This autumn, fans from around the world will descend upon Japan for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, the first time the tournament will be held in Asia. With venues spread across the country, the five-week-long tournament provides an opportunity to see a variety of sights in Japan. Matches will be played in major cities like Tokyo and Osaka, but the less-traveled host cities like Kamaishi, Kumamoto and Fukuroi offer accessible, charming destinations — as well as special deals and events — that give visitors the chance to experience Japan off the beaten path.
Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture
In March 2011, the scenic steel town of Kamaishi lost more than 1,100 residents in the tsunami that followed the Great Tohoku Earthquake; it is the only host city directly affected by the disaster. With deep ties to the sport through its famed Northern Ironmen club, the town has embraced rugby as part of its disaster recovery efforts, including construction in 2018 of the 16,000-seat Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium.
“We wish to show visitors the restored image of [the Tohoku region] and convey our gratitude as a host city of the Rugby World Cup,” said Yoshinao Takahashi, a public relations official with the city’s Rugby World Cup 2019 promotion headquarters.
When not taking in rugby matches, visitors can explore the town’s forested mountain surroundings. The Kamaishi Section of the 700-km Michinoku Coastal Trail winds through the town, making for a flexible, low-impact day trip that lets hikers take in both the history and natural beauty of the area.
The Kamaishi Iron and Steel Museum (Adult admission: 500 yen, or $4.50) traces the town’s industrial history and provides a charming side trip with views of the surrounding Kamaishi Harbour.
Visitors to Kamaishi should also keep an eye out for the rugby-themed “Scrum Iwate Fifteen” train. Introduced earlier this summer, the train is adorned with 35 yura-chara mascots from across Iwate Prefecture and is scheduled to run on the Sanriku Railway line through June.
WHERE TO STAY Traditional Japanese inns — ryokan — in Kamaishi and nearby towns are an excellent opportunity to experience the famed hospitality of the region. With autumn temperatures in the mid-70s, Kamaishi, and Iwate Prefecture as a whole, also offer an abundance of campsites for those seeking more rustic accommodations.
The city is home to the 15th-century Kumamoto Castle, one of Japan’s “big three” castles (along with Himeji Castle and Matsumoto Castle). The complex was damaged in a series of earthquakes in 2016, but visitors in October can see the castle and its grounds close up when town officials open a nearby plaza.
In recent years, Kumamoto has quietly developed a reputation as a must-visit for foodies. Kumamoto ramen in particular, with its trademark thick noodles and distinct garlic flavor, is a popular draw. The city is also something of a meat-lovers paradise, known for its akagyu red Wagyu beef and immaculately raised pork.
For those looking for a quiet respite between raucous rugby matches, the calming Suizenji Jojuen Garden (Adult admission: (¥400, or $3.75) is a pleasant 17th-century garden and pond located in the heart of Kumamoto.
WHERE TO STAY Kumamoto’s unique geography results in exceptionally clean groundwater, and the city is quite proud of having mineral water on tap. Beyond drinking water, this natural resource also makes for excellent hot spring hotels. The mountainous Aso Region surrounding Kumamoto offers many such onsen hotels, such as the Sanga Ryokan, with traditional lodging and two open-air hot springs.
Fukuroi, Shizuoka Prefecture
Located halfway between Tokyo and Osaka, Shizuoka Prefecture is perhaps best known as home to Mt. Fuji in its eastern region. But its western region, where Furukoi lies, is not without its charms.
As the former seat of the powerful Tokugawa Shogunate, the area has a deep history. Visitors can walk the ornate grounds of the 15th-century Kasuisai Temple, rebuilt and named by the former Shogun, and partake in a Shojin-ryori — a traditional Buddhist vegetarian meal — or a Zen meditation session.
The city and its surrounding regions are known as a top producer of green tea in Japan, producing about 40 percent of the country’s crop. A modest trek from the city at Grinpia Makinohara, guests can pick tea leaves in the plantations lush fields, with tours operating from April through early October (Adult admission: ¥820 or $7.60). Tea-making workshops are also offered on site, as is a free tour of the Grinpia factory.
WHERE TO STAY As part of its mission to provide visitors with an authentic taste of the city, Fukuroi is offering a unique homestay program for international guests during the Rugby World Cup. Visitors can apply for three-day, two-night homestay packages with host families in the city (¥27,400 or $258 per person), as well as a variety of optional cultural activities and tours with their host families.
The Japan Rail Pass provides the most practical way to reach the more far-flung host cities of the Rugby World Cup. Sold by the Japan Railways Group in 7-, 14- or 21-day increments, and available only to foreign passport holders, the Rail Pass offers unlimited travel on local JR lines as well as most of the country’s famed shinkansen bullet-trains.