When Bob Wilson arrived in Tokyo in May 1968, he knew immediately that this would be more than just a football tour for him: it was a chance to experience a completely different culture.
The Arsenal goalkeeper was nominally there to play three matches against an All-Japan XI in Tokyo and Fukuka Kyushu, but it was the country itself which left a far deeper impression on him.
Perhaps cut from a different cloth to many footballers, Wilson always made sure he experienced the sights and sounds of every city he visited. While the majority of his team-mates would relax around the pool, he would jump in a taxi and head to the local landmarks, armed only with his camera and a hunger to educate himself.
As such, Japan was a veritable treasure chest to explore - and he made the most of it.
"We went to two major competitions, and saw these massive, fat men competing - but they had incredible strength. They went through all the bowing and scraping and the culture, then they'd knock two bells out of each other!"
“It was culture shock for everyone, we were all shaking our heads in amazement at times,” Wilson told Arsenal.com. “I shared a room with Terry Neill and I was a great one historically, so everywhere we went in Japan we would go and see the sights.
“One of the highlights was when we travelled on the bullet train - it really was amazing. We are talking about the Sixties and here we had a train that really did go like a bullet. We’re only talking now about having something that would match the bullet train in this country, yet it’s something they’ve had in Japan for more than 40 years!
“The trip was very interesting from a historical perspective, and we did the tour and took in everything we could, such as going to the famous tea rooms in gardens in Osaka. We also met a lovely guy called Chris McDonald, who was the head of a major company in Tokyo and he befriended Terry Neill and me. He took us out to places in Tokyo where your food was cooked in front of you in the Japanese style.
“We all became fanatical fans of the sumo wrestling, too. We went to two major competitions, and saw these massive, fat men competing - but they had incredible strength. They went through all the bowing and scraping and the culture, then they'd knock two bells out of each other!
“We were in the crowd and loved every minute of it. We got to meet the sumo wrestlers afterwards, and there was all the bowing and respect - but my god you wouldn't want to take them on! We had a fantastic time there. Tokyo is an extraordinary place, it was such an amazing trip.”
Wilson and his team-mates may have been able to take in the sights, but that did not mean they could walk the streets unrecognised. They had not picked up a trophy in 15 years by the time they landed in Japan, but the fact that they were ‘The Arsenal’ meant more than they realised.
“We were surprised, in fact we were totally amazed by the reaction we received,” Wilson said. “Everywhere we went people were cheering and shouting, wanting autographs. It made you realise how big the club was - although I never thought I was at anything but one of the world's great football clubs.
“We always did ground-breaking tours, and you would not believe the number of fans who were there. Whatever was thought of the club in the UK, Arsenal had an aura around the world.
“The crowds at the games were massive [the 70,000 crowd at the final game at the Olympic Stadium was a record for a game in Japan at the time], but this was the Arsenal. It was a respect thing.
"Everywhere we went people were cheering and shouting. It made you realise how big the club was - although I never thought I was at anything but one of the world's great football clubs"
“It was the Arsenal of the 1930s who had created the name, and everything done by the great man, Herbert Chapman. We had been a long time without a trophy, but we still had the name. In every respect it was an amazing tour, and when you look at the size of the crowds, it was incredible.”
Wilson admits to a twinge of envy when reminded that the current Arsenal squad will arrive in Japan in less than a month - but he acknowledges it will be a very different tour to 1968.
“I distinctly remember that at breakfast in Tokyo, they had some freshly squeezed orange juice out for us,” he said. “But Bertie Mee would only allow us at most half a glass each because of the cost to the Club on the bill!
“That just shows how things have changed - I don’t think the Arsenal players will watching their glasses of orange juice this summer!”
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