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

Tales From The Longest Journey

Chelsea vs. Monterrey : 13 December 2012.

I can well remember travelling back from Munich in May when a few of us spoke about the chances of heading over to Tokyo for the World Club Championships. On that flight from Prague to Bristol, my view was that it was “one trip too far.” After the dust had settled and after I had mulled over the possibilities, my view soon changed. The tipping point was the realisation that the date of the final – Sunday 16 December – was my late father’s birthday. Once I heard that, little could stop me. In June I booked flights, in July I sorted a hotel and in October I purchased match tickets. I think it is safe to say that I have rarely looked forward to games with greater relish in all of my years of support of the club. The thought of seeing us become World Champions in Tokyo sent me dizzy.

2012 has truly been unlike no other.

By its eventual completion, I will have seen Chelsea play in Naples, Barcelona, Munich, New York, Philadelphia, Turin and Tokyo.

I need to get out more.

Since the start of 2012-2013, the games have mounted up and I have attended the vast majority. The two games in Tokyo would be games 26 and 27. What another tumultuous season for us all. Even in the opening five months of this campaign, we have had enough success, despair and madness at Chelsea to last a lifetime. The low point was the awful trip to West Ham when there was near civil war in the Chelsea section.

Enough was enough. I wanted to put the past few crazy weeks behind me. An away trip to Sunderland was avoided as I wanted to get my head straight for last-minute preparations for my longest ever Chelsea journey. I spent the Saturday, instead, watching my local team Frome Town. The contrast with my next game would be immense. Saturday gave way to Sunday. Sunday gave way to Monday. The hours passed. And then the minutes.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

As I headed out of Somerset en route for Heathrow on Tuesday 11 December, I couldn’t resist a text to a few close friends.

“Jack Kelouac.”

It seems almost superfluous for me to mention my trip to London when my end destination was many thousands of miles further east. However, for me, every mile counts. The hundred miles that I spent alone, listening to some Depeche Mode, enjoying the winter sun, letting my mind wander was the perfect start for my journey. As ever, it gave me the chance to put some sort of perspective on the upcoming events over the next few days. As I drove past Andover and Basingstoke, I was reminded of my first ever trips by car to Chelsea back in 1991-1992. I learned to drive relatively late at the age of 26 and my first few trips to Stamford Bridge, along the A303, up the M3 and around the M25 to a mate’s house in Worcester Park, were landmark events. It’s funny how certain music takes me back to that time. Those first few trips to Chelsea were often accompanied by rave anthems, but also by several Depeche Mode albums. Every time I hear “Black Celebration” I am transported back to driving home from a Sunderland F.A. Cup game in 1992. A John Byrne equaliser broke our hearts and stopped us advancing to our first semi-final in twenty-two years. It was a long and lonely drive home that night. Twenty years ago, trips to Tokyo to watch Chelsea would have been regarded as the stuff of fantasy.

So, there’s the perspective.

Over the last few miles of my journey, I couldn’t resist playing “Tin Drum” by Japan, a fantastic band from my teens. David Sylvian’s fractured voice, dipping in and out; with synthesisers producing a uniquely sparse sound provided the perfect backdrop for me. One of my favourite tracks from the early ‘eighties was David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s classic “Forbidden Colours.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1YkHJJi-tc

Visions of China and Japan echoed around my brain.

My good mate Russ dropped me off at Heathrow in plenty of time to catch the first leg of my gargantuan trip east. The 5.40pm Air China flight to Beijing left a little late. Chelsea stalwarts Cathy and Maureen were also onboard, plus a couple more fans who I didn’t recognise. We eventually took off, sweeping north and then east over London, before flying over The Netherlands, Germany, Russia – just south of St. Petersburg – and further beyond. My head was spinning at the enormity of it all. I hoped to catch plenty of sleep on the flight but, after a meal, I decided to check out the movies on offer. Of the forty to choose from, there was an over-abundance of Shirley Temple films. I obviously found this odd, but presumed that the People’s Republic of China has an obscure obsession with the tousle-haired child star of the ‘forties. It was proof, if any was required, that things would be getting slightly weird over the subsequent few days. I remembered how Albania was equally besotted with Norman Wisdom, the accident prone comedian from the post-war films of my childhood. Sometimes there is no reason behind anything.

Eventually, I chose “Citizen Kane”, the classic film about an enigmatic multi-millionaire. I didn’t last too long into the film as my eyes were soon feeling tired, but there was time for me to raise a smile at the line –

“If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.”

I had seen the film a few times. A few scenes are marvellous. On this trip, when thoughts of my father would never be too far away, I was reminded of one of my most treasured memories from my childhood. Forget all of the Chelsea trips, the family holidays to Blackpool, Dorset, Italy and Austria and my father’s silly jokes; probably my most cherished memory of my father was when he pulled me, aged around three, on a home-made sled around my village, with snow falling and the two of us just chatting away. It was a rural winter wonderland. Perfect.

It was perhaps my “Rosebud” moment.

Our flight across the frozen wastes of Russia, Mongolia and China took over ten hours. Thankfully, I slept for half of this. I eventually peeked out of the window when we were an hour away from Beijing and saw snow-capped mountains. My heart skipped a beat. We landed in a freezing Beijing at around midday. Cathy and Maureen rushed through to catch their connecting flight to Tokyo, but my flight was much later. I had over five hours at the airport. But not just any airport.

Beijing.

Peking.

China.

Oh boy.

I was in China.

It was one place that I never thought that I would visit. Tiananmen Square was but ten miles away. I was not worried that I was locked “in transit” at the airport. This was enough for me. I paced around the airport and then endured, rather than enjoyed, an authentic Chinese meal. I had beef and noodles and so unfortunately wasn’t able to utter the immortal line–

“Waiter – this chicken is rubbery.”

The connecting flight to Tokyo left at around 5.30pm. I was now the only Chelsea fan left. The plane was less than a third full and so I had time to stretch out and relax. More sleep. I awoke with the bright lights of several cities down below. Using the flight map overhead, I soon worked out that we were over South Korea. As we headed out over the ocean, I then saw several hundred golden lights bizarrely stretching out in a diamond shape. They obviously belonged to ships that were passing underneath, some 35,000 feet below. Along with seeing the frantically busy waters near Bangkok from a plane last summer, it was one of those incredible sights of my life.

Oh lucky man.

The Japan coast appeared and, then, the myriad lights of the cities of Osaka and Kyoto. It was another overwhelming sight. The approach into Tokyo Haneda airport seemed to take forever, but we eventually touched down at around 9.30pm. I was amazed how quickly I was through the various checks and by 10.30pm, I had paid 1,200 yen (£10) and was on a “Friendly Limousine” bus into the city. As the driver edged out of the airport, I kept repeating one line.

“I’m in Tokyo. I’m in Tokyo. I’m in Tokyo.”

It was as if I needed some convincing.

The first thing I noticed was that the bus was being driven on the left-hand side of the road; the same as in Malaysia and Thailand. This genuinely surprised me. I was pretty tired, but the hour-long coach-ride kept me awake. The driver soon climbed onto an elevated expressway, though it was only one lane in each direction. As we weaved around the city centre, we rose and fell, with ramps being surprisingly steep. Then, the next surprise –

Less than half a mile to my right was the gaudily illuminated Tokyo Tower, like an oriental Eiffel Tower, but brightly lit with thousands of gallons of gold paint and thousands of electric lights. I snapped a few photographs as we raced by, alongside darkened skyscrapers and the first few sightings of the many neon signs that so dominate the city.

I was deposited right in the very epicentre of the pulsing heart of the city; Shinjuku. There was neon everywhere. I quickly caught a rather old-fashioned looking taxi-cab, like something out of Yugoslavia in 1976, up to Higoshi-Shinjuku and tried to take it all in. I booked into my hotel just after midnight. I had been “on the road” for almost twenty-eight hours. I was tired, but in no mood to call it a night. After a quick wash in the world’s smallest bathroom, I darted over to a local bar called “Fuma” where I quickly knocked back three small Carlsberg lagers, along with a dish which caught my eye; blue cheese pizza with honey. Believe it or not, it was fantastic. If truth be known, I could have stayed there for ages. I always think there’s nothing like the thrill of a first night anywhere, the visitor being absorbed by every single sight and sound. I quickly noticed that the two wafer-thin waiters were ridiculously eager to please. They seemed to be almost apologetic in their nature and went about their tasks in an endearingly bashful manner. It would be a trait that I would often notice again during my stay.

At 1.30am, I decided to call it a night. Thursday was another day and I couldn’t wait for it to unravel before me.

On Thursday morning, the main objective was get up to Ikebukuro, around three miles to my north. Here, I was to meet Mike and Frank from NYC at their hotel at midday. I trotted down to the hotel lobby and was in the middle of a fragmented conversation with the hotel receptionist when I heard an English voice.

“No photographs, please.”

It was Darren Mantle. He was in the middle of a heated conversation with the hotel manager about the validity of his credit card. Just as it looked like I might become embroiled, Darren intelligently said that he didn’t know me and I was on my way. First, a cup off coffee from the McDonalds opposite and then my first exposure to the vaunted Tokyo tube system. With surprising ease, I negotiated a travel card and headed north on the – wait for it – Fukotoshin line. The tube trains and stations were amazingly clean. I was soon out in the winter sun. it was a gorgeous day, despite a cold wind, and I soon located the Hotel Metropolitan. I soon spotted a gaggle of familiar Chelsea faces, including Neil Barnett, enjoying a coffee. They were off to the Imperial Palace.

Mike soon appeared in the grand lobby and quickly updated me on the antics of the previous evening. He had arrived in Tokyo with Frank on a direct flight from JFK at much the same time as me, but had decided to hit the ground running. They had been out in a bar not far from my hotel, with the Mantles and a few others, until 8am. Frank was out for the count, sleeping like a baby, so Mike and I quickly decided to head down by tube to the area around the Imperial Palace.

We caught a tube down to the central area and spent a relaxing hour or so walking around the perimeter of the Imperial Palace grounds. We took a plethora of photographs of the moat and the pagoda-style palace. These contrasted well with the skyscrapers of a business district to the east. We bumped into the first four Corinthians fans of the trip. There had been rumours that there would be 15,000 Brazilians in Tokyo and the number amazed me. Chelsea had 1,000 tickets, but we believed that only around 600 would be attending through the club. I personally knew of around 20 friends who were in Tokyo.

One of the Brazilians whispered to me “here is a secret – David Luiz was a Corinthians fan as a boy.”

Ah, OK…I soon remembered the game in Monaco when Fernando Torres’ boyhood team Atletico Madrid handed us a thumping defeat. I put that memory to the delete folder of my brain.

Another Corinthians fan said “just make sure you win tonight, we want to play Chelsea in the final.”

Yes, indeed. Here was my biggest fear; that we’d go all this way to Japan and yet lose the semi-final. Wouldn’t that be typical? We posed for photographs together and wished each other well. Mike continued his re-hydration by buying drinks at every opportunity and we then caught a train back to Ikebukuro. On our return to the hotel, Frank (who also leans towards Napoli since his family are from that area), was still sleeping. Mike’s words did not arrest his slumber and so I decided to wake him.

“Napoli – Napoli – Vaffanculo – Napoli – Napoli – Vaffanculo.”

It worked.

Mike’s mate Foxy from Scotland, who I had not previously met, came down to join us and we then spent many minutes encouraging Frank to get out of bed, take a shower and get ready for the game.

The game. Yes, there was a game on in four hours but none of us had given it any thought.

Frank then tried the patience of all of us by unpacking and then re-packing all ten of his Chelsea shirts before deciding which one to wear. He then did the same with his socks. He then unpacked and packed his camera, toiletry bag, belt, computer, cigarettes, wallet and wristbands.

“No rush, Frank.”

To be honest, there was an amazing view of Mount Fuji from the hotel window and although Foxy and I were pulling faces of agony at Frank’s frustrating tardiness, the outside view compensated. Eventually, we left the hotel at around 4pm. Matt, another NY Blue, had joined us too. He had seen the Corinthians victory the previous night in Nagoya. I called in to my hotel to pick up a few things and we were soon on our way to Shibuya, a few miles to the south where we needed to change trains. The buzz was now there.

Tokyo away. Love it.

The journey down to the stadium was a manic blur. At Shibuya, we were right in the middle of the Tokyo rush hour and passengers, some with those infamous face masks, were rushing everywhere. Foxy lead us out from the tube station into the neon-lit mayhem outside, before we dipped into another part of the station which housed the Japan Railways service. It was frantic stuff, but we were soon on the right train. We were packed in like sardines, or maybe tuna. There was little interaction with the locals at this stage, despite our English accents. I expected a few people to be asking us about the game. Frank was still feeling rough from the previous night’s excesses in Shin-Okubu. As we changed trains one last time, Frank calmly vomited in the six inch gap between train and platform at Kikuna. I told him that I hoped that Fernando Torres was as accurate later that evening.

At Kikuna, we avoided the first train because the carriages were simply at bursting point. However, we soon alighted at Shin-Yokohama and noted a few Japanese fans with Chelsea colours, plus three Mexicans with requisite sombreros. Outside, on the walk towards the stadium, there were many street traders with a variety of dodgy souvenirs on offer. Most of the half-and-half scarves (Chelsea / Monterrey and, not surprisingly, Chelsea / Corinthians) were being hawked by English chaps.

“Wherever I lay my tat, that’s my home.”

We dipped into a store and bought some tins of Kirin for the short walk to the Nissan Stadium, but then soon stumbled across a bar on a street corner, which was full of Australian Chelsea. They were full of song. Oh, and beer. We soon decided to head on up to the ground which was a further 15 minutes away. This stadium hosted the 2002 World Cup Final. A quick Axon Stat coming up…this was the fifth such venue that I have visited, along with the stadia used in 1966, 1974, 1982 and 1990.

On the slow incline up towards the gates, we caught up with Cathy and Maureen, and then posed for photos with Dave Johnstone. Surreal is a word that can only describe seeing familiar faces so far from home. The small entrance plaza was full of sponsor tents and fast food stalls. There was a Coca-Cola truck parked up and I couldn’t resist a quick photo with the female Santa. Never has a red and white kit looked so appealing. Away in the corner was a substantial Chelsea stand where I entered a draw to win a trip to London so I could get my hands on a Japan 2012 lanyard. Local kids posed with Stamford and there was a massive line for this photo opportunity. Good to see.

We’ve come a long way, baby.

A few Mexicans were singing on the steps leading up to the second set of turnstiles and their antics were being recorded by a TV crew.

I entered the stadium and met up with the Chelsea contingent, most of whom had opted for the cheaper ticket option in the lower level behind the goal. In among our support were many locals. At the north end, we spotted a few Monterrey flags, but there was no real way of guessing their total number. To my left, the main stand was only a quarter full. To my right, the other stand contained barely 1,000 spectators. I looked around and spotted some familiar Chelsea faces from home. The teams soon appeared from beneath the main stand; Chelsea in blue, Monterrey in a change strip of Blackpool tangerine. The stands were set back from the pitch and, to be honest, it was difficult to see any action at the far end. It was reminiscent of Stamford Bridge until 1994. Behind me on the upper tier balcony were a few flags; notably one of The Rising Sun, named after the public house – now the Butcher’s Hook – where the club was formed in 1905. Darren and Steve had managed to get the “Super Frankie Lampard” banner up too. Orlin and his wife Katerina soon appeared behind me. I’ve only known Orlin since meeting him before the Arsenal away game in April, but it seems I have known him for ages. I last saw him in Turin. I was therefore huddled with the US contingent; Matt, Fun Time Frankie, Mike, Orlin and Katerina. Cathy and Maureen were away to my left and the Australian lot, complete with inflatable kangaroo, were beyond. I just missed photographing the large Monterrey flag which had been held up at the other end of the stadium.

The game began and it was all Chelsea, with Eden Hazard and David Luiz causing much concern to the Mexican defence. Luiz was again playing in a deep midfield role, much to the blissful contentment of all the FIFA13 obsessives among our support. To be honest, I always thought this a better option than playing him at right back, which was a common request a while back. The Chelsea support, chilled in the Yokohama evening, was hardly vocal. A chorus of “We don’t care about Rafa” (which I find pretty dull and uninspiring – I’d much rather sing about positives) had already been aired when we reached the sixteenth minute. A respectful minute of applause began and I joined in; in memory of Munich and Di Matteo. I commented to Fun Time that “wouldn’t it be great if we scored now.” With that, the ball was worked into Mata, from the left wing, who calmly slotted home.

Get in.

The rest of the half was played out in near total silence. The Japanese fans in the stadium did not utter a word. To be honest, the Chelsea fans around me were remarkably quiet too, apart from a stirring “We all hate Leeds and Leeds and Leeds.” Monterrey only threatened a few times. This was going well. It was certainly reassuring to see the team, invigorated by the win at Sunderland, to be playing so well and seemingly en route to the final.

At the break, 800 yen beers were purchased from a girl who was carrying a cask among us in the stadium. What a nice idea.

“Arrigato.”

The second half began with a large proportion of the Chelsea fans still outside in the concourse. Sadly, a lot of these missed our two quick-fire goals which effectively killed the game off. First, a nice move from Hazard allowed Fernando Torres to score via a deflection. After his new-found confidence after the two goals on the Saturday, I for one hoped that he had finally turned the corner. I even forgave him for scoring (and not once, but twice I tell ya!) without me in attendance. Within a minute, we were 3-0 up after a strong ball into the six-yard box by Mata was deflected in by a Monterrey defender.

Phew.

Start celebrating; we’re going to the final.

The rest of the game was easy. We enjoyed serenading all of the Chelsea substitutes – Frank especially – as they warmed-up in front of us. In fact, Frank’s appearance in place of David Luiz drew the biggest applause of the night. At last the locals were awake. In truth, Frank should have scored with a clipped shot from close in just after he came on. He had another shot which sailed over which he was visibly upset about. It was annoying that we let in a cheap goal through De Nigris in the very last minute of play.

The final whistle blew and some of the players trudged over to the near goal and clapped us. I rather naively hoped that all of our players would hop over the advertising hoardings and get close to us. Of course, this never happened. Had the 1983-1984 team played in Tokyo – with 600 or more Chelsea fans from the UK in attendance – there is no doubt that the entire team would have been mere yards from us, probably throwing their Le Coq Sportif shirts at us.

More perspective.

After the players had left the pitch, it was now the turn of us to be the focus of the Japanese fans’ attention. We were all asked to pose for photographs, with scarves and flags being brandished, while the locals smiled and giggled excitedly. By this time, we were all giggling too. I then explained to five young lads about Peter Osgood (who is a screen saver on my mobile phone), but of course they had never heard of him. Mobile phones were used to film us singing and we all joked about being on “Facebook in the morning.”

I had been in Tokyo for less than 24 hours, yet was already wildly in love with the crazy place.

On the walk out of the stadium concourse, we were again mobbed by passing fans and were asked to pose for yet more photographs. We handed out “US Tour 2012” wristbands to a few of the younger members of our supporters.

Their faces were a picture.

On the walk away from the stadium, I succumbed to a half-and-half scarf after we managed to barter down from 2,000 yen to 1,000 yen. For a World Club Cup Final, I was ready to make allowances. We dipped into the pub on the corner and stayed for around two blissful hours, drinking and chatting, toasting the team and the city. I had always planned this to be the big night for drinking; a berth into the final was a fine reason to celebrate. Even if we ended up as World Champions, too many of us would need to be up and early for flights on the Monday. We raced back to Shin-Yokohama and caught the last train back to Shibuya. From there, we caught a couple of cabs to the little bar at Shin-Okubu where Mike and Frank had spent the previous night.

It was the smallest bar that I’ve ever witnessed, on the second floor of a narrow building. It was adorned with European football pennants and patrons were able to play FIFA13 on the large TV screen. Rounds of Kirin were ordered and we settled in for the night. There were a few of the Australians present. “The Liquidator” was played. The owner brought some bar snacks, while Orlin and Katerina tucked into some food at the end of the bar. I was buzzing. The beers were flowing. I had a good old chat with Foxy, who is a Dundee United fan too. This made me smile because many years ago, I kept a look out for their results. Foxy and I spoke about Tannadice, The Shed, Eamonn Bannon, Willie Pettigrew, Hamish McAlpine, Paul Hegarty and Paul Sturrock. Fun Time Frankie took his iPod out and arranged for a few songs to be played through the bar’s speakers. Songs from Stiff Little Fingers and The Smiths reverberated around the cosy confines of the “1863 Bar” and I was a happy man. Good times. Steve Mantle then arrived on the scene and, when the rest departed, I sat with him at the bar discussing a whole host of interesting topics such as songs, new fans, the board, football culture and the banners on show at The Bridge.

We eventually left at about 7am.

I began walking in a happy, warm and fuzzy state, with dawn breaking and early morning commuters sliding past, oblivious to my blissed out condition. Feeling hungry, I dived into a convenience store but simply didn’t recognise a single item of the food on offer. I walked on, but was totally unsure of which direction I was headed. I can honestly say that I have never felt in such an alien or surreal environment. In some ways, I could easily have walked for another few hours, ready to experience whatever I would stumble upon. With a sudden jolt, I suddenly came to my senses and realised that this was silly.

I was in Tokyo and had no idea where my hotel was.

I quickly flagged down a passing cab, mumbled something about Higashi-Shinjuku and made my way home…or whatever “home” was at 7.30am in Tokyo.

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