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Rugby World Cup

Rugby fans throng Japan, spilling out on less-beaten paths

World Cup events bring tourist money to sites beyond big city centers

Ireland fans celebrate into the night in the Sannomiya Center Gai shopping area in Kobe, Japan, after the team's victory over Russia on Oct. 3. (Photo by Shoya Okinaga)

TOKYO -- The Rugby World Cup is bringing waves of foreign visitors to venues throughout Japan, along with their spending, to areas often overlooked in favor of big cities like Tokyo and Osaka.

Shizuoka, where the Japanese team upset heavy favorite Ireland last week, hosts three more matches during the tournament, including South Africa vs. Italy on Friday. A South African who had come to Japan for that game ventured out to Kyoto's famed Kiyomizu-dera temple the day before. The fan thoroughly enjoyed the visit to the former capital, calling it a "fantastic" city, and was planning to tour Tokyo on Saturday.

Visitors to Shizuoka are keenly interested in Mount Fuji, which sits on the prefecture's northern border. Many go to Nihondaira Yume Terrace, which features an observation deck that looks out on the mountain and nearby Suruga Bay.

"There were a lot of guests who looked like rugby fans" at the facility around the day of the Japan match, the manager said.

A South Africa fan attends a match against Italy in Shizuoka on Oct. 4.   © Reuters

More than 730,000 spectators attended the 22 games held between Sept. 20 and Oct. 3, and the tournament's organizing committee said Friday that ticket sales have exceeded 1.8 million. The event runs through Nov. 2.

Oita Prefecture, on the southern island of Kyushu, hosts five games -- including two quarterfinals -- in its capital city of Oita. A survey last month by the prefectural government found that at least 151,000 people had reserved rooms in local hotels Oct. 1-10 and Oct. 18-21, the dates surrounding the matches.

Nearly 54,000 hail from outside Japan, and visitors from Europe, the Americas and Australia were poised to quadruple from October 2018 to more than 13,000.

In Beppu, a city near Oita famed for its hot springs, Hotel Shiragiku -- a fairly large hotel with 115 rooms -- is fully booked on the semifinal dates of Oct. 19 and Oct. 20.

Beyond sports, rugby fans in Japan find time for other cultural pursuits. (Photo by Shoya Okinaga)

"About half the guests are European, American or Australian," said Yoichi Nishida, representative director, who noted that many guests are staying multiple nights.

The tourist information center in Yufu, about an hour from JR Oita Station, has seen a rise in Western customers. The center's two or three English-speaking staffers are "working at full capacity to handle the barrage of questions," the deputy chief said.

In Sapporo, capital of the northern prefecture of Hokkaido, Hitsujigaoka Observation Hill usually gets about 50 foreign visitors on a busy day, mostly Asians. It saw nearly twice as many on Sept. 21, the day that Australia played Fiji at the Sapporo Dome in the first of the city's two matches.

"We had a lot of Westerners and people wearing rugby shirts," the deputy manager said.

A fan of the French team attends a match against the U.S. in Fukuoka on Oct. 2.   © Reuters

The influx of tourists has brought activity to shopping districts as well. Kobe's Sannomiya Center Gai shopping street holds a nighttime festival on match days, with local merchants setting up stands where visitors can enjoy food, beer and local spirits while listening to music until midnight.

After Ireland trounced Russia on Thursday at Kobe Misaki Stadium, fans of the winning team painted the district green.

"This is the first time I've seen it so busy at what's normally a quiet time," a staffer at an Italian restaurant said. "Beer and highballs are selling like crazy."

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