Okimura Blog: The Men and Mascots at FIVB Grand Champions Cup

By Lori Okimura | Sept. 11, 2017, 3:59 p.m. (ET)

Making the daily train trip to Nippon Gaishi Arena in Nagoya is not so bad after all. Although, in 30 years of traveling to Japan, I have never been alone on a train platform, and it's happened to me three times on this trip? On the other hand, I have also been sandwiched among thousands of volleyball fans coming off the trains in masses so huge that my feet leave the ground and I keep moving forward! The crowds were huge on Sunday, all day, as the women's teams played their final matches. As I walked over the bridge from the JR Kasadera Station to the Nippon Gaishi Arena, I noticed all these fans lined up along the walkway, down the stairs (of course only on one side, politely leaving the other side open). I thought the massive crowds were to greet the Japanese women's national team. But as I peek over the railing, I noticed the big blue bus from the Panasonic V-League pro team, kindly loaned to Team USA to transport our men's national team from their training camp in Osaka. The huge "Panthers" mascot on the side of the bus was a dead giveaway. Head coach of the Panthers is Yuichi Nakagaichi, also the head coach of the Japan men's national team and a great friend to USA Volleyball. "Gaichi" played against many USA teams, and now finds himself in a new position as head coach leading the Japanese men through a resurgence as they march towards the Olympic Games on their home court.

Arigato to the Panasonic Panthers for first-class transportation to Nagoya!

The U.S. Men's National Team signing autographs for their Japanese fans

The USA men made the trip from Osaka a day early so they could arrive in time to see the final women's match between the USA and Brazil. I was glad to have backup in the cheering section, and it is always a unique experience to sit with the teams instead of watching them. That doesn't happen every day. I knew the men were planning to come to Nagoya early, and I found myself near a Starbucks by the train station wondering if I should take orders. I quickly realized the flaw in my plan when I looked around the corner and saw stanchions and attendants helping to ease a line coming out the door that I counted was at least 52 people long. Plan B, an English-speaking cashier and 30-minutes had me back on track with a handful of gift cards instead. These guys love their Starbucks.

Since today was an off day, I had planned to continue some outreach on behalf of USA Volleyball with my counterparts in Japan. I jumped onto an early morning Shinkansen heading back towards Tokyo to the town of Hiratsuka to visit friends from the Japan beach volleyball teams. Hiratsuka is a beautiful place with nice beaches, parks, lots of sunshine year-round, and some of the kindest people you will ever know. Sensei Yoshihiro Atsumi is a good friend and coach of many Japanese beach teams. His "office" is Shonan Beach Park in Hiratsuka, just a short walk from his home. This beach is quiet, clean and has some great beach volleyball courts set up just steps from a beach cafe, showers and vending machines, bike parking and an open deck area. This is where he trains national teams, pro teams, and young kids. This is home. Hiratsuka reminds me a lot of the beaches back in Southern California where the USA beach national teams train. I am hoping that our beach national teams can take full advantage of the resources here in Japan as they prepare for Tokyo 2020. And at the same time, I'd like to support the efforts in Japan so they can have a successful Olympics and all the teams from around the world will benefit.

Visiting with Japan national beach teams at Hiratsuka Beach

After lunch with Atsumi-san talking all things beach volleyball, I spent some time walking around Hiratsuka as I waited to meet with a very dear friend, Kouhei Masugi. Masugi-san is an artist, born and raised in Hiratsuka, husband to Naoko and father to "Team Yuna & Youta" my little friends who every year send me the cutest birthday greeting, and who love volleyball. Youta watches matches online every night. Two years ago when the men's team won the FIVB World Cup, Masugi-san was kind enough to take the train to meet us in Tokyo. He presented these amazing caricatures he drew in one night of each team member. He had them framed and presented each one to the players and coaches. I couldn't believe his kindness. The players loved it. And later that night, the USA beat a strong Russian team on their way to winning the FIVB WORLD CUP and qualifying for the Rio Olympics. Masugi-san is forever our lucky mascot in Japan!

Kouhei Masugi at the 2015 FIVB World Cup with Micah Christenson.

Masugi-san with Head Coach John Speraw.

More of Masugi-san's work.

Mascots are a big deal in Japan, they are EVERYWHERE. And they represent EVERYTHING from products to people, sports teams and corporations. I even ran across a creepy green shiny masked-man mascot representing Salon Pas pain reliever pads. Vabo-chan is one of the most famous from the FIVB World Cup and comes in every form of merchandise possible, including delicious "musubi" rice balls. And it is literally a fuzzy ball with feet. People go nuts over it. I will admit that I have spent my fair share of yen on the Vabo-chan enterprise. When I was at the 1998 World Championship, there was V-chan and B-chan mascots that weren't nearly as cute as Vabo-chan (think of tall, skinny, creepy letter V and letter B with big eyes glaring at you). Hello Kitty is another world famous mascot, and then there's "Sato-san" the pink elephant in front of every pharmacy's front door. I still don't know what the pink elephant symbolizes? The Japan Volleyball Association did a branding study about a decade ago and game up with two mascots to symbolize the national teams. A phoenix for the women and a dragon for the men. Although some people here have been mistaking them for a chicken and doggie. Even USA Volleyball has it's own version of the "ball with feet."

There was a line about 30-people long just waiting to take a picture with "Mr. C.G."

Vabo-chan is the official mascot of the FIVB World Cup Olympic Qualifier.

The FIVB Men's World Grand Champions Cup starts Tuesday. Teams from Brazil, France, Iran, Italy, Japan and the United States will light up the Nippon Gaishi Arena in Nagoya until moving to the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium to conclude play on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Some of you have been asking me what you can do from home. Besides trying to find the USA matches to tune in or log on and watch, follow the athletes on their social media feeds and post your messages of support. Every bit of positive energy counts in situations like this. Follow the FIVB and USA Volleyball's social media accounts for the latest updates. And use the hashtag #FIVBMensGCC and #teamUSAV to stay connected!