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JAMES HASKELL's hilarious guide to Japan ahead of the Rugby World Cup 

"Mark Aviles" (2019-12-02)


I was lucky enough to live in Japan for six months in 2011 when I played for the Ricoh Black Rams and loved every minute.

Being 6ft 3in and 120kgs, I assumed that when it came to rugby, I was going to be like Godzilla, smashing smaller players out of the way. Sadly, this was not the case and my illusions were shattered pretty quickly.

Japan is truly an amazing country and I hope it really showcases itself over the next few weeks — almost as much as I hope that England lift the World Cup.

James Haskell (R) chats to Ma'a Nonu during his time at Ricoh Black Rams in January 2012

Tokyo's famous Shibuya Crossing as seen from above at twilight

During my time in Japan, there were many obstacles to overcome, none more so than the language barrier. I got lost on the subway for several hours once — it would have been days if not for a kindly gentleman who showed me how to get out of the labyrinth that is the Japanese underground.

I unknowingly ate Cod Sperm soup and sang (or rather, murdered) Build Me Up Buttercup in a karaoke bar after a team night out. Here are a few pointers, which should help you get the most out of your Japanese experience.

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  FOOD
I was always told to watch out for restaurants with picture menus. If they have to show you what you're eating, it's not going to be any good. On my first night out alone I thought I'd treat myself to a meal out and after perusing the menu I decided to go with a safe order of deep fried chicken, rice and a nice leek and potato soup.

It turned out to be deep fried liver and the soup starter was cod sperm. It tasted, as you'd imagine. My first experience notwithstanding there's loads of incredible food out there; Tokyo boasts more Michelin starred restaurants than any other place in the world.

On the odd occasion we would have a team night out we'd invariably end up in a karaoke bar and singing songs till the early hours.

Just a word to the wise, if you're squeamish about certain foods, then you may want to choose carefully. The Japanese do not mind cooking things that are still alive. I was traumatised one night when the chef started cooking live prawns and fish on a grill. It's hard to enjoy your food when you can stare into your meal's eyes and see the discomfort.

Sushi is obviously a Japanese classic, and if the England boys are let loose my money would be on Billy and Mako Vunipola to make the biggest dent in the budget. Imagine the scene from The Simpson's where Homer goes to an all you can eat sushi bar, and the chef looks through the curtain and says 'tis no man, tis an eating machine'. That, my friends, is what I see when I watch the Vunipola brothers tuck into a buffet.

In his younger days, Billy was known to order a Domino's pizza, put a chicken curry on top, then put another Domino's on top to make a pizza curry sandwich. He'd wash it down with 1.5 litres of Fanta.

You can expect to eat plenty of sushi in Japan - something the Vunipola brothers may enjoy 

CROWDS
The fans are really passionate and love organised fun. We had a guy dressed as a green dinosaur whose job was literally to lead the cheering. I have no idea what the significance of the dinosaur was as we were the Ricoh Black Rams. A Ram yes, a green dinosaur? Your guess is as good as mine.

Japanese fans were very different from the English. They loved giving us handmade gifts. They'd draw cards for you or they'd have taken loads of photos of you during the game which they would then present to you in nice presentation book at the next match.

TATTOOS
There's a real cultural stigma about tattoos because of their links to the Yakuza Mafia… something I was not aware of. I have eight tattoos and never really thought about the association that people make.

I've got a Japanese koi tattooed on my foot to mark my time in Japan. I really enjoyed the traditional story that is told in Japanese folklore, which is if the koi can fight its way up river and battles up the sacred water fall, it's granted the ability to become a dragon. It's a nice legend and signifies that battle for success, which requires hard work and aktif88 determination.

I kept asking everyone where to get it done. My coaches, bosses, translators. Basically anyone who was Japanese. They're so polite and no one really answered, just smiled and ignored the question. After about three weeks, one guy said: 'You've got to stop asking people about tattoos. It's not something we talk about here, they are not seen as good because of the links with crime.' Needless to say I decided against it and got the Koi done when I got back to the UK.

TRAVEL
I've never seen anything like Japanese trains during rush hour. There are people stood on the platform who are paid to physically force people on to the tubes, packing the trains to the limit.

It was like maul training without a ball. You've got people upside down, pressed against the windows trying to read books or look at their phones! The odd thing is, they all seem unfazed by it all.

We travelled all over Japan at lighting speed due to the bullet trains. Within two hours, you'd be on the other side of the country. It was amazing and efficient. Not something that our rail system could ever claim to be. They also have 100mb broadband — and that was six years ago! You can't even finish a phonecall over here, let alone download 10 series in 15 mins which I did in Japan.

Japan's Mount Fuji is seen in the background as a bullet train passes through

LANGUAGE
We always had translators at training and they'd actually come onto the pitch during sessions and matches so when the Japanese coach spoke, we all had a clue what was going on. The odd thing was that when the coach got angry, the translators got angry with us! The coach cried once and the translators started crying too! I was thinking: why are you crying? But you have to give them an A for drama.

Jonny May will fit right in. He's a bit like rain man and absorbs stuff pretty quickly. I saw on TV that every time he walks into a room he is already bowing and using Japanese captions on his instagram.

Eddie Jones has made sure the players got some basic Japanese lessons, which I'm sure the locals will appreciate. It's the hardest language to learn; I tried but gave up pretty quickly.

THE RUGBY
Every team in the top league has five or six superstars from the northern or southern hemisphere and a lot of Pacific Islanders.

I found the standout feature of the Japanese players' game was their incredible tackling. They pride themselves on taking your knees out because that's what they're taught at school and university.

Rugby is bigger than you think in Japan, especially for the university games. Some of the big fixtures get 60,000 people, which is more than the top league get for a title clash.

WEATHER
It can be hot and humid so there will be a lot of sweaty hands. Warren Gatland said he's been putting baby oil on his balls, which raised a few eyebrows, but Eddie's been doing that for years with soapy water.

FASHION
There's a lot of individuality. If you walk through Shibuya you'll see women in fancy dress, Harajuku girls, and geishas. It's an amazing city and will stage an incredible World Cup. I can't wait to get out there.

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Billy Vunipola loves KFC and a few beers, Sam Underhill is... 10 Rugby World Cup stars to watch... including the... SIX teams can win it in a brave new world: New Zealand,... Sportsmail's rugby experts SIR CLIVE WOODWARD, DYLAN...
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