When Mark Walker's mates started thinking about how they could celebrate his forthcoming wedding, they thought big. Very big. Not for him the ordinary bucks' night out. They wanted something memorable. Something that matched his passions.
So it was, after much planning, that a few weeks before his marriage, Walker, his father Jon, and nine of his mates found themselves sitting in the Nissan Stadium grandstand in Yokohama in Japan, cheering on the Wallabies in a friendly against the home team.
"It's a wonderful experience, being here with your mates," says Walker, bouncing up and down, as the Wallabies crush the all-too-hospitably named "Brave Blossoms" of Japan by 63 points to 30.
Never mind that the game was – predictably – a little one-sided. That the crowd was a mildly disappointing 43,621. That the beer ran out prematurely. Or that long queues for the men's toilets were reported from several parts of the ground.
Indeed, Walker, co-owner of the classic Pivotonian Cinema in his home city of Geelong, had a great time in Japan, before and after the game and is already looking forward to returning for the Rugby World Cup finals which start in September 2019. They will be held over 34 days in a dozen venues, up and down the country, only a year before the capital Tokyo hosts the 2020 Summer Olympics.
Already, the early signs are that both events will attract several thousand Australians.
My recent Qantas direct Sydney to Tokyo flight to visit some of the major venues, investigate ticketing arrangements and to check out restaurants, attractions and hotel accommodation (as they say, "someone has to do it") was packed. Not just with green and yellow fans, but with Australian players, coaches and medicos.
Even the pilot was impressed by the turn-out. He wished the players "a great and injury-free tour" before they plunged into an excited crowd of local autograph and selfie hunters.
And he welcomed the hundreds of Wallaby supporters, suddenly dropped into crowded Tokyo's Haneda airport, to a city of some 13.7 million inhabitants.
Inevitably, for first-timers especially, the initial reaction is one of confusion, of culture shock. For Tokyo is different from anywhere else in the world: big, bustling, seemingly bursting at the seams, but calm, collected and oh-so-clean.
So clean in fact that in most parts of the city centre would-be smokers may light up only in glass and iron "cages" provided on many busy streets. Politeness is an adjective applied regularly both by residents and visitors to Japan's big cities. Indeed, it tops list of the top 10 "Japanese people characteristics" compiled for media.
Stereotyping? Perhaps a little, but a trip to Japan, even one devised primarily to see the football, must surely be enhanced by advice on how to understand and interact with the locals; even how to say a few key words: "yes", "no", "please", "thanks", "well played, the Brave Blossoms", perhaps.
Typically, understandably, perhaps, when the Wallabies scored try after try, their fans – led by Mark Walker and his mates – went crazy, waving, leaping about, hugging, chanting.
When Japan scored in the one-sided match in Yokohama, the Brave Blossoms fans were joyful, noisy, but restrained by Australian standards; not exactly apologetic, but more surprised than boisterous.
The other nine characteristics are:
Punctuality. "Being late by five minutes is like a death sentence for many Japanese people," says one guide. That may be an exaggeration, but typically if Japan Railway runs late – perish the thought – passengers are issued late slips to present to their employers.
Kindness and consideration for others, even at the cost of discomfort to themselves. There's a word for it – "yasashii" or "omopyariu no aru", meaning "thoughtful of others".
Hard-work, confirmed by statistics that they are the 12th most hard-working nation in the world by hours, and, often unpaid, overtime put in. The Japanese even have a word, "karoshi", meaning death by work.
Respect, especially in external relationships with, say, older people and visitors, even rugby fans, whom they may not understand.
Shyness, especially among older, poorer people who have no foreign language skills. Increasingly, though, younger people are being taught English, gaining in confidence.
Intelligence. Though the Japanese may be shy, they tend to have good maths, languages, business and listening skills.
Grouping. Thus, they give priority to the team, to the family, rather than to individuals. Indeed, teamwork, co-operation, supports a view that there is strength in numbers.
Formality, which is expressed in reservedness, politeness, formality in situations where, for example, Australians would be best mates with the person he/she has met only minutes ago. Especially after a beer or two.
Cleanliness. The Japanese are world champions when it comes to clean toilets, be they in offices, on the streets, at precious landmarks and football stadia. Mild reports of long lines to use the toilets at the football were greeted with dismay and heart-felt apologies.
Honesty. Several ex-pats related stories illustrating this "national quality". They included one Sydneysider who lost his wallet in the city centre … only to find it three days later in the telephone booth where he had set it aside while making a call.
To sum-up: Japan? I loved it. I loved the people – especially my good, constantly patient, knowledgeable friend Toshihiro Kamba, a member of the Japan Guide Association, and his colleagues.
Over seven sun-filled days – interrupted only slightly by the high-security arrival of US President Donald Trump for a game of golf and a chat with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe – "Toshi" and his colleagues helped us to explore some of the many amazing sights in and around Tokyo.
Experiences ranged from the ancient to modern; impeccably maintained shrines to the fish markets, where a full, fresh sushi meal could be had for just a few dollars; to an eight-course meal in the dark at the crazy, underground Ninja Akasaka restaurant where guests are served and entertained by magicians.
Then there was the contrast of a relaxing stroll through the classical gardens of Happo-en, in Asakusa, where giant, orange-and-white carp glide in safety from the fishermen, to a riotous night out at the Roppongi Kaguwa Japanese theatre restaurant, where extravagantly dressed transsexuals fly through the air.
And the change from a bright, early-morning jog round one of the imperial palaces to an evening dinner cruise on sparkling Tokyo Harbour on one of the Symphony Cruise Ships. It's even possible, in the middle of the vast city, in the shadow of skyscrapers, to go fishing an ancient moat. Rod, line and worm are available from the "boat house" for a couple of dollars.
At one of the many open markets, I was persuaded, for just a few cents, to have my fortune told by traditional, "self-service", box and chopstick methods. Just shake the "lucky box" covered in "lucky holes", and use a "lucky stick" to pull out piece of paper outlining a "lucky future". Or not.
My "No. 43 regular fortune" was encouraging … so long as I waited for a crescent moon and for someone to give me a "deer from a deep valley". Then, "everything start going so well you can get the job and income, later social fame together".
It could have been worse. One Kiwi colleague received a decidedly dim prediction, along with a suggestion that she try another stick, or hang the bad one on a board where it would be "reviewed" by the gods. Either way, the outlook for the All Blacks is obviously bleak.
Not so visitors. As Tim Oakes, of InsideJapanTours (insidejapantours.com) wrote in Traveller recently, despite widespread English signage, Japan is probably "one place in the world where some expert support can really elevate your holiday", especially in the first few days, for first-time visitors, and especially for time-poor football fans.
As most visitors discover, there is just so much to see and do and enjoy in Japan, as a long-term survey of overseas journalists proved.
Their eclectic top 10 "most liked" list was headed by on-time trains, shower toilets and hot springs, followed by vending machines, nursing-care robots, Japanese gardens, public security, express home delivery services, conveyor-belt sushi bars and plastic food "taster" samples.
As recently married Mark Walker and his mates discovered, all these – and many more – experiences make a trip to the rugby World Cup finals a social, cultural and gourmet, as well as sporting, adventure.
Qantas flies from Sydney directly to Haneda Airport which, along with Narita, serves Tokyo. Other airlines serving the Japanese capital include Japan Airlines, ANA, Jetstar, Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Air New Zealand.
Akasaka Excel Tokyu Hotel. See akasaka-e.tokyhotels.co.jp
John Huxley travelled as a guest of the Japan National Tourism Organisation
THE 2019 RUGBY WORLD CUP
The finals will kick off on Friday, September 20, with an opening ceremony followed by a clash between the hosts and Europe1 in the Tokyo Stadium. The tournament lasts for 45 days, comprises 48 matches, 20 teams and 12 venues spread across the country.
Australia's first-round opponents will be their local South Pacific rivals Fiji, who clash on the second day of the competition at the 41,410 capacity Sapporo Dome, in Sapporo City, Hokkaido.
Adult tickets start at ¥2109 yen (about $24) while children will be offered tickets as cheap as ¥1000 ($11.50) for what is billed as a lifetime experience at a historic tournament.
Once again the usual suspects, Australia, New Zealand and, say, England, are expected to be the teams to beat, though the South Pacific teams could spring a surprise. The Brave Blossoms of the hosts are a very long shot, but they are sure to put on a good show.