Local residents in Higashiosaka hope their home's staging of four Rugby World Cup matches will spread the word that the city is Japan's spiritual home of the sport.
When people living in the rugby-mad region hear the name Higashiosaka, they immediately think of Hanazono Rugby Stadium, the location of some famous battles at the prestigious national high school rugby tournament it stages.
But the western Japan city's rugby roots are not particularly obvious to outsiders or those who do not follow the sport -- and local residents are seeing the World Cup as a chance to change that.
"I didn't know much about rugby before moving to the city, but here, you can't really avoid it. Signs promoting the sport are everywhere and people talk about it," said Kenta Kusutani, 34, who moved to the city in 2016.
"I hope more people will get to know about our city through the World Cup, and in turn, I hope the city will contribute to the sport's development in Japan."
(Kenta Kusutani (L) poses for a photo with his wife Chikako and daughter Miu at a Rugby World Cup fan zone in Higashiosaka, Osaka Prefecture, on Sept. 21, 2019.)
Hanazono Rugby Stadium was completed in 1929 as the first venue constructed specifically for the sport in Japan. Modeled after England's rugby mecca, Twickenham, it has hosted the annual high school championships since 1963 and underwent remodeling to stage the Rugby World Cup.
There are stores selling rugby goods around the stadium, while restaurants have posters and autographs of players. There is even a shrine, known as the "rugby shrine," where players visit to pray for good luck and write their prayers on wooden plaques.
The stadium, which has a seating capacity of some 24,000, staged its first match on Sunday between Italy and Namibia and will go on to host three more, including two matches played by Tonga.
In a bid to create a lasting legacy, the city has made all kinds of efforts at the sport's showpiece event. A confectionary store near the venue which sells rugby ball-shaped steamed buns has installed a translation machine in a bid to aide foreign customers with a sweet tooth.
Some restaurants about 6 kilometers from the stadium have given out free beer coupons to attract customers and offer free rides from the stadium to the local shopping area.
(Fumio Hino poses for a photo at a Rugby World Cup fan zone in Higashiosaka, Osaka Prefecture, on Sept. 21, 2019.)
Kusutani, who has tickets to a match between Argentina and Tonga at the ground, was one of the 1,800 people who went to the fan zone in the city on Saturday. There, locals and foreigners could mingle while watching games on giant screens with alcohol and snacks in hand.
Many local residents have shown up with their families to enjoy the unique World Cup atmosphere and they are also able to watch talks given by Japanese rugby players and comedians. According to organizers, some 2,600 people were at the fan zone on Friday to watch the tournament opener between Russia and Japan.
Fumio Hino, a 71-year-old local who has been a fan of high school rugby for over 40 years, said Higashiosaka has been witness to the development of Japanese rugby over the years.
During the winter when the tournament is held, he watches high school matches all day long with beer in hand. He has seen many current and former Brave Blossoms players compete in their high school years, including current Japan captain Michael Leitch, a "skinny kid I had never imagined would become such a huge star," he noted.
(Mandene Markel (C), a rugby fan from Namibia, poses for a photo with her son Mitchell (R) and Liam at Hanazono Rugby Stadium, on Sept. 22, 2019.)
"The attraction of high school rugby is how the players strive for the best no matter the result," he said. "The city has hosted the tournament and the culture runs in Higashiosaka. I hope more people from other countries get to know us, and what we value."
While the impact of hosting the World Cup cannot be measured until the end of the tournament on Nov. 2, one fan from Namibia said she is interested in knowing more about the host city.
Mandene Morkel traveled to Japan with her sons Mitchell and Liam for her third World Cup, flying for a total of 20 hours from Windhoek, her country's capital.
"I did not know (about the venue) but that is amazing. It's an honor to be able to attend a match here. It's been an amazing journey," Morkel said. "I absolutely think that learning about the culture and soaking in the hosts is a tremendous part of the experience."
"It changes the whole perspective of the World Cup as well because you have all of the people from different parts of the world coming together in this amazing place," she said. "And all of us are learning as we travel and I love that."