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World Cup: Land of Rising Sun is truly shining as Japan hosts rugby's biggest show on Earth

Japanese fans show their support for Ireland ahead of the game in Yokohama
Japanese fans show their support for Ireland ahead of the game in Yokohama
Japanese fans show their support for Ireland ahead of the game in Yokohama
Japanese fans show their support for Ireland ahead of the game in Yokohama
Japanese fans show their support for Ireland ahead of the game in Yokohama
Fans ahead of opener against Scotland
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Sat on a subway train on the way to Yokohama Stadium, the Rugby World Cup accreditation hanging from my neck catches the eye of an elderly local wearing the latest New Zealand All Blacks jersey.

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It is the day that the back-to-back world champions will take on their intense rivals South Africa, the jewel in the crown of what was a fantastic opening weekend to the sport's once-every-four-years showpiece.

There had been some scepticism early on about the tournament, the first to be held in Asia, but also the first since its inception in 1987 to be held in a non-traditional rugby country.

Just how would the locals embrace the competition? Would it really capture the hearts and minds, and achieve its stated goal of transforming the sport in this part of the world?

To date the home crowds have been fantastic, no surprise to the All Blacks supporter on the subway. Japan is a sports-mad country, with sumo wrestling, football, baseball and golf among those most popular. He shows himself to be among that number after reading Belfast Telegraph from my accreditation pass.

"George Best. Rory McIlroy. Very good," he says.

Linked only really by their birthplace and prodigious talent, Best and McIlroy are two contrasting characters to admire, but then Japan is a country where contrasts are commonplace.

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Arriving into Tokyo is something of a sensory overload. At this time of year you are hit first by the heat, and then the colour and noise. It feels like there is not a moment of silence for even a second of the day.

Even away from the hustle and bustle of Shibuya and its famed 'Scramble Crossing', giant billboards hawk products in a 24-hour loop, while the faint clink of the pachinko machines never feels far away either. The lights of the Tokyo skyline never dim, a city that never sleeps.

Go further out and the tranquillity is striking. Walking back to the hotel in Fukuoka on Thursday night, all you could hear was the sound of crickets while the many temples and shrines offer more opportunity for quiet reflection.

The biggest culture shock is taking an 11-hour flight and being rendered illiterate.

I had about six weeks to prepare for the trip, which gave Duolingo enough time to teach me to say things like, 'hello', 'goodbye', 'thank you' and 'may I have' but not much else. And certainly not the unique alphabet.

Reading kanji - incidentally done up to down rather than left to right - I imagine is something that takes years upon years.

Japan may have more cities with a Michelin-starred restaurant than any other country in the world, but some of the best food here has been from the most humble-looking of exteriors.

The street vendors of Yokohama's vibrant Chinatown, the Yatai markets of Fukuoka and, yesterday, a curry house with only one dish on the menu and just three tables.

For less than 1,000 yen - about £7.70 - it was as good as anything I've had here.

Other travellers are embracing the uniqueness of the culture, too - the Dunlops of Ballymoney among the contingent of Irish fans making their way out to see Rory Best, Iain Henderson, Jacob Stockdale and company.

"We arrived last Friday so we've been here for a week, we came via Hong Kong," said John Dunlop, who before travelling investigated ways of offsetting the carbon footprint created by his trip.

"We've been staying in Yokohama for the first few nights, Kyoto for the next four nights. We're here in Hamamatsu today and we're finishing up with three nights in Tokyo.

"We've not done the same thing at any stage. We've done the sumo wrestling. We've done a temple, we've done a car factory, Hiroshima.

"It's funny, we met another group of people from Ballymoney on Sunday at the game, it turned out she worked with my sister-in-law. Then we're going for a hike miles and miles away the next day and saw them there too. Small world and all that!"

"It's fabulous," added Janice Dunlop. "We'd recommend it to anyone. They're such a modest people, so respectful and helpful. They're great, we couldn't fault the country in anyway."

Japan is a fascinating country - the only problem is trying to find the time to see it in between the rugby.

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