Castles, ninjas and "Odawallaby": Training Aussies embraced in Japanese host city

by Iain Payten

Having bunkered down in the Japanese city of Odawara for a week of training, the Wallabies won't be short of inspiration when it comes to preparing for Spring Tour battle.

The small city of Odawara, which will be also the Wallabies’ base for the 2019 World Cup, is known as a "castle town” and only a few hundred years ago was occupied by thousands of samurai warriors.

For a century or two, too, Odawara’s ruling Hojo clan even had a ninja army to do their silent bidding as well.

The Wallabies got a sense of that fighting history when they attended a welcome ceremony on Monday night, after arriving from Yokohama, where they lost to the All Blacks.

The function was held at Odawara Castle, an ornate fortification built in 1447, during Japan’s warring period.

The castle is now a major tourist attraction for the town, with hosts dressed in the traditional samurai outfits that were the battle-dress of a sizeable number of the town’s ruling class up to the 18th century.

Players posed for photographs with the Samurai hosts and met local dignitaries, before diving into a full week of training the next day at Shiroyama Stadium.

Rugby Australia chose Odarawa as a training base for the Wallabies, and for the Aussie sevens teams ahead of the 2020 Olympics, in August after nine cities expressed their interest in becoming a host city for Australia.

The facilities are reasonably straight-forward - a field, a hotel and a converted gym at their hotel - but the value has come as much in the level of enthusiasm and support provided by the Odawara locals.

Each training session is watched by a few hundred people, who are often come decked out in Wallabies kit and then jump at the chance to take pictures with players after sessions.

Gold flags and life-size cardboard Wallabies are found throughout the streets of Odawara, which is an hour south of Tokyo and is a relatively small town with only 120,000 people.

"Obviously we are based here for the World Cup so it is nice to check out the place and it couldn’t have been a much better day. We had a nice little turn out with a crowd,” centre Matt Toomua said.

"The support has been great. We had a nice welcoming ceremony and got a little bit of Japanese culture which is really cool. It is pretty cool, there is already a little buzz in the city and we know it’s going to build up for next year. So it is extremely exciting.

"The field is world class. It is a nice quick deck, so it’s obviously a sign of things to come. We are playing around this time next year as well so it will be similar conditions. It will make for an exciting world cup with lots of running rugby.

"The gym at the hotel is unreal, they have set it up purposely for us so we’re a bit spoilt at the moment. Which is great but it also brings a lot of responsibility on us to deliver.”

Rugby Australia announced in August it had chosen Odawara after issuing a expression of interest to Japanese cities in late 2017 to establish a training base in the country for both the World Cup and the Olympics.

Of nine submissions, Odawara was chosen.

The Wallabies will return ahead of the 2019 World Cup and the Aussie mens and women’s sevens will train there prior to the 2020 Olympics.

“We wanted to secure a home away from home in Japan for our Qantas Wallabies and Sevens teams and Odawara was a standout submission after we fielded strong interest from across the country,” Rugby AU boss Raelene Castle said in August.

“The Odawara community has embraced our teams and there is a high level of support for Rugby and the Wallabies in the region.”

Odawara is used as a jump-off spot to see the nearby Mount Fuji, and like any Japanese city, the food is an attraction, too.

Four Wallabies players did a taste-testing visit to 100-year old sushi restaurant Norento Ajidarumaryoriten on Wednesday.

"This place is awesome. Odawara has been very welcoming for us, especially with the food aspect of things,” centre Samu Kerevi said.

"Obviously we can’t get carried away with being in Odawara. Obviolusy the set-up is amazing and so are the country and the people. But we are here to do a job. We are here to prepare well for the next couple of weeks.

"It has been a pretty tough couple of days. But credit to everyone for putting their head down and working pretty hard this last week and preparing ourselves for this Spring Tour.”

The Wallabies leave Japan on Saturday and fly to Wales, where they will play the opening match of their Spring Tour on November 11.