Sports tour provides
fascinating insights into Japan

The Foundation's sports adviser Kirsty Sharp writes about her first visit to Japan, which she took earlier this year as part of the Japan Sports Forum. The forum provided ten PE teachers with firsthand insights into Japanese culture and the country's relationship to sports.
Kirsty and one of the PE teachers practicing judo

Kirsty (left) practicing judo with one of the Kiwi PE teachers

Click, click…I take particular notice of that familiar sound as I lock my front door, turn and walk to the waiting taxi; how many unfamiliar experiences will there be for me in the next ten days?

What lies ahead is an adventure. Ten days in Japan with ten PE teachers from around New Zealand and another staff member from the Asia New Zealand Foundation; we are the 2019 Japan Sports Forum contingent.

This will be my first trip to Japan, though later in the year I will be returning as a tourist, joining many other New Zealanders to support the All Blacks in their quest for their third Rugby World Cup title.

First sight of land after nearly eleven hours of flying surprises me: rice fields followed by golf courses. I had thought there were limited opportunities to play golf in Japan?

My hotel room is cozy, with a king-size single bed and a bathroom complete with a very complex toilet system. I pass on the supplied pyjamas, tucking my own set under one of the pillows, noticing that the pillow felt different; is it filled with rice?

My first dinner followed by breakfast the next morning has me wondering - what is the difference between these meals? Both offer rice, miso soup and the accompanying pickles. As a vegetarian, I am always curious about ingredients, so while others oh and ahh over the Japanese cuisine on offer, I do find it challenging. To supplement my meals, I head for the local food market and purchase some almonds. I miss cheese, though love the lychees on offer at breakfast!

Day one: We start our journey at the busiest transport hub in the world, Shinjuku metro station, where over 3.6 million people pass through each day. There is silence and order, no running, no loud chatter, no bumping into each other; everyone knows where they are going (except me!) and do it in an orderly and quiet manner.

A crowded Tokyo street

Part of the Japan Sports Forum experience was for the group to immerse themselves in Japanese society

Around 10am, my work colleague waves me goodbye as we both have commitments in different directions. My initial reaction is to panic! Where do I go? How do I get there? Who will understand me?

It’s just me and my phone, so google maps becomes my new travel buddy, and we do okay. We navigate this huge city, the crowds and the extensive train networks along with their multiple exit and entrance doors, managing to arrive at each of the four meeting venues the 15 minutes early as is customary, ready to talk sport, yes sport.

I have travelled to Japan to share the work the Foundation is doing with sport and to gain a better understanding of the Japanese sports sector. Over the next few days, the overwhelming message I hear is how can we encourage more New Zealanders to come to Japan, through sport and education?

Also scheduled into my itinerary is time to explore and experience sport in Japan. Their focus on the details, skill acquisition, rituals, and the respectful behaviour of the fans is not what I’m used to back home.

A crowd of people dressed in team colours and waving flags

The organised chants and respectful behaviour of the crowds struck Kirsty as an obvious difference between a Japanese and New Zealand stadium experience. 

Spectators take turns to support their teams with song and chants and they take pride in their venues, conscientiously using the bins on the way out of the stadiums to dispose of their rubbish. There is just another level of respect for the discipline of sport, the athletes, the event, the environment and their history.

As we work our way through our itinerary, visiting sites of significance, schools and sports facilities, exploring different corners of Tokyo, meeting with Kiwis and Japanese involved in sport, I come to realise what an extraordinary experience we're having. This is reinforced to me by our hosts in Japan who tell us that many of the things we've done few Japanese would have experienced.

We've watched sumo wrestlers go through their drawn out rituals before a bout that lasts just seconds; we've seen street parades; tried our hands at kendo and judo, watched professional baseball and rugby games and visited Olympic sites and spoken to officials tasked with seeing the event runs smoothly. We've also been to schools and seen how dedicated young athletes are and how much effort they put into their chosen sport.

Young baseball players piggy-backing each other at training

Kirsty: "Experiencing a country through the lens of sport truly is a unique way to learn about a society and culture."

Experiencing a country through the lens of sport truly is a unique way to learn about a society and culture. You get insights you wouldn't get if visiting as a typical tourist.

As I prepare to return to Aotearoa, I acknowledge the real value in the Foundation's new programme, ensuring through sport more Kiwis build connections, knowledge and confidence when travelling to this special country.

Click, click, home and the first thing I notice is the sounds coming from the park nearby, children laughing and dogs barking; I am home, where’s the cheese?