Major international sporting events in recent years have become just as much a showcase of their host countries as the sports themselves, and Japan is determined that in 2019 it takes full advent of the Rugby World Cup.
Twelve cities will host matches during the tournament, from Sapporo in Hokkaido, all the way to Kumamoto in Kyushu, with the whole thing kicking off on Sept 20 when Japan take on Russia at Tokyo Stadium.
Also known as Ajinomoto Stadium, Tokyo Stadium is playing host to eight matches, and the opening ceremony. However, the attention of the media and fans will also be on the little-known nearby district of Fuchu. Technically a city within the Tokyo metropolis, Fuchu is where England and France will have pre-tournament camps, and is home to two Japanese rugby teams, the Top League’s Suntory Sungoliath which has a history of signing top international players, and local rivals, Toshiba Brave Lupus.
This former post town on the Koshu Kaido is about to be inundated with foreign visitors from 20 countries, so what then can they expect to find in a city recently rebranded as “The Mystery City”?
1. Baba Daimon - Zelkova Tree Street
Fuchu Station may look like any other suburban railway stop, but step out onto Baba Daimon no Keyaki Namiki which runs right under the tracks, and you find yourself seemingly in ancient woodland, where a canopy of zelkova trees covers the sky to create a tunnel, appearing to run endlessly in both directions.
A statue of Minamoto-no Yoriyoshi, the first man to plant a tree here, stands aside the 600-meter-long promenade like a sworn protector. He first planted a tree here as gratitude for victory in battle during the Heian Period. Along with his son Yoshiye, he donated a thousand zelkova saplings in 1062, praying for victory as they made their way to defeat the Abe clan of Oshu (today’s Tohoku region) and donating the seeds upon his return.
The tradition continued in 1600 when a Shinto priest prayed for victory for the Tokugawa forces ahead of the battle of Sekigahara, donating horses to the mission. Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate that would rule from 1600 until 1868, donated zelkova seedlings here, creating the current alignment. The whole street was designated a National Natural Monument back in December 1924, and feels like it protects the energy and spirit of Fuchu in its shade.
2. Okunitama Shrine
While Fuchu may seem like part of Tokyo’s urban sprawl, its creation and significance predates the capital by well over 1,000 years. Old Edo is known to have been a mere fishing village with nothing known about it before 1457. But here in Fuchu in 111 AD, a first shrine was built in the time of a legendary figure, the 12th emperor, Keiko.
Designed to worship a god named Okunitama, the shrine is one of the oldest in Japan, and as it regularly holds festivals, it is home to a treasure house of matsuri items. Only group tours can enter, but once inside, you discover a collection of eight enormous and elaborate mikoshi – portable shrines lined up facing a set of drums.
The drums are likely the largest you’ll ever see, the biggest one using a leather cover imported from Cameroon, which is so loud once beaten that it’s said in olden days it could be heard 100 kilometers away.
A fire in 1646 saw the main hall rebuilt in 1667 and that’s what stands today. Three shrines share one building in aidenzukuri style and plates and praying labels from 1667 remain in place, ensuring the temples status in Tokyo alongside Meiji Jingu, Yasukuni Jinja Shrine, Hie Jinja, and Mie Shrine as the big five shrines.
3. Fuchu Kyodo-no-Mori Museum
Visitors to Japan often lament that modern architecture seldom inspires, and few old structures in Tokyo especially are left remaining. Thankfully, Fuchu preserved some fine examples of Japanese architecture, including those first influenced by European style, and set them in an open-air museum, where they genuinely feel like they’ve always been.
While the museum itself rivals the Edo-Tokyo Museum in Sumida with its interactive display of ancient Japan - it displays original artifacts from Fuchu’s time as a post town on the Koshu-Kaido – just step out into the gardens around it to find old post houses, stores and a working tea house, all surrounded by plum orchards.
4. Koanji Temple
Visitors to Tokyo need not want for their temple fix, but Fuchu is home to a little gem in the shape of Koanji temple. Established in the 12th century, it’s guarded by carved Nio guardians beside a two-storied gate.
An annex to the main temple is one the highlights, a picture perfect homely shrine straight out of a Studio Ghibli movie, with a huge hanging lantern dominating and illuminating the center of the room.
The temple is also home to a tiered row of jizo statues, which while cute for photos with their knitted woolen hats and mini windmills in their hands, also symbolize a place of solace. Jizo are protectors of children and unborn babies, carrying children to the afterlife in the case of miscarriage.
5. Summer Plum Festival
Some temple districts are sedate and serene – not Fuchu. They’ve got a famous shrine and they want the world to know, via regular festivals that spill out on the streets and around the city. The grandest of these is the Kurayami Festival (darkness festival), held here every May. It’s so named because sacred things shouldn’t be seen in daylight, making it a night party for around 750,000 who attend.
Those coming for the Rugby World Cup won’t miss out. Each September, the city hosts the Chestnut Festival (Kuri Matsuri) and early arrivals in August can even catch the Hassamu Sumo Festival, when kids square up with adults to battle it out in the ring.
For more information on Fuchu: http://www.kankou-fuchu.com.e.adc.hp.transer.com/© Japan Today