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Rugby World Cup

Japan opens arms to half a million fans for Rugby World Cup

Businesses and cities nationwide expect boost from dedicated fans

Australian fans at the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England: Japan is gearing up to host the competition this year.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- With the Rugby World Cup kicking off Sept. 20 in Japan, communities across the country are preparing for the 500,000-plus visitors expected to attend.

Nearly 50 games will be played across 12 Japanese cities through the final Nov. 2. City governments and local businesses hope that the fans will take the opportunity to see more of Japan as they travel to the various venues.

"We already have several group reservations, including a 40-member amateur rugby team from Australia," said Ryusuke Hasegawa, who runs the Irish pub Brian Brew in the city of Sapporo.

Australia will play at the Sapporo Dome on Sept. 21, and England plays there the next day. About 20,000 foreign fans are expected to flock to the city to watch the teams, and Hasegawa plans to stock six to eight times as much beer as for a typical weekend.

Volunteers will distribute maps of local restaurants and bars to foreign visitors around the stadium and in town, according to the Sapporo city government. Suppliers are considering night deliveries to bars to ensure that fans do not run dry.

About 30% of the World Cup audience is expected to consist of foreign visitors primarily from Europe, Australia and the U.S.

"Fans from countries with strong teams, like in Europe, are extremely dedicated," a source involved in the competition said. "They are at their closest pub from the morning, then they return after the games to discuss rugby at length with beer in hand."

Unlike the Olympics, which are hosted by a single city at a time, the Rugby World Cup will be held throughout Japan from the northernmost main island of Hokkaido to the southernmost of Kyushu. The games are also spaced about a week apart, since they can be physically hard on players. Many fans will spend part of that time sightseeing while traveling to the next venue by rental car and train.

The average overseas fan at the World Cup in England in 2015 stayed 14 days and spent about 2,400 pounds ($2,900 at current rates), according to Ernst & Young. While direct comparisons are difficult to draw, this is about double what the average visitor to Japan now spends.

"Europeans and Americans don't usually buy souvenirs for many people" as Japanese do, "but we hope to spur greater spending in the restaurant industry and on traditional crafts," said Noriko Yagasaki, a professor in the Department of Community Design at Tokyo Woman's Christian University.

Local governments also see a great opportunity to charm a different crowd than the usual tourists to Japan. Oita Prefecture has launched an English-language website listing local tourist spots specially for the event.

"Hotels are starting to fill up not only in the city of Oita," which will host five games, "but in neighboring Beppu as well," a representative for the prefectural government said. Nearly 40% of reservations made as of June were apparently by foreigners. Fans are also staying in Yufu, home to the Yufuin hot springs nearby.

The organizing committee used volunteers to direct spectators at international games in July and August as a test run. While no big issues cropped up, fans complained that lines for concession stands and restrooms were unclear.

"We'll have a lot of foreign visitors at the actual event," said a representative for the committee. "We want to make further preparations in partnership with local communities, including increasing the number of staffers."

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