Japan's oldest dedicated rugby stadium recently reopened following its refurbishment as a World Cup venue.
Completed at a total cost of 7.26 billion yen ($64.3 million), the revamped Hanazono Rugby Stadium in Higashiosaka, Osaka Prefecture, raised the curtain last Friday night with an exhibition match between Japan and a World XV.
(Renovated Hanazono Rugby Stadium)
Despite Japan losing 31-28 under rainy skies, the match in front of 16,846 proved to be a successful Rugby World Cup 2019 dress rehearsal for the most storied of the 12 grounds to be used at the tournament.
Cheering on the Brave Blossoms from the stands, 22-time Japan international Toetuu Taufa said he was thrilled at the sight of the first game under lights at Hanazono, which will host four pool matches at the World Cup.
The Tongan-born 38-year-old, who retired from rugby in March, knows the ground more intimately than most, having played there for 14 years as a member of local side Kintetsu Liners.
"I'm so proud. It's fantastic. I wish I could play a game (here)," Taufa said, before adding with a laugh, "I still might!"
Originally built in 1929 at the urging of rugby-loving Prince Chichibu, Hanazono was Japan's first stadium constructed specifically for the sport.
(Toetuu Taufa with "Harumi" restaurant owners Hiroshi Okuno, left, and wife Harumi, second from right)
Modeled after England's rugby mecca, Twickenham Stadium, it hosted its first international, between Japan and Canada, in 1932.
In World War II, the stadium's steel roof was melted down and its playing field converted to farmland. During the occupation, U.S. forces used the ground for American football.
Since 1963, it has hosted the annual National High School Rugby Tournament, where numerous Japan internationals, including current star back Kotaro Matsushima, made names for themselves.
The stadium currently holds 26,542, but will seat 24,000 under its final configuration for the World Cup, which kicks off on Sept. 20 next year.
Taufa will serve as an official World Cup team liaison officer for Tonga, who will play pool matches at Hanazono against Argentina on Sept. 28 and the United States on Oct. 13 next year.
Prior to Friday's exhibition match, he took local and international media on a tour of the neighborhood surrounding Hanazono to give a sense of rugby's place in the local imagination.
After walking past rugby-themed manhole covers and garden beds, the tour stopped at a Shinto shrine adorned with a giant wooden rugby ball, where fans and players, including members of the Kintetsu club, come to pray.
The tour also took in a "takoyaki" octopus dumpling shop tended by Harumi and Hiroshi Okuno, who Taufa says have been his "Japanese mother and father" since he joined the Liners following his graduation from Nihon University on a rugby scholarship.
Serving hundreds of fans every game day, the shop "Harumi" is covered with rugby memorabilia, including posters and jerseys signed by Taufa. It once hosted a takoyaki party for the New Zealand All Blacks.
Harumi and Hiroshi, a former employee of the Kintetsu railway company, have for years provided moral support and plenty of takoyaki to Liners players, especially those joining the club from overseas, according to Taufa.
"(They're) like a mum and dad for me," Taufa said. "Sometimes I'll just be at my place and they'll bring heaps of vegetables and rice. Not only me. They do it for every rugby player."
Harumi said Taufa, a Liners fan favorite, is beloved throughout the club's Higashiosaka stronghold.
"He might be the most popular person in Higashiosaka," she said.
Walking around the stadium on match day, the description does not seem like an exaggeration. Taufa is constantly stopped by fans, young and old, to shake hands or sign jerseys.
Some of the foreign supporters descending on Hanazono for the World Cup are set to be greeted by a Japanese fan whose image was beamed around the globe following the Brave Blossoms' greatest victory.
When Japan upset South Africa 34-32 in their opening Rugby World Cup 2015 pool match in Brighton, England, cameras captured a tearful Daisuke Komura in the stands, draped in a Japanese flag.
"People remember me crying at the end of the match, but the tears had started as soon as the national anthem began playing," Komura said.
An avid rugby fan who still plays for a club team, Komura will next year forgo watching the World Cup in order to assist overseas visitors as an official volunteer at Hanazono.
The 61-year-old Osaka native said the ground would take on even greater importance at the tournament given that Tokyo's home of rugby, Chichibunomiya Stadium, will not host World Cup matches.
"In England, they have Twickenham for rugby. Hanazono is Japan's Twickenham," said Komura, who aims to send World Cup visitors home with happy memories of Osaka and Japan.
"I think by welcoming everyone outside warmly and giving them a great experience, all of the people coming to watch rugby will go home loving Japan."