Schedule for the 2019 Rugby World Cup

World Rugby recently issued the schedule for RWC 2019, for which I wrote a short piece intending to speculate on a visit. This turned into an online discussion with friends from at least three continents starting to draw up schedules and hardwiring plans. My favourite Scottish Kiwi mate even has a day-by-day plan already committed to the Internet, which inspired me to do something similar with a north to south journey built around a block of time in Tokyo.

Starting in Hokkaido

I’ve written plenty about Hokkaido lately in a recent post, a dated piece and a stack of correspondence about a similar recent article in The Guardian, so it’s opportune that England’s opener against Tonga is one of two games in Sapporo. The game is on the evening of Sunday 22 September, which probably equates to arrival the day before and attempting to take in other games in pubs in what isn’t a rugby town.

Without stopping off in Tokyo, I expect this will be my first stop and a direct flight to from Hong Kong might be the easiest route. A visit to the Sapporo beer factory for lamb barbecue and the crab noodles in a great fish market in Hakkodate provide sustenance. A new Bullet Train could complete the journey to Tokyo or, depending on scheduling, the flat rate JPY 10,000 JAL airfare for non-Japanese could be handy.

Base in Tokyo

The nationality of Mark Pearson is somewhat contested. Slovenian wife, educated in London himself, resident in multiple countries and with two children born in the UK, there have been serious rumours circulating our favourite Canadian actually has American tendencies. Attending the USA v England game in Kobe on 26 September, probably on a one night return from Tokyo, therefore appeals.

Failing that, there’s a USA game in Kumagaya near Tokyo which would work well, 9 October, especially to watch a RWC game on a ground I’ve played on. Tokyo would have the benefit of reprising a 2004 rendition of New York, New York as well. This technical duet with my of transatlantic pal was dominated by a hate-filled, threat-laden rant that shocked the room and even to this day puts his audience on edge while dealing with any contentious conversation matter.

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Trip to the south

New Zealand will be the favourites and it’s likely the greatest number of my friends there will be Kiwi, so an All Blacks game is a must. The game against a currently unconfirmed qualifier in Oita, Kyushu looks the most intriguing for 2 October. Mainly because I’ve never been there and a game outside Tokyo is certain to have better ticket availability.

The southern parts of Kyushu are also warmer, so I’d also use this opportunity for black sand beaches and sand baths, pictured, with the possibility of a ferry trip to part of the tropical island chain heading toward Taiwan. It’s only this far south where it will be beach weather in October. Getting from Tokyo to here is probably a fine use of the JR pass, with Tokyo to the Kyushu gateway a comfortable four and a half hour ride.

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From then, it’s probably Tokyo for as long as I can realistically stay in the country and/or away from work. This will probably be a young family sort of thing, so I’m thinking an AirB&B will form part of the solution though this seems almost as expensive as a night in a mid-range tatami-mat-floor Inn.

On some level, though, I’m also hoping budget will require spending a night in an Internet cafe – the cheapest accommodation I can think of in the dry. It’s the only way to properly respect my gobby half back team mate who shrieked this at a bunch of fresh faced Japanese students, shortly before crashing out on one of the busiest pavements in the metropolis.

Sand bath image licence Wiki Commons

Karaoke image courtesy of Blake Walker

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How safe is Iran and how easy is it to visit?

It was a surprising discovery that the Persian restaurants on my local high street are actually Iranian and with some optimistic reports of tourism in the country I began to look into a visit to this enigmatic and off-the-beaten-track middle east state. It seemed I couldn’t really progress this without a comprehensive analysis of how safe it was though – and I’ve come to the conclusion it’s probably a couple of years away given progress continues to be made on some geopolitical, societal and procedural roadblocks.

The relevant Government foreign office website is normally the first port of call for assessing overseas risk and a first look of the UK’s online government advice doesn’t make great reading. It quotes no-go areas on borders with Afghanistan and Iraq and warns a terror attack is “very likely” in the rest of the country, especially in the capital Tehran where the bulk of the tourist sites are mosques and religious sites (this modern one caught my eye, something non-traditional you don’t associate with my pre-conceived images of the middle east). The UK’s terror alert has frequently been as high as it can go, however, and it’s permanently that high in France so you could argue Iran is safer. For instance, I had no qualms about staying in Marseille recently, though there have been three suspected terrorist incidents there before and after.

What this facet in isolation doesn’t take into consideration though is the risk of other violent situations or unintentional illegality created in a culturally opposed state. The FCO pages go on to detail limitations or outright bans on homosexuality, women’s dress, women travelling without a husband, women’s magazines, alcohol, pork products, having a Jewish background, having an Israeli passport stamp and no doubt any other facet of Islamic culture we don’t see in the west. I personally could live without all of these for the duration of a short visit (perhaps not the latest issue of Vogue) – but that’s suddenly sent a message that huge swathes of the west are unwelcome, including a large amount of the people I’d want to travel with.

I was reminded of a couple of newspaper articles while researching the above points that make you wonder what direction liberalism is headed. As in a number of countries, headscarves and the form around them are a yardstick for authoritarianism more widely in the country and these two articles from 2015 and 2017 would seem to represent some movement to egalitarianism, especially considering a tilt the other way in countries such as Turkey and Malaysia. Current premier Hassan Rouhani is definitely more of a moderate than prior regimes and has overtly campaigned for women’s rights. This would represent a new cultural experience to witness first hand, though you do notice a mixture of influencers across these two articles. It’s not just the government at play.

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Another of Rouhani’s stated aims at election was reducing nuclear tension his immediate predecessor created, and that monitoring a nuclear bombing is a factor at all in visiting a country tells some story about the state of the world in general at the moment. The accepted norm of conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran for dominance in the Middle East has been through proxy wars in countries including Afghanistan and Yemen, though Trump logic now has Iran in his sights as primary aggressor. I’m pretty convinced US threats of military escalation in North Korea and Iran is largely to bolster key support in the US – so I’m not sure it’s a risk. But with the above point it’s something you’d want to see reduce not escalate while acknowledging aggression might not be Iranian.

Assuming you’ve got past the personal and the geopolitical risk of the area, there are considerable hoops to work through as well. The visa process is difficult and as an added complexity US, British and Canadian visitors need to be on an organised tour and accompanied through their visit. This fact I’ve seen pushed most hysterically by, typically, tour operators alongside expensive all inclusive deals and until I saw it recently crop up on the FCO pages I’d regarded as a technicality.

I don’t know how rigorously it’s applied, but knowing that the embassy for a visa, the tour company and the immigration line at an airport are all separate entities means there’s space to operate independently. It could be a solution to book day tours in places like Tehran and Shiraz so you’ve got a booking and a guide to refer to if questioned while “on a break from my tour”. From blog posts and comments I’ve read, it’s more easily flouted outside big cities, logically enough, so an independent detour to somewhere like Persipolis seems feasible.

Peresepolis panorama - Iran.
Peresepolis panorama – Iran.

Much more strictly enforced and highly visible, the recent arrest of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe demonstrates Iran doesn’t recognise dual nationality with Iran and another country. Her initial arrest was on an unspecified charge, but her use of a combination of British and Iranian passports was cited at the point of arrest. In itself, this is worrying but the Iranian Revolutionary Guards tagging of 16 years onto the sentence for miscellany, again unspecified, charges looks reminiscent of an act of paranoid dictatorship from Stalinist Soviet Union.

The Revolutionary Guards seem an unpredictable factor arbitrating disputes, potentially in any of the situations I’ve identified in this piece. The 1979 revolution in the country codified their role as defending the Islamic Republic system, whilst being non-political and with a mandate domestically and overseas. In my view this usually ends up with a force used to defend an authoritarian state, which the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case echoes. Relating this to the risk for the casual traveller: If unspecified charges are being thrown around, it does make it difficult to know what to look out for.

Looking after Pandas in Sichuan, China

Ghostwriting for Becky’s two weeks in Sichuan, China last year. This is for a Guardian travel writing competition. I feel the stipulated 100 words is nowhere near long enough…

Shovelling mountains of poo is a substantial time demand looking after Pandas in Sichuan, China. The activity does, however, provide opportunities for the playful, juvenile ones to try and join in, which they frequently manage. Reverting to type, my multicolour trainers attracted the eye of one lazy cub, who latched itself on my foot to be dragged around. Hilarious until they found more amusement poking their claws down the lace holes. Frontier Travel offer one or two weeks of conservation work near Chengdu, including board. It’s hard work, but you see every facet of panda behaviour first hand.

Planning for the 2019 Rugby World Cup

Reminders have popped up on Faceboook from two years ago of the England World Cup and the regular media made coverage of a two year countdown in Japan – so seems enough stimuli to actually start planning for the 2019 event.

Tickets

The schedule is yet to be announced, with qualifying not finished, though the first game will be mid to late September with the final likely to be around Halloween weekend. Of dubious provenance, there has also been a ticketing website set up. Though this is only really at pre-registration levels at the moment, it makes sense to at least get some details down now.

I can recall low-tech methods for buying game tickets between 2002 and 2005, often including selecting a ticket via a terminal in a convenience store then paying in cash over the counter. Hopefully things have moved on, indeed I have seen CC bookings in for baseball games more recently, but it’s a nice demonstration of a cash-dominated society in what was once acountry of advanced digitalisation.

Games

There are a dozen locations already confirmed and in some cases almost been ready for use. Sapporo is a city built for events such as this with a covered stadium often a requirement for a snowy city and a big brewing history. Kumagaya offers a mini rugby city outside Tokyo and is the one location I can remember playing at, albeit one I suffered a broken collar bone at from a miscommunication with a Japanese playmaker.

The fan experience I’ve always found to be highly choreographed and enjoyable with any notions of alcoholism long since disregarded. The ultimate game accessory, beer attendants, has long been the norm. I partake at the baseball sometime in 2008 below. Colour schemes are all part of the routine, indeed getting my various Japanese shirts, flags and scarfs co-ordinated has long since been mentally planned.

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Transport

The crucial message from my post about the JR rail pass was that it was only really worth it if you took in two long-range (two hour plus) return journeys. In other words, if you base yourself somewhere and travel to two other places, it’s a good use of money buying one of the longer term passes.

What I also discovered recently is non-Japanese passport holders can get a JPY 10,000 flat rate for flights. If you only have one or two legs to travel between major cities, then it works out better in terms of cost. If money is no object, I found the speed of the bullet train is faster for point to point journeys under around 500 miles.

Accommodation

Again for the well heeled, the ultimate accommodation is the full service at a Japanese Inn, a Ryokan, with only a few rooms per establishment, meals served to your room, a stone bath and dressing gowns all part of the experience. My wife Becky deemed this the highlight of a two week Asia tour recently, Kyoto is the must-see tourist destination to do this from, based around games in the west of the country.

More expedient, Ryokans do go down to most budgets with the minshiku it’s more casual brother. For a late night drinking, the capsule hotel is another eponymous Japanese experience, from my friend’s experience, it does seem a male preserve. For really late and unplanned evenings out when the trains stop, an Internet cafe is a perfect crash pad with showers, melon soda and connectivity all softening the landing.

Exercise and decompression

Playing for Tokyo Gaijin RFC in Tokyo for two years pretty much kept me in Japan for a year longer than intended, with a bunch of English teachers and bar staff from all the major rugby nations and Canada proving an essential escape valve. A couple of weeks in Japan and an ad-hoc game would be perfect to round off the trip. As an esteemed former Gaijin skipper described the experience:

“We got up at the crack of dawn and travelled to the arse end of nowhere, the pitch is made of concrete, the warm up has been hopeless and the referee is crazy. I’ve played fifty games with some of you and it’s the first time I’ve met you others, but we need to make the most of it”

Good job the rest of the country is the land of convenience.

Responsible tourism and visiting developing economies

Patronising a developing country through tourism I’ve found to be deceptively easily in the last few years and this peak UK holiday season has been punctuated by articles spotlighting the outright damaging effects of tourism. I’ve bought together a few successes, from a stack of patronising failures, from visits to South Africa, The Philippines, Vietnam and Europe.

Tipping versus understanding

White owners and senior staff visibly running South African restaurants while more junior black service staff are an instant demonstration of the huge inequality still in society. You almost, or do, feel guilty with the excellent service you inevitably get as an overseas visitor as well, so not giving a 10 to 20 percent tip is churlish. Whether this actually makes any difference in overcoming inequality, I’m not sure. More likely it simply consolidates the status quo – it’s maybe even regressive.

While Hussar Grill and Butchers Table are what I had in mind here, a similar protein-focused meal can be had in Mzolis in a Cape Town township. It’s actually a butchers with a grill and tables attached and can be combined onto the end of a cycle or walking tour of the township, though I was gleefully regaled by a taxi driver who told me he took two German tourists there in the evening and picked them up later. The poor side of the economic/social divide, for sure, but it gives a broader view of society as a whole and an understanding of what has gone on in SA.

A lobster battered in what appeared to be popcorn in an Asian resort a few years back was all the incentive we needed to rapidly break out from the cosseting of a similar establishment in the Philippines this year. There are numerous pork barbecues throughout the country, a great value win and an easier way to better understand the country as part of a mixed foreign and local crowd. It’s easier to eat this way, on plastic chairs in a converted garage, in the Far East and then aim for global equivalents.

First world colonisation

Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein has been nearly a seminal work in my travelling experience. It contains some pretty strong words for international resorts sprung up in developing countries for reasons of poor ecology, economic sustainability and exploitation of workers. I don’t think it always has to be that way though and there are examples of accommodations developed ethically in developing countries.

Kinsterna, a renovated abbey in the Penopelese in Greece, seems to have a target of self-sufficiency: at least in certain products such as olive oil, wine, honey, water and dairy with meat and fish from the local area. All desirable, especially when staff get paid 100% of wages, rare in the country. What conversation did glean, though, was that staff were giving up careers in regular industries in Greece. Surely this will produce a labour shortage somewhere, but not directly linked to tourism.

Ecology I largely assumed was part of Kinsterna’s agenda as well, synonymous with self-sufficiency. GBP 40 a night promises ecological balance at Mango Bay in Phu Quoc of the Vietnamese coast at the Mekong Delta, important in an area of the country where sustainable agriculture is crucial for the whole country. Weird soap, grey towels and minimal night lighting is easy in the tropics and clearly doesn’t effect the food, drink and beaches. Especially when it’s all miles away from the nearest local inhabitant.

Barriers

This isolation maybe because owners think peace and quiet is what guests want, but likelier they think it’s more desirable without locals kicking around and demonstrating the wealth divide too obviously. Isolation seems the binding element of tourist enclaves in South Africa, Philippines, Greece and in Vietnam.

While I’m not usually fond of a mugging, it seems putting a physical barrier between the developing world while taking advantage of low prices is the common denominator. Personally, I can only live with this by, at a minimum, finding out what the other side of the often metaphorical fence is like. How far beyond varies. But chilling on the easy side doesn’t seem progressive for anyone.

Requirements for a weekend in Moscow

On the face of it, Moscow is a fringe, enigmatic but totally possible weekend destination from London and also a good BA miles run, given it’s the shortest long haul flight the airline do. Despite this though, there are a number of pitfalls to be wary of, not least a convoluted visa process. The below is a list of steps in chronological order for a quick pootle round one of the grandest, most enigmatic and now autarchic European capitals.

Flights

A result of a lot of political sanctions from the west and most likely a fearful lack of incentive, flights from London and the rest of Europe are cheap as anything at the moment with KLM doing indirect via Amsterdam for as little as GBP 150 and BA and Aeroflot offering around GBP 300 direct. I’m still a little suspicious of Aeroflot after witnessing one of their hostesses staggering out of the cockpit with lipstick smeared around her face clutching a vodka bottle in the 2000s, so it will probably be BA next.

Time zone woe is a slight factor on an otherwise easy four hour flight. Three hours plus from London takes a lot out of your day on the outward flight so I think as early as bearable in the morning is the best bet. The sequencing of tasks for getting a visa to Russia means getting the flight booked first makes things easier. Next step is booking, though not necessarily paying for, somewhere to stay.

Hotel

Even the shortest term visa, from the UK at least, requires a formal document: the letter of invitation. A friend or a business can supply this if you making your own arrangements, but even the lowliest of accommodation suppliers seem authorised to do this as well. I stayed in the self-styled artistic hangout Oh So Indie House Hostel in 2014 who were happy to provide this after paying a mere GBP 4 deposit for an twenty pound a night stay. This gets you a pod in a ten dorm room, a huge structure providing all ten beds and lockers arranged end first, like a giant wine rack. Think sleeping in a Jenga tower.

This was actually a very comfortable stay with the only slight downfall being the necessity of getting changed, then showering, in a cubicle I could only just get my shoulders through without getting my clothes wet. I spent a few hours in the communal, grandly high-ceilinged, lounge there and was interested to hear the Ukrainian crisis unfolding on TV with Russian guests getting increasingly befuddled with their neighbours unwise and ungrateful posturing. A good lesson in a bit of travel providing people-based insight you can’t get at home.

Visa

Having collated the letter of invitation, hotel booking and flight details, the visa is now possible. Reciprocity means this is now expensive, at over GBP 100 including fees for even the cheapest version. It may be possible to get part of the fee cheaper by going to the Russian Embassy, but the agents vfs.global in Old Street, North/East central London is, if you include some Russian surliness as part of the experience, easy if you are able to walk in there. Though a photo is required, this isn’t actually present on the visa when complete, the Russian states “Valid without photo”.

Moscow metro and Lenin: A lesson in Cyrillic

The imposing and inspiring socialist statues of the Metro are arguably a top ten tourist destination in their own right, which is just as well because using it for transport can be challenging. The network is as complicated as London, New York or Paris, but unlike a lot of Moscow written almost entirely in Cyrillic. Mix and match works to find your way, but the best method I discovered was to find the terminus destination of each train as it arrived, having planned your route before starting. It’s fairly risk-free though. As I understand, with trains every minute, it’s one of the most frequent in the world.

The embalmed remains of Lenin, sited in a tomb on the Kremlin-side of Red Square, are unquestionably a top ten tourist site and happily for the frugal, free. It’s a brisk walk round three sides of the tomb in the dark and silence, which adds gravitas to the whole procedure. Any thoughts about whether it’s morally acceptable for this reverence to the father of Soviet socialism, or indeed to be looking at a pickled visionary nearly 100 years after his death are quenched by this dark, silent and rapid walk-around. Like the metro, his tomb is marked only by an encryption in Cyrillic. You could miss it.

The alphabet I had learnt years before, so I could work around these things. For a trip longer than a weekend, it’s worth learning. You can do it over a weekend and I found even without knowing the language to go with it – it can go a long way.

London Cycle tour: London’s evolution

It wasn’t planned that way, but it has just been a weekend of several hundred years of London’s history leading up to its social smorgasbord present. This was also planned to be a TripAdvisor review of Tally Ho! Bicycle tours, a fine two-wheeled tour of historical sites in Westminster.

Evolution not revolution or creation

That the UK (or London) has evolved rather than being created or subject to design through revolution is a long-taught part of High School social sciences and this three and a half hour tour by on the quintessentially-British Pashley bikes contains food for thought with around a dozen stops around historical Westminster sites in three and a half hours of easy-going cycling. Our guide was Harry, London born and bred and while studying Economics and Government a source of real knowledge.

Tucked up between the back of the MI5 building and the Palace of Westminster, St Johns Smith Square is a peaceful, architectural gem of an address, demonstrating a lot of these qualities. The centrepiece was around St John, once a church now a classical music venue. The almost cubical design with four turrets was said to take its design from Queen Anne’s upturned footstool, which she kicked over and suggested was emulated in an argument with the architect Thomas Archer. It’s now surrounded by listed houses selling for anything between seven and twelve million pounds.

That the wide, sedan-chair-width main doors and gutter-access servant’s doors are now accessed by the same people represents social progress of sorts, though probably not as much as you’d expect. The recent cancellation of London’s Garden Bridge, though, is some reminder that architectural sycophancy is still around in some sort of form.

Some progress

Smith Square almost entirely merges onto Westminster School gardens, site of an actual reversal of equality. There is something monastic and gothic about this Square, entirely penned in away from the bustle of Victoria in a scene that could have been passed direct from the 1800s, especially with the distant sound of a choir practising.

Westminster School was originally set up for the orphaned destitute of the parish around Westminster in Dean’s Yard, but several hundred years of evolution has seen the market better utilise it as a public school with yearly fees of over GBP 20,000 for an education adjacent to the UK seat of Government. Nice intentions you feel, but subtly corrupted by the market benefits of the location over the years.

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Whether this conservatism is directly down to the church’s closed-shop attitudes is hard to judge, but another anecdote here gleefully passed on by Harry was the debate about women becoming bishops, which took place relatively recently in the tellingly historic looking, but actually 20th Century Church House. Though mercifully approved, a noteworthy argument against was that women would struggle with the emotional demands of the bishop’s role and may faint.

Pluralistic present

After stops at Horse Guards Parade, Lambeth Palace, Covent Garden and The Embankment, Street Art is the final stop under Waterloo Station, quite a nice ending and one where everyone is free to spray out some creativity. Intention or design I’m not too sure, but this jigsaw riot of clashing colour does point to a more positive, egalitarian and liberal present and future in London.

A riot of colour, smells of various types of incense and bashing of instruments were funnily enough the theme of Shri Kanagathurkkai Amman Temple (SKAT) festival in Ealing, literally a hundred meters from my front door on 13 August. Though I’d seen the elephant shrine in storage it was a lot more invigorating to see it used in the spirit it was intended. Though I missed it, and my friends Malcolm and Anita imbibed, the local park was distributing free food in the spirit of togetherness.

Similar to the graffiti, you feel new influences are where the good stuff and the hope currently is in London, the contemporary curve on over a couple of hundred years of evolution.