinner with Manu Tuilagi as the guest speaker.

No tourist really knew how the two weeks were going to unfold but one thing was for sure, our tour was headed where only a few UK schools had ever been, to a place culturally very different from England. It was going to be extremely memorable both on and off the field.

The flight to Japan via Hong Kong landed in Tokyo mid afternoon. Immediately the climate hit us with sweltering temperatures of thirty-five degrees with almost ninety per cent humidity. After a dinner out and a good night’s sleep, the first full day in Tokyo began with a whistle stop tour of the city via the bustling air conditioned WIFI enabled underground to Shibuya, crossing to the tranquil parks and Imperial Temples. Japan instantly showed what a contrast the country is.

The food was a huge cultural change for our tourists, but impressively they all threw themselves into trying different dishes from the start, with many impressive stories of various sushi and specialist dishes being explored on the first lunch out. Rice dishes were very popular, along with a Katsu curry and Raman. Sushi was a big hit too. One of the experiences boys took part in on day one was a local baseball batting practice range. Tourists practised how to pitch and tested themselves with the bat against virtual pitchers.

After a couple of days in Tokyo our tourists departed by coach to the mountains, 1500m above sea level, to a town called Sugadaira known as the Rugby Town. There were over 6000 rugby players from various Japanese schools and universities in Sugadaira at the time, with over 110 pitches scattered around the mountain side.

Our first set of matches was on the second day in Sugadaira against Nagoya High School. The opening games of the tour were tough and challenging. After being on tour for a few days it was great to get out on a rugby pitch and get to enjoy the main reason for the tour. Styles of rugby were very different with Abingdon trying to play a faster, less structured game, against very organised Japanese teams playing a much more forward orientated structured style. Final scores were a 15-10 win for our A XV and a 19-10 for our B XV. A tremendous start to tour.

Post match is a big deal in Japan. You exchange gifts, school plaques, and there are speeches from coaches and captains. This is all followed by a traditional piece of entertainment by both schools. In most cases schools will sing a school song. The tourists had learned Jerusalem, and belted out this favourite hymn to the delight of our new Japanese friends. This would only get better and better as the tour went on.

On the day between fixture one and two we ventured into Rugby Town to explore its many rugby shops. I counted eleven rugby stores! After a substantial amount of stash had been bought by our boys, lunch provided another opportunity to delve into the delights of the local Japanese cuisine. Favourite Japanese foods were once again order of the day with local Ramen and rice dishes, as well as locally made Japanese ice cream.

The mountains were an extremely beautiful part of the world. Covered in over two metres of snow for nearly four months of the year, many Japanese families venture to this area to ski in winter. The accommodation was a large chalet style hotel where other universities and schools stayed. Boys slept Japanese style on the floor on mats in rooms of small groups. The food was plentiful and tasty, with excellent evening entertainment. On one night the university students staying in the hotel invited the tourists to an entertainment show they had practised. Tourists joined in sharing songs, playing instruments as well as listening to comedy talents.

Tourists took part in a team challenge whilst on a rest day, which included various weights in the gym, rowing, cycling, and basketball shooting. This was all carried out in muster groups to build team spirit. Prizes were awarded including yet more rugby kit.

The following day the A XV prepared with a morning training session and an afternoon match against Sano Nichidai HS and Wakayama HS. Sano who were 2nd in their Prefecture (region) last year and had won the national sevens the previous two years.

Matches were extremely well contested. Compared to the first match Sano Nichidai attacked more through the backs and had good distributors. Final scores: A XV v Sano Nichidai A XV 12-0 win, and 12-10 loss to Wakayama HS. The B XV lost 12-10 to Sano Nichidai and won 36-0 against Wakayama HS. Post match we found out their coach used to play for Japan with a couple of their boys in contention for the national team this year. Sano Nichidai HS performed their version of the Haka post match followed by another rousing performance of Jerusalem by our tourists.

We left the mountains heading north west via the 1998 winter Olympic host city of Nagano where we visited the oldest Buddhist temple in Japan. This included taking the boys underground in the temple to find the magical key that would give them eternal fortune. The temples are a real marvel to behold and boys really loved the cultural experience.

We drove on to the north-west coast to Niigata where we would be for three nights, which included two nights being hosted. We discovered, due to not many international schools venturing to Japan, that hosting is not really common place in Japan. Japanese parents were extremely welcoming and very generous with families wanting to give the very best of time to our boys. This was the first time in Niigata city that any English sports team, let alone an English school playing rugby had ever gone to Niigata. This was a huge deal as you would expect. The matches were played at the national stadium for the Prefecture under the watchful eye of the local media who filmed and reported on the match, interviewing players pre and post match. An incredible experience.

The matches were played in extremely good spirit. Our B XV lost 47-15 against Niigata HS 1st XV who were top 5 in the region the previous year. And our A XV won 47-0 against Niigata Tech who are the power houses of the region and ranked 1. The performance was incredible with many boys saying it was the best they had played in the pink and white. An extremely memorable moment for our boys.

Post game we had a wonderful reception meal in one of the local hotels. The hosts’ parents from both Niigata Tech and Niigata High School took our boys off to two nights of rich cultural experiences. Upon return, stories were shared. Clearly for many of the boys this was the highlight of the tour.

The next step of the journey was to the city of Nagoya through an indirect bullet train to Tokyo. What an experience. With doors opening for only 45 seconds to allow you to jump on the train before doors automatically close. 47 tourists with all their bags and luggage was not easy. However, a big team effort as well as a positive mindset enabled this challenge to be overcome with ease. We could then enjoy the 350 km/h train journey, through stunning landscapes and scenery.

Upon arrival in Nagoya we explored the city and boys ventured out to various local restaurants to experience the food. The morning after we explored one of the oldest and largest wonderful Samurai castles in Japan before moving onto Nigashima Spa resort for some R&R. Nigashima Spa resort was a huge water park, roller coaster park, and spa resort where the boys really relaxed and enjoyed themselves.

The next day the tour moved back up to Yokohama in Tokyo via a bullet train for the final set of tour matches. A XV played Keio High School and the B XV played Waseda XV. Both are top schools in Japan linked with some of the most famous of the country’s universities.

Awesome final performances meant that the A XV won 36-0 and the B XV won 70-0. Post match did not disappoint with a full on school song sung by Keio and Abingdon displaying solo and team songs in reply – all rounded off by a lovely Katsu curry.

The penultimate day of tour was a sensational walk through some famous and different Tokyo districts. Technology, tradition and culture are three words that come to mind. From the local street markets, to the wonderful parks, right through to the high tech districts full of state of the art machines and buildings. It was an opportunity to jump deep into what Japan had to offer and really enjoy the final full day. Some boys hit golf balls in a driving range on top of sky scrapers, others took to the futuristic arcades, whilst some took to the streets and got stuck in with the local street stalls and shops. All tourists continually impressed with their spirit of adventure, trying new foods and customs.

In the evening we watched a top Japananese rugby match with two teams from the premier league – one of the teams the Panasonic Wildcats, was full of international stars. The evening concluded with a final tour dinner where boys were able to cook their own Japanese food and awards were given out based on the previous two weeks.

Highlights of the tour were most definitely food and technology. Sushi continued to be a big favourite amongst the tourists. Apparently you have to train for over seven years to be a sushi chef. All convenience stores sell this freshly made sushi every day which is fabulous. Boys experienced technology in many different ways from drinks machines that had facial recognition to star trek style toilets that were the topic of conversions for many days. All very good fun, and all so different from the UK.

Finding someone who spoke English even in Tokyo was a challenge, but this meant tourists had to start to learn the language. Our cultural sessions before we left the UK also helped boys grasp some of the basic social etiquette for when you meet, greet and purchase products.

Japan was an amazing experience. A part of the world so very different to England, but one where the people are so friendly, the food is wonderful, and the rugby is played passionately and at a high level. The bonding experiences off the field were incredible to witness as was seeing the boys develop. Our boys were amazing ambassadors for Abingdon School and have come back in such a positive frame of mind for the season ahead.

Now time to plan the 2019 tour!

Mr M Gold, Director of Rugby

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