It's early morning on Saturday, March 30, a time when I typically prefer to still be asleep back home in bed. Today, however, I am quite awake and standing in central Tokyo.
And moreover, I'm pumped. Why?
I'm in Tokyo's Aoyama district checking out Tokyo Sevens 2013, this city's contribution to the HSBC Sevens World Series (round 7, specifically), a special annual rugby sevens tournament. As a rugby fan, I find myself here, just down the street from the Ginza subway line's Gaien-mae Station, pretty frequently, and it's always nice to spend some time at the Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium (NOT to be confused with the city of Chichibu in Saitama). This weekend is a bit different, though. This is a two-day, seven-a-side rugby tournament held amongst some of the top international teams. Furthermore, the atmosphere at sevens differs from that at typical rugby matches, featuring a more festival-like feel. The more dedicated spectators like to show up in all manner of costume to creatively support their teams... or just because.
An interesting side note about Chichibunomiya Stadium: It was (re)named in memory of Prince Chichibu, son of Emperor Taisho, out of recognition for his contributions in promoting rugby in Japan and his love for the sport, despite not actually playing himself. There's a statue of him decked out as a rugby player at the entrance. You could say he's something of a patron saint of Japanese rugby. Feel free to wow your Japanese friends and aquaintances with that tidbit of history as many will not know it.
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The stadium itself is, admittedly, pretty compact, but that's one of the great things about it; you're right there close to the action. As I walk through the front gates, the familiar smell of the grass hits my nostrils, and I can hear the buzz as early bird fans like myself get situated for the day's matches.
Having gotten my hands on a two-day ticket (non-reserved seating), I made my way to my usual spot on the far side of the field from the entrance, along the touch line (side line). The first day would consist of the qualifying pool matches, deciding who would move on to which bracket for the second day's (Sunday, March 31) finals tournament.
Looking around, I saw a familiar scene (at first). Fans wearing the colors of their teams, families sitting down to enjoy the matches together, groups of younger people here and there cracking beers to start off the day... and then I saw him. Well, it was hard to miss his giant, white, triangular head. Then there was his face, which was painted bright red. Yes, his head was a giant onigiri, or rice ball, the colors of which resembled the Japanese flag. And just so that there was no mistaking for whom he was cheering, his ensemble was rounded out by a red and white striped Japanese national team rugby jersey. He would be the first in an array of costumed fans I would witness over the next couple days, including everything from giant red afro wings to a group of guys in full body kangaroo suits (Aussie supporters, presumably), and even a guy in a toga (not sure who he was rooting for).
At any rate, despite the overcast skies and somewhat chilly weather, spirits were high and the atmosphere jovial. They were handing out inflatable noisemakers at the gates for those looking to, well, make some noise. There happened to be one fellow in the stands somewhere with a vuvuzela, but luckily he either tired of it quickly... or perhaps the people around him did.
So wait a minute, you might be saying, what is "sevens" exactly? We know that it's a form of rugby and that the crowd is, shall we say, playful.
Sevens takes the standard size rugby field and halves the number of players to only seven per side, giving the players considerably more space to both operate and cover. The resulting fast-paced play requires the dynamic athleticism that is the crux of sevens and what is catching the attention of spectators the world over. The sheer energy and power required by the sport also affects the clock; the standard 40-minute long halves of normal rugby are reduced to only seven minutes apiece in sevens (ten for the tourney finals). A fierce battle unfolds in this brief window, leaving no time to loiter...or even catch one's breath. All of this comes together to deliver an adrenaline pumping experience that leaves fans on the edge of their seats down to the very last seconds!
At 9:30 a.m., the event was kicked off with a quick exhibition match, and then it was off to the races as the tournament matches got underway! I spent the next couple days in the stands screaming my head off (and banging my noisemakers) with my fellow fans and enjoying myself far too much.
This year's tournament saw two days of excellent matches between the national sevens teams of New Zealand, Fiji, England, Samoa, South Africa, Australia, Argentina, Wales, France, Scotland, United States, Kenya, Canada, Spain, Portugal, Japan. The finals was an exciting battle between New Zealand and South Africa, both powerhouses and past champions, with South Africa coming out on top!
Can't wait for next year!
With Tokyo Sevens being held at the end of March, the temperature has started to rise a bit, but it can still be quite chilly, especially if -- like me -- you are committed to being there all day(s). This year (2013) was hovering a few degrees above or below 10 C depending on time of day, the cooperation of the sun, and the varying attendance of the wind. Probably best to wear a sweater and bring a coat, hat and scarf optional. There are covered and uncovered sections at Chichibunomiya, but even the covered sections still allow in the elements, so it is good to keep that in mind (i.e., rain gear if precipitation seems likely, sunscreen if it's sunny).
Those of you hoping to keep yourself warm (or at least feeling warm) alcoholic beverages are available at concession stands and from servers roving the stands. Fans are also welcome to bring food and drink in with them; this writer frequents a certain convenience store almost directly across the street from the stairs leading up from Gaien-mae Station's Exit 3.
That being said, there are a number of concessions stands serving a variety of tasty treats (my friend created a monster of a chili dog with the do-it-yourself toppings at one stand). Fans of both sevens and beer were in luck this year! You could pick up this nifty souvenir cup (nice and sturdy, too!) and refill it with draft beer at a reduced price. Those looking for other souvenirs are also in luck, with jerseys, t-shirts, balls, etc. also on offer at the stadium.
Teams from around the world will descend on the heart of Tokyo at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Stadium (Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium), which is easily accessible using Tokyo's various railways. Find access information below shown in order of proximity to the stadium (map links open new windows).
Tokyo Metro Ginza Line (Subway): About a five-minute walk from Gaien-mae Station Exit 3. (Map)
Toei Oedo Line (Subway): About a 15-minute walk from Kokuritsu-kyogijo Station Exit A2. (Map)