Tales From The Edge Of The World

Chelsea vs. Corinthians : 16 December 2012.

The manic city of Tokyo was my home for five days and nights. To be honest, despite Chelsea Football Club providing me with the reason for travelling across such a large segment of the Earth’s surface, the trip wasn’t about Chelsea. It was about Tokyo. As always, I’m never happier when I am exploring fresh cities and foreign fields. Tokyo certainly didn’t disappoint.

The excesses of Thursday night and Friday morning, inspired by our safe passage into the final of the World Club Championships, had left me with a large hangover when I awoke at around midday on Friday. The jet-lag had kicked in too. Regretfully, I had to sleep on for a few hours, thus missing out on a trip with Mike, Frank and Foxy to the Tokyo Sky Tree tower in the north-west of the city. I eventually arose from my slumber on Friday afternoon and headed down to Shinjuku on the Fukotoshin line. I knew that I would certainly get my share of sensory overkill in Shinjuku.

Shinjuku train station is allegedly the busiest train station in the world. Down below street level, there was a rabbit warren of tunnels, elevators, lifts, stairwells, walkways to allow for transfers between stations, bustling passengers and a plethora of signs. Luckily, I had my “Pasmo” travel card to hand and found travelling the Tokyo tube relatively easy. Shinjuku station was also a shopping centre in its own right. It was a hive of activity. I made my way up to street level –oxygen! – and was bedazzled by the line of skyscrapers which greeted me. Tokyo even has its own version of The Gherkin, but it cowered in the shadow of loftier buildings. I soon bumped into another gaggle of Corinthians; they were easy to spot amongst the natives. Most were wearing Corinthians scarves, jackets or shirts. I again asked them how many Corinthians were over from Brazil. They commented that 20,000 had flown over, but their ranks were boosted by some of the 350,000 natives of Brazil who now live in South-East Asia. The numbers amazed me.

I walked down a few blocks, my eyes blinded by the neon, my face chilled by the wintry breeze, my ears listening attentively to the different cadences of a strange language which fascinated me. While I waited to cross a busy road, several trains passed over head on an elongated bridge. Tokyo’s transport existed on several levels; underground trains, street level cars and cabs, elevated trains floating over busy streets, rising and falling expressways with cars. There appeared to be apparent craziness, yet everything came together in perfect order. It was a beguiling sight. And everything was clean, so immaculately clean. Apart from the methane. Don’t talk about the methane.

I found myself underneath yet more neon at Yasakuni Dori. This seemed like the very epicentre of Tokyo. An Alicia Keys song was being played on massive video screens and her voice easily drowned out the noise of the traffic down below.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iDvceBND8Ws

I disappeared into the hub of Shinjuku, my senses working hard to rationalise all of it. Shops selling electrical goods, fast food eateries, girly bars, music shops. All of human life was there. I spent two hours or so walking at leisure in and around the crowded narrow streets. I dipped into a ridiculously cramped “Scottish bar” and sat alongside two whisky-sozzled natives. Before I could order, I was presented with a hot towel to refresh myself. I flicked through the food menu, which included a haggis pizza, but just decided on a drink. I ordered a pint of Strongbow cider, which was on special offer for the night, for 1,000 yen. That equated to £8; oh boy. However, the other regular beers (imports from the UK) were £12 a pint.

I wandered around some more, now needing sustenance. To be truthful, I again felt like a complete outsider. I peered at many restaurants, yet couldn’t decipher much of what was on offer. I entered two nice restaurants, but was told “reservation only.” Damn.

In the end, I chanced my arm on a more down-at-heel restaurant with no frills. Again, I was presented with a hot towel before I had a chance to order. I decided on a set meal which included a small bowl of soup, fried pork and king prawn, a small salad and a bowl of boiled rice. With a beer, this still came to around £23. The weirdest thing about the meal, though, was that the restaurant played a loop of Christmas songs from the ‘seventies and ‘eighties while I was eating.

“Walking In A Winter Wonderland. “

“Simply Having A Wonderful Christmas Time.”

“They Said There’d Be Snow At Christmas.”

“Well, I Wish it Could Be Christmas Every Day.”

On my walk back to Shinjuku, I discovered an amazing place. Tucked right against the train lines, was a ridiculously narrow passageway. It immediately reminded me of the madness that I experienced in the Chinatown area of Bangkok last summer. Here, within a space of around thirty yards were around fifty ridiculously small street cafes, seating no more than ten customers at a time, all at the counter, with food being fried in front of them. The smoke was billowing out from inside the kitchen areas and the air was heavy with an array of herbs and spices.

It was simply wonderful.

In that portion of Friday night, I think I managed to take away with me a few sacred memories of Tokyo. I sometimes feel it’s best to explore a foreign city by myself, away from distractions, letting everything slot in to place. I thought about Japan’s physical location on the Earth’s surface; in normal maps, out on a limb and away to the east, almost abutting the International Date Line. And then I thought about what I had so far witnessed. Tokyo was clearly different. So different in fact that I soon came across a phrase which I thought encapsulated my feelings for it.

To me, being in Tokyo seemed like existing on the edge of the world.

Tokyo was a city which was living by different rules, a city inhabited by 18 million polite and orderly natives, a city existing at a different pace and a city which miraculously worked. It was the biggest conundrum ever; it was a maelstrom of order. Tokyo shouldn’t work, but it clearly does. Millions existing together in a sparkling neon fantasy world. This was a space age city of tomorrow which was already here today. And it thrilled me like no other.

I was up early on the Saturday (3am early – my body clock was now officially frazzled) in order to meet the others at their hotel at Ikebukuro at 7am; this was the day of the long-awaited trip to Mount Fuji, the snow-capped mountain which overlooks the city from around 100 miles to the west. Opposite my hotel was a small (everything is small in Tokyo) McDonalds which was conveniently open for 24 hours. With thoughts of many McBreakfasts on trips to Chelsea games with Lord Parky, I ordered two McMuffins and a coffee. It bemused me that the seating area upstairs was populated with customers who were sleeping.

Live and let live.

At 7.30am, we clambered on a coach which took us down to the city’s bus depot. I spoke to Frank about seeing my second famous volcano of the year, after Naples’ magnificent Mount Vesuvius in February. This would be Foxy’s second volcano of the year too; he hails from Dundee, where the city’s less-famous volcano is the now extinct Dundee Law, which overlooks that city on the banks of the silvery River Tay. On the twenty minute coach ride, I saw another sight which made me gasp. Adjacent to the Tokyo Dome – a baseball stadium in the style of the Minneapolis Metrodome which is right slap-dash in Tokyo’s city centre – I spotted a tall roller coaster with associated loop-the-loop shapes that was right alongside it. I was gobsmacked. Imagine a three-hundred foot roller-coaster alongside Madsison Square Garden in New York.

No, neither can I.

Only in Tokyo.

We changed buses and, as Frank and Foxy had a cheeky smoke, they were lucky enough to witness a geisha wedding. Typically, there were a few Corinthians fans on our trip to Mount Fuji.

Ah, Mount Fuji; you mischievous temptress. Although I had already seen the crisp and iconic lines of this fantastic mountain from Mike’s hotel room on the Thursday, on Saturday she was shrouded in mist. We spent from 7.30am to around 6pm on a coach, a cable-car, a boat and a bullet train, but we still didn’t officially see Mount Fuji. It was a major disappointment. The clouds strangled Mount Fuji in a vice-like grip all day. However, at least we got to experience a little of Japan’s scenery outside of Tokyo’s 24 hour neon. The Japan that we saw from the coach was green and mountainous. We stopped half-way for an authentic Japanese meal which I wasn’t particularly enamoured with. There were just too many odd textures and tastes. Never mind, we washed it down with a beer. At every juncture in the day long excursion, we visited shops. This at least gave us plenty of time to witness Fun Time Frankie as he amassed the biggest variety of tat to the east of Coney Island. What he’ll do with a Little Kitty fridge magnet I will never know.

Later that evening, we had a drink in the bar at the Metropolitan Hotel, and then bought some tins of beer in a store opposite Mike’s hotel. We sat in Mike’s hotel room, listened to some music, chatted about football, music, Tokyo and the craziness of our simple presence in the city and watched the self-same city prepare for another night of fun, with lights sparkling down below. We were then out in the winter air, zipping through Ikebukuro train station, with the Christmas music still playing on internal speakers…

“Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle All The Way…”

(“Oh What Fun It Is To See Chelsea Win Away…”)

In the distance, I also heard a few bars of the de-facto Japanese song of this year and all others; the one I featured in Tokyo Part One –

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGs_vGt0MY8

So delicate, so atmospheric, so serene…so Japanese.

It will forever take me back to December 2012 in Tokyo.

We hopped onto a train – dab hands at this now – and revisited the 1863 Bar from two nights previous. A few other Chelsea fans called by too; first a couple of Aussies, then Darren Mantle, who had been to see a Tokyo derby match that afternoon with a few other Chelsea fans. He reported that there had been flags, loudspeaker-toting capos, scarves, rhythmic chanting, but no animosity to the other team.

That simply won’t do.

Despite the lure of an assortment of local nibbles that “Andy” the barman put on the bar for us to tuck into, we were all very tired. With a big match ahead on the Sunday, we called it an early night and I was back at my hotel at about 1am.

Sunday was the big finale.

Typically, Sunday was crystal clear. The skies were magnificent and devoid of cloud cover. I shook a fist at Mount Fuji but was soon thinking of other things. I was on a solo mission to make up for lost ground and I travelled across Tokyo on my Pasmo travel card in order to visit Tokyo Sky Tree. En route, I helped myself to a hot coffee in a tin from one of the thousands of vending machines which seem to be everywhere in Tokyo. That hit the spot; perfect.

I ascended from several layers of elevators at Oschiage tube station and the Sky Tree took my breath away. I was hopeful that I would soon be in the two viewing galleries, with all of Tokyo spread out before me. There was only one problem; the 3,000 yen admission fee. However, this was the least of my worries. The place was ridiculously busy and I was given a ticket (which was not an admission ticket, but simply acted as a ticket to allow me to buy a ticket at a later time that day) which implied that I would not be able to ascend the tower until 5pm, some five hours away.

Oh bugger it.

However, unlike several football managers that I dare not even mention, I had a Plan B.

I back-tracked and headed down to trusty Shinjuku yet again. I had read that the Tokyo Metropolitan Office building allowed visitors to visit the viewing gallery on the 22nd floor – for free, nonetheless. I had also remembered that Mike had said that the bar used the hotel in “Lost In Translation” afforded magnificent views of central Tokyo, too.

As it happened, I stumbled across the hotel – The Park Hyatt – and quickly tried to blend in with the diners at the restaurants on the 44th floor (great views) and the 52nd floor (sublime views) while I took advantage of the clear glass windows. My camera went into overdrive. I spent a good 45 minutes looking out at all points of the compass from the two levels. The views were magnificent. The hotel is right in the very centre of Tokyo, so I was right amongst it. In fact, if “Tokyo” is entered on Google Earth, the “red dot” (how appropriate) is a hundred yards from the hotel.

I was smiling from ear-to-ear as I hopped around the hotel, taking it all in. Tokyo is just simply massive. At last, I was able to photograph it and do it justice. To be honest, I was quite light-headed as I descended the floors and got back to street level. Fantastic stuff. I soon bumped into yet more Corinthians fans. I had heard rumours that Corinthians (or – as they pronounced it…Coreeeeenchia’) fans had sold cars, left jobs and even sold houses to travel to Tokyo. I wanted to know if this was true.

“Sure, it’s true. This cup is massive. We love this team.”

I had a little moment to try and equate what I had just heard with my feelings for the trophy which would soon be “up for grabs” some twenty miles away in Yokohama. There is no doubt that England, if not the whole of Europe, regards the Champions League as the biggest and most prestigious trophy on offer in World football. And – to be honest – I think that this is quite correct. It was the reason why some 40,000 Chelsea foot soldiers invested time and money to travel to Munich in May, yet only 17,500 of those were able to see the game. That only 600-800 had travelled out from the UK to see the two games in Japan did make me feel a little uneasy about how we as a club regarded the World Club Championships. Especially compared to the 30,000 Corinthians who were in every bar, every restaurant and on every street in Tokyo. This, however, was South America’s big moment to shine against Europe. It was their one chance to put one over on the moneyed ranks of UEFA. It was akin, in my mind, to the invasion of 80,000 Scotland fans back in the ‘seventies every two years for the England vs. Scotland game. Scotland owned Wembley in those days. It was their one chance to get one over the auld enemy. Well, in 2012, Tokyo was owned by the black and white Corinthian hordes from Sao Paolo.

To be honest, it reminded me of us being outnumbered in Munich.

With that, I stumbled across a “Soccer Shop” on the main walk back into Shinjuku. The place was festooned with shirts from clubs in Europe – you can guess which ones – and there were many items representing the World Club Championships, especially its two finalists. Interestingly enough, throughout my stay in Japan, I had not clocked eyes on a Japanese person wearing a single item of merchandise from any European club. Not one. The only such item I saw on the entire trip was a Liverpool scarf being worn by a boy on the London to Beijing stage. Despite better judgement, I stumped up 3,700 yen (or about £30) for a Corinthians T-shirt. I sometimes get souvenirs from my various football trips around Europe (a St. Pauli scarf here, a Juventus pennant there…) so a Corinthians shirt was no big deal. I balanced this by buying a Chelsea / World Club Championship key fob for 1,000 yen.

I zipped back to my hotel, decided on my match-day attire (maybe it was because I was now a Tokyo native, but this now took mere minutes as opposed to a longer period of time on a normal match day) and set off for the game. I again changed at Shibuya, then caught the JR Express to Kikuna and then on to Shin-Yokohama. It only took me around 45 minutes. I strolled over to the Chelsea pub just as Foxy, Matt, Mike and Fun Time were mid song. Anna and Kev were there too. A few other familiar faces from home; the three guys I had met in Kuala Lumpur were sat at a table inside. Outside, of course, the streets were awash with “Coreeeenchia”. Some were sat inside a street side bar with guitars and hand-held drums, blasting out a song for the passers-by. I disappeared off to purchase some tinnies from a store, then re-joined the boisterous crowd. Two locals drove past in a blue convertible which was festooned with Chelsea-flags, but which also had “Blue Is The Colour” booming out of its stereo-system. The car stopped in front of the pub – holding up the traffic – but enabled the Chelsea fans to join in.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pea04tAMGNw

Frank was all over it.

A local – wearing Chelsea scarf and (worryingly) reindeer horns – suddenly appeared in front of me, smiling and acting as if we had arranged to meet up. I guess he was just happy to meet an “authentic” Chelsea supporter. He was carrying his two-year old son, fully attired in Chelsea kit, and as he turned around we saw that the boy had his name – “Sora” – printed on the back above the number “25.”

Maybe this was a Japanese pun. Maybe the father had named his son after Zola and Sora was the Japanese pronunciation of it. Either way, we quickly serenaded him.

“Sora! Sora! Sora! Sora! Sora! Sora! Sora! Sora! Sora!”

The little lad started laughing and smiling, then clapped his hands excitedly. It was a brilliant moment.

The beer was going down well. The others wanted to head off to the stadium, but Matt and I were more than happy to stay outside the bar, drinking in the atmosphere, lapping it all up. We talked very briefly about our experience in Japan. I said that I found the Japanese to be very reserved, but once a link of communication existed, they suddenly became very friendly, almost to the point of giddiness. As a contrast, I found the Thai people to be more open and friendly from the start. Matt, who has visited around 40 countries and is clearly an experienced traveller, commented that there is an over-riding fear of shame which permeates all of Japanese life; that it is best to stay silent, to be reserved, to keep your cards close to your chest, rather than be socially embarrassed by doing or saying the wrong thing. I found this fascinating.

Although, the third/fourth place game was taking place in the stadium, I had no time for it. With around 45 minutes to go to the kick-off, we eventually made a move. Once inside the entrance plaza, we bolted down some Japanese style fish and chips. We showed our tickets and we were in. The Corinthians fans were still in the ascendency and were full of song. As a solid mark of defiance, I slowly and deliberately bellowed out “Champions of Europe – We Know What We Are” repeatedly for thirty seconds.

Once inside the stadium, the difference between the game on Thursday was very marked.

The place was packed. Not only that, Corinthians banners and flags were simply everywhere.

At the other end, a single banner “Gavioes Da Fiel” took up eighty yards of balcony. This was their biggest fan group and their biggest banner. But elsewhere, there were other banners; too many to name. There were Corinthians behind us in our section, there were banners above us; we were well-and-truly outnumbered in Yokohama.

Your city? Your stadium? Your cup?

Before we had time to think about too much, the pre-game pageantry had begun. News filtered through that Frank Lampard was starting as captain. I hoped that sentimentality hadn’t clouded Benitez’ decision to start him. It was, after all, Frank’s first start for ages. After Luiz’ ground-breaking start in a defensive-midfield position on Thursday, Benitez chose to play Frank alongside Ramires, so Luiz reverted to his central-defensive position alongside Gary Cahill. A surprising start went to Victor Moses, ahead of Oscar.

The teams entered the pitch. The Corinthians at the other end unveiled a large white banner which floated over the heads of the occupants of the lower tier. There were balloons. There were flags. There was a black, grey and white version of the Union Jack. Was this an ominous sign for us boys from Blighty? In response, we managed to squeeze a few blue flags of defiance onto the balcony above us.

It was certainly magnificent to see Frank lining up with the officials and the Corinthians’ captain. The teams then lined up on the centre-circle and the FIFA “Moment Of Hope” took place. I am sure that this was always planned to take place, but I personally thought that it had deeper poignancy after the shocking, yet oh-so predictable, events in Connecticut which so shocked the global community.

The Chelsea support seemed to be more boisterous, yet significantly more nervous too, compared to the game against Monterrey. The terraces were packed. Foxy got the beers in; good lad. I had to juggle beer with cameras, with songs, with support. I was aware that I was remarkably tense and I had to have a quiet word with Frank who seemed to be enjoying himself far too much for a Chelsea game.

Orlin’s wife Katerina told me to relax after a Corinthians effort flew wide.

Relax? I’d like to be able to…

I thought that we looked pretty comfortable in the first-half. Of course, the big moment was the effort from Gary Cahill which the Corinthians’ keeper Cassio somehow managed to block on the line. Our biggest scare was when Cahill seemed to send the lively Guerrero to the floor. Thankfully, the referee waved away the penalty claim. Guerrero was also involved when a move ended with Emerson shooting against the outside of the post. The best move of our first forty-five minutes ended with Victor Moses curling a lovely shot at goal, but Cassio again managed to save, clawing it around the far post.

I thought we were the better team at the break to be honest, although there was little between the two sides. I just hope that our class told. After a noisy start, we had even managed to silence the 30,000 Brazilians in the stadium.

Chances were at a premium in the second-half and I sensed a lack of conviction and enterprise in our play. I certainly sensed a dropping off of our tempo compared to the first forty-five minutes. A few half-chances were traded. Then on 69 minutes, a quick break into the heart of our defence caused me to experience a fear of impending doom. After so many games, I must have some sort of sixth sense. Lo and behold, although an initial shot was blocked by Cahill, the ball spun up and into the path of the waiting Guerrero. Cech seemed to be caught between a rock and a hard place. The ball was headed home with Cech stranded. The two defenders on the line could do nothing.

The Brazilians roared. Flares soon followed. I was crushed.

Benitez rang the changes with Oscar and Azpilicueta replacing Moses and Ivanovic. Our best chance of the entire game then arrived when the ball was sent pin-balling around inside the Corinthians penalty area. Typically, it fell at the feet of Fernando Torres. This was his moment. He only had the falling ‘keeper to beat. He had no time to weigh up the options. His instinctive prod was the wrong response and the ‘keeper blocked.

Oh boy.

Behind us, the Corinthians were making their presence felt. Earlier in the game they had bellowed disdain at David Luiz, the former Corinthians supporter. Now, one of their number waltzed down into our section and waved a large Corinthians flag. There was some shouting and posturing. After a small scramble, the flag’s metal pole was broken in two.

There was little penetration for the rest of the game and our cause was not helped when Gary Cahill lashed out; he was shown a red card. Then, a moment of hope. Oscar broke and sent over a fantastic cross towards the six-yard box. Torres rose and headed home. The ball smashed into the goal, right at me.

Get in!

I turned to my right, briefly saw Orlin going do-lally, but then heard the horrible words “he’s given offside.” Emotions turned 180 degrees. Pandemonium to agony in a spilt second. Mata even had one last chance to equalise, but his shot from an acute angle hit the outside of Cassio’s post.

The whistle blew and I just wanted to leave the stadium. I wasn’t really surprised how much this hurt. This was probably our only chance to ever be crowned World Champions. The only modicum of solace was for the thousands upon thousands of Corinthians who would now go home with a smile on their faces; I had no reason to dislike them.

I walked briskly back to Shin-Yokohama.

I was by myself now.

Walking through the train station at Shibuya, I was still feeling a little sorry for myself. I then realised where I was.

I was in Tokyo.

And I smiled the biggest smile of the five days away from home.

What a trip.

Although the city looked as beguiling as ever, I returned to my hotel at midnight, via one last lingering look at the neon up at street level.

I had to be up at 4am. I was so worried about the alarm not working on my phone that, once I awoke at 2am, I daren’t not go back to sleep again. I carefully packed my bags, tucked away all of my memories and headed down to the hotel lobby. A few Corinthians were coming in from a night of revelry.

It was their time and not ours.

I walked the mile or so south, past bars which were still open, to catch the bus to Haneda from good old Shinjuku station at 4.45am.

On the short thirty minute ride to the airport, I chatted to two Corinthians fans. We were all animated in our love of football and I thoroughly enjoyed the engaging conversation that we shared. One of them favoured Chelsea as his “European” team. I sensed that the other guy favoured Arsenal. They wanted to know about the size of our support and where our support came from. Had we been successful prior to Abramovich? Who were our main rivals? I was able to pass on tons of information for them to take home with them. Corinthians’ main rivals are Palmeiras and Sao Paolo. We had many things in common. For example, all three of us loved our club in a far greater way than our national teams. I was able to review our remarkable march to the Munich final in May and they were aware of every game, every twist and turn. Corinthians had won the Copa Libertadores with a win against Boca Juniors. Corinthians had only 1,500 tickets for the game in La Bombonera; perhaps this half-explained the 30,000 in Tokyo. At least they were assured of tickets in Japan, as bizarre as that seems.

There was a lot of sarcasm aimed at Corinthians in Brazil since they had only won the Copa Libertadores on one occasion. Like us, their biggest ever trophy triumph took place in 2012 and 2012 alone. Additionally in 2000, Corinthians were invited to take part in the inaugural World Club Championships as the reigning Brazilian league champions when Brazil was the host country. The fact that they won that 2000 Final is viewed as being a hollow trophy, by Corinthians and their rivals alike, since they had not won the Libertadores first.

The smiles of the two Corinthians sitting opposite proved to me that they had now won it fair and square.

Fair play to them.

Despite Chelsea’s loss, this football-powered chat high above the streets of an awakening Tokyo on the narrow expressway on the way to the airport was a brilliant end to my stay in the craziest city of them all.

Ah, the bittersweet ache of leaving a city as wonderful as Tokyo.

Over to Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansen.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fBwrx0YHo34

IMG_1835 IMG_2064 IMG_2210

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