Off to Japan for my 5th Club World Cup and 4th visit to Japan, this time via China - must have been the cheapest flights on the dates I wanted.
So how did the teams get here. Well they won their respective Continental Premier Cup competition and the hosts provided their Championship winner. I was a little worried when I noted that the Japanese were to be represented by Kashima Antlers who had finished 11th (out of 18) in the second half of their domestic Championship. In Japan they have a split season. Kashima won the first half and beat Urawa Red Diamonds (winners of the second half) on away goals in a play off to win the League (despite being 15 points overall behind them) and qualify for this competition.
How did I get here?
Arriving at the check-in desk you would have thought you were in China already as there was only a handful of other Westerners on the flight, whom it transpired were all on transit to other international destinations. This feeling was confirmed as we bordered the plane as all the chatter was in Chinese and no one moved out of their way to ease the congestion as people tried to make their way to their seats. At this stage I thought to myself of the similarities between the Polish and Romanians in the UK and the Japanese and the Chinese (am I allowed to think that?).
My young companion was grateful to me for pointing out his errors in his Sudoku puzzle, not once, but twice. I noticed he was struggling so had to have a look....didn't I. But not a word was said.
I noticed the initials PEK on my boarding card and am also sure I heard the pilot describe our destination as Peking. I remember that was the name of the Chinese capital I knew. So I did a bit of research and found that in 1979 the Chinese came up with a new system for interpreting the pronunciation of Mandarin, known as Pinyin. So the local name hasn't changed at all, but it has in English.
The nine hour flight was overnight, so I tried to rest while keeping an eye on our route and the local time. I learnt that whilst China covers five time zones it only has one. Do you remember the day when people would dash to a certain pub across town as they had later licensing laws for maybe 30 more minutes drinking time, well in China they could get an extra five hours by nipping over the border.
When it came to breakfast time the stewardess kindly enquired whether I would like a Western or Chinese breakfast. She handed out omelette and bacon to those around me and I replied "Chinese". She shouted it back at me clearly indicating that she thought I had made a mistake. She delivered congee a Chinese rice porridge with fish!
Arriving in Beijing's impressive airport, designed by Foster & Partners for the 2008 Olympics, the signage was a little confusing and the foreigners gathered together as we worked out exactly where to go. Once we did we presented ourselves for a security check. I spotted the usual notices for liquids, but noticed they wanted cameras removing from bags. I didn't notice on the other side of a wall that they also wanted any battery chargers. Which, of course were spotted and I had to remove them while they had a good look. Paranoid?
In the airport there were posters announcing that wifi was available to all but that they would need to capture the user's details in order that you could use it.
I did try to log on, but they didn't seem to like me.
I noticed a number of people with masks on their face, this didn't strike me as unusual as I have seen this in Japan before. What did strike me was the need for them to remove the mask so they could go and spit in a bin!
The next leg of my journey was to Kansai Airport Osaka.
On board the plane the safety demonstration was given and then an announcement was made by a voice saying they were the security officer for the plane. It then said there were punishments for those that did not cooperate with staff. No misbehaving on this flight then.
I remember seeing a programme about the airport a few years ago, as it is a man made island in Osaka Bay, which was sinking. I am pleased to report that it is still afloat. By now I was rather tired, I had hoped to be impressed by the Renzo Piano architecture, but I was more interested in making my way to my lodgings for the next few days.
Arriving at immigration it looked like a scene from a hospital as there were a number of people (with face masks again) over machines beckoning the new arrivals. There we had our photos taken and fingerprints recorded. Then I was stopped as I departed. I opened my bag, but as soon as I said I was going to the football the security guard just wanted to know who was playing. He was no longer interested in my bag.
There was a ticket machine with instructions in English and within minutes I was on the train bound for Osaka.
An elderly gentleman sat opposite me and immediately got out his mobile phone, the phone looked dated from what I could see but still had a camera.
Once I left Osaka Station I followed my directions and found I was surrounded by locals all looking at their phones as they walked. I was delighted to see a vending machine selling soft drinks as it had Pocari Sweat, on sale, on of my favourites, the other being Calpis. Neither are as bad as they sound.
So I arrived at my capsule hotel where I would be based for the next five days.
I was delighted to hear, before I left that Kashima Antlers had knocked out Auckland City. The first game on Sunday 11th will be the 101st in the competition, I have managed to see about a quarter of those games and Auckland City have probably featured in a quarter of the ones I have seen, so I think you will understand that for a Premier Club competition it could be more attractive.
Japan has certain home comforts, driving on the left, even walking on the left, a neatness and tidiness that you will not find elsewhere and of course heated toilet seats.
By now I had observed that as well as playing games, and using them for directions, manga comics have now switched to online publications and are being viewed on people's phones.
Today's game was played at Suita Stadium, home of Gamba Osaka, this newly built stadium was reached by a train journey, the monorail and a walk through Expoland. There you could visit a Pokemon gym and an English Village - it apparently takes you around America, but the purpose of it is for the Japanese to learn English.
The first half of Jeonbuk Hyundai v Club America was littered with more misplaced passes than numbers I can count to in Japanese. Ichi, nee, san, yawn, go, roku, nana, hatch - that will be eight then. But Jeonbuk took the lead through Kim. You wouldn't have got good odds on that as there were three of them in their starting line up.
America made changes at the start of the second half, and looked much livelier. They were rewarded with two goals from their number nine Romero, who had also hit the post from 35 yards on the first half. In the process they set up meeting with Real Madrid this Thursday in Yokohama.
Secretly I was hoping there would be extra time as the next match was not scheduled to start for another 90 minutes.
Instead I was entertained by the Mamelodi Sundowns fans who had started to announce their presence in the last ten minutes of the America match.
Not sure if they heard the announcement in the first game but the use of loud instruments is prohibited by law after 9pm. The second game kicks off at 7.30. So it should be a quiet last 15 minutes!
The first half was dominated by Peter Ndlovu's Mamelodi Sundowns as they registered 11 shots with five on target to Kashima Antlers' zero.
Surprise, the second half was the opposite as Kashima took control, dominating the second period, scoring two goals.
The instruments were abandoned on cue at 9pm. I suspect someone had to tell the South Africans, as they seemed to continue for a minute or so.
Kashima supporters turned to karaoke and sang a tune acapello. I could swear I know the song, just can't remember the title. It will come back to me ......one day.
At the end of the game the people queued to hand in their rubbish, and then just outside the entrance gate I read a sign in English "Stroller Park". Yes they have a place for pushchairs.
Exiting the park the crowd still moved on the left, despite the fact that everyone was leaving the stadium and no one was now going to it. Stewards beckoned the crowd over to one side as I made my way home.