By Nick Lellenberg
I'd always said to myself: If Arsenal ever travels to Japan for preseason, I have to go. So when I saw that the Club had added Japan to this summer's Asia Tour of Indonesia and Vietnam, I was ecstatic. With vacation and flights booked straight away, the only thing I needed to prepare myself for were the inevitable differences to prior pre-seasons I'd spent in Bad Waltersdorf. And while this preseason was extremely different, and perhaps a bit less "Arsenal" than those I was lucky enough to experience in Austria, it was no less incredible of an experience.
After arriving early Saturday morning in Tokyo, I caught the Skinkansen down to Nagoya on Sunday to meet up with my friends who had been on the entire tour. Upon walking out of Nagoya Station, I was hit with the hottest, most humid blast of air and the tone was set for the next nine days in Japan. If our players aren't in the best shape of their lives after their time spent in the Far East this summer, I will be shocked.
That night's training, however, felt like Bad Waltersdorf. Held at a small rugby ground, and with the Arsenal America banner hanging proudly, we were given an intimate, up-close view of drills and five-a-side games; all in earshot of Arsène and Bould's directions. What was so surprising was the quiet with which the local Japanese fans watched training. The local Japanese supporters welcomed the team to the field with a round of all our popular songs and everything went without a hitch, just as it always did.
The following day, in the hours before the match against Nagoya Grampus, really gave us the opportunity to meet Arsenal supporters from half a world away. After making our way down to the ground by train, we stopped in at a local pub to grab some beers and found ourselves sitting by the window inside while the rain came down. As the Japanese supporters were passing by and noticing us, it quickly became high fives and waves, with some coming into the restaurant to take pictures and chat about all things Arsenal.
The walk to the stadium, which is incredible and still relatively new having been built for the 2002 World Cup, was more of the same and when we unfurled the Arsenal America banner outside, supporters instantly came to take pictures with it. The match itself was a wonderful experience, complete with local boy Ryo converting the penalty. What I remember most though are the incessant songs coming from Arsenal Japan's corner -- it was as though we were at an away day in England.
The days between the Nagoya match and the Urawa match saw us go into tourist mode -- something completely new for me on an Arsenal preseason trip. A visit to Nagoya castle, recently rebuilt and re-opened following its destruction in WWII raids, was an incredible experience as we saw the ornate screens and the incredible views of Nagoya from the top of the donjon.
Our return trip on the Shinkansen saw us at the station when the team bus arrived and on the same platform as the squad. A couple quick snaps and then we hopped on our train to return to Tokyo. The following days saw us spend far too many nights out until 4 or 5am, eat far too much sushi and ramen, and attempting to find shade from the incredibly hot and humid weather. We were able to visit the Imperial Palace's gardens, the Yasukuni Shrine at the Yushukan -- which proved an extremely interesting study in history -- and the Tokyo Olympic Stadium from 1964, scheduled to be replaced by a spaceship of a stadium ahead of the 2019 Track Championships in Tokyo.
Some of us were even able to head to the Tokyo Dome for a Yomiyuri Giants v Hiroshima Carp Japanese League Baseball game. We found out that the atmosphere at baseball is much like European football! Songs, drums, and even a band from the Carp's Tokyo-based supporters club. The Giants finished 8-4 winners. And finally, we were again able to return to Arsenal.
Thursday afternoon saw us attend the Arsenal Fan Fest at the team hotel. With the players answering some extremely funny questions and a slightly awkward question from the Japanese interpreter -- changing "How many times have Arsenal been league champions?" to "How many times have Arsenal won the Champions League?" -- it was all capped off with Poldi and Per coming out dressed as samurais, pulling out their katanas, and engaging in a fight to the end!
We all rushed over to Saitama Stadium, home of the Urawa Red Diamonds, for a light training session ahead of the next day's match. Much of my attention was on Gideon Zelalem, who impressed even in small 5 v 2 keep-aways in front of us. A Washington, DC area native, I can't help but hope that he makes it at Arsenal and maybe for the United States if that is ever a possibility.
Friday saw our little band of Brits and Americans move from air conditioned pub to air conditioned pub for pre-match beers before we had to bite the bullet and head to the stadium. Once there, it was a complete party atmosphere. While the match inside the stadium felt like a proper away setting for Arsenal, especially given Urawa's current standing in the J-League table, there were still what looked to be 10,000-15,000Arsenal shirts, including, as always, the large Arsenal Japan contingent, serenading Arsenal along to victory and an undefeated Asia Tour.
Having finally gone on one of these trips to the Far East, I now understand why Arsenal do so every summer. The local supporters are nothing short of incredible, singing every song in the book, with a knowledge of Arsenal and its history which none surpasses. I know that an incredible number of new friendships were made on this tour, between fellow Japanese supporters and between the numerous supporters of different nationalities who were present. That is what I will probably remember the most -- the scene outside of Saitama Stadium following the match: some English supporters, a few Americans, the Japanese, some Australians, and I'm sure others, all mingling, exchanging stories, contact information, and dates of their next trip to see the Arsenal.
It truly captured everything that supporting Arsenal is about and I can't wait to see where they head next summer for preseason because, after never wanting to leave southern Austria, I can't wait to go back to the Far East to meet my Arsenal family again.
The views expressed above do not necessarily reflect those of Arsenal Football Club or Arsenal Media Group.Copyright 2016 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source