Life’s a riot in Nara

'Roasting on a hot plate of pig push car' and other weird food experiences...the final World Cup report from our man in Japan.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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Thursday 13 June

It’s breakfast time in Osaka, and we have our first really weird Japanese food experience.

We go to a small cafe, the kind that would serve you bacon and eggs in Britain but which in Japan gives you cheap noodles and rice. But this time we’re offered soba (Japanese buckwheat noodles) instead of the usual ramen (soup noodles) and ‘Japanese-style pizza’. We can’t resist.

Almost a week without proper bread, never mind cheese and pepperoni, means I’m gagging for it. I am puzzled about why all the tables have large hotplates, until my ‘pizza’ turned up – a silver bowl full of green leaves, some scraps of pork and, sitting on top, a raw egg. The waitress starts blending the ingredients together, then tips them on to the hotplate to create a round patty.

‘Japanese-style pizza’ turns out to be scorched lettuce with the occasional bit of meat, bound together with egg. Talk about disappointed! Once cooked, the waitress covers the ‘pizza’ in a layer of mayonnaise, and a layer of barbecue sauce. It actually tastes okay. But from now on, our eating-out mantra is: ‘We can always have a McDonalds later.’

Then we head for the Camelot pub to watch the most fun game of the tournament so far: Brazil beating Costa Rica 5-2. We decide to watch the evening game, Mexico v Italy, in the hotel. It’s a 1-1 draw, but Italy come very close to going out. The game is remarkable only for the players’ cynical running down of the clock. Both teams know that a draw is good enough, so Mexico play the ball around for several minutes without one Italian challenge. Very amusing, if you’re not Croatian.

But perhaps the tournament is flagging a little and needs to be spiced up with a new, random element. I suggest that teams be allowed to Play the Joker, as they do in It’s a Knockout. Any goals scored in the period after Playing the Joker would count double, any yellow cards given to the opposition would count as red cards, and goals scored by your opponents wouldn’t count.

Little do we know that FIFA is planning a similar arrangement for South Korea.

Friday 14 June

It’s match number two at Shizuoka stadium, but this time it’s in daylight and we’ve sussed out that local train is the best way to get to the ground. We arrive in glorious sunshine to a mini-festival with stalls selling World Cup memorabilia and bits of chicken on cocktail sticks.

The game itself is less than appetising – Belgium v Russia, two middling European teams whose greatest ambition for the tournament is to get out of their group. The game reflects this for 75 minutes, before a couple of Belgian goals give us a grandstand finish and send Russia out.

The biggest roar, however, came when Japan scored in their game elsewhere, meaning they will go through as group winners. The Japanese are trying to like football, but what they really want is for Japan to do well.

Unfortunately, my enjoyment of the game is spoiled by a running commentary from some Americans behind me. ‘Hey, that was a great play! Good run by the Belgian midfielder but even better dee-fence by the Russian!’ Excessively serious, talking knowledgably without really getting the spirit of it: don’t they say that converts are always the worst? These people are the al-Qaeda of football supporters.

Saturday 15 June

Time to get away from football, so we go to the ancient capital, Nara, where we see the biggest wooden building in the world. On the way, we are accosted by a group of schoolchildren who ask us to respond to a questionnaire in English. At the end, we are asked to write something about world peace, and Angus offers something along the lines of ‘There can never be world peace until the exploited forces of the international working class unite to smash imperialism’. Oh, to be a fly on the wall when the teacher translates that.

Then we eat raw fish in a backstreet bar, with lots of older Japanese guys listening to baseball. The meal is spoilt by the mountain of grated radish it contains, but improved by copious quantities of Kirin lager. Then back to the hotel for another weird experience: England beating Denmark 3-0. How on earth did they manage that? Even Emile Heskey scored, for pity’s sake!

Sunday 16 June

Today we see the oldest wooden building in the world. We really are spoiled for wooden buildings. Life’s a riot in Nara.

It is now very hot. The Japan Times says that we are supposed to be in the rainy season (tsuyu) at the moment, but for once, the rains have mainly stayed away. ‘Japan’s 1714-millimetre average annual precipitation…is nearly twice the global average of 973millimetres, according to figures from the Land Ministry. Japan ranks behind only Indonesia, the world’s wettest country, New Zealand and the Philippines in the amount of water dumped on it from the sky’, the Japan Times reports (1).

Angus gets excited about a report on umbrellas. There’s one the size of a cellphone, which he decides he must have.

We head to Kyoto, which to my surprise is a very modern city, with only a few temples. In the evening, we watch Ireland lose to Spain on penalties. Damien Duff demonstrates the philosophical distinction between diving and ‘winning’ a penalty. In the former, you kick the ball forward then fall over. In the latter, you kick the ball forward, wait for your opponent’s leg to appear in your path, then trip yourself over it. The former is the work of cheating Latin types. The latter is an entirely legitimate tactic employed by teams in Northern Europe. For further enquiries about this important moral issue, contact Professor Michael Owen, c/o Liverpool FC.

Tuesday 18 June

Until now, our food has been determined by what we can read on the menu. When the menu is written in katakana, a phonetic script used for words borrowed from abroad, it is quite straightforward. Where the normal Japanese script is used, we just have to guess. Still, other England fans’ complaints that they haven’t eaten properly for three weeks usually cheer us up.

On the odd occasion, you’re lucky enough to get a menu in English. But at Kyoto’s Asian Kitchen restaurant, this didn’t help. There was the tantalising ‘Steaming chicken and board spring rain with sesame seeds source’. The mouthwatering ‘Roasting on a hot plate of pig push car’ or ‘Hamberg steak with nan knack cajuns source’. In the end, Angus chose ‘Hand rolling of meat dumpling with row spring roll’ while I went for that old favourite, ‘Combustion rice that vegitable and minched meat got on’.

Just in case there was any confusion, the menu featured the following disclaimer: ‘Refusal. This englishi menu also completely has the one that it is not possible to explain. Please acknowledge it humbly though it is when differing from the imagined commodity.’

I had assumed that when I was speaking Japanese, just saying roughly the right words, even in the wrong order, would be OK. Perhaps this was a bit optimistic….

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Tsuyu: a season that shaped a culture, Japan Times, 16 June 2002

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Topics Politics


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