- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 3, 2002

OSAKA, Japan They ate sushi, drank sake and laughed at jokes without understanding the punch lines. Fans sought autographs in the hotel lobby, local media wanted promos in Japanese and players kept wondering what day it was.

All for a meaningless game. The Washington Redskins begin the preseason tonight against the San Francisco 49ers in the American Bowl that is the NFL's annual foreign preseason game.

Osaka may be overseas, but in many ways it seems like an American city. Billboards promoting Coca-Cola or Esso gasoline, and some street signs, are written in English and Japanese. Many businesses carry American names. There's even a Bayside Mall and twirling barber poles.

Gray buildings nearby could pass for government offices. The choking humidity resembled Washington's worst heat wave, and cicadas buzzed like low-flying airplanes. And if that wasn't enough to make one homesick for the United States, the science museum's major display was of the Grand Canyon.

But there were striking differences, too. On a cloudless day, women carried parasols to protect them from the sun. Dozens of people left their bicycles unchained outside stores while talking on cell phones.

Japan's third-largest city is bustling, but not overwhelmingly so. Traffic moves steadily despite long red lights. Passersby in the business district often trade pleasantries. One favorite exchange goes like this:

"Are you making any money yet?"

"Not much."

Osaka is an unusually clean city and, when evening comes, surprisingly empty.

"It's not as packed as I thought it would be," Redskins quarterback Sage Rosenfels said. "I thought there would be people everywhere, but it was quiet downtown."

Cornerback Champ Bailey said, "Funny, nobody speaks English, and, boy, am I struggling trying to keep up, trying to find out where to go, what to do."

Food was the players' biggest concern before the trip. Some openly wondered whether there would be a McDonald's nearby just in case they didn't enjoy local cuisine. Luckily, the "golden arches" weren't far from the team's hotel, a facility that houses 12 restaurants.

Players didn't get much of an opportunity to explore those restaurants, because coach Steve Spurrier gave them little free time. With only two full days before the game, sightseeing was limited. A few players did dine with Japanese receiver Akihito Amaya, who joined the Redskins for this game.

An FBI agent met with players and briefed them on Japanese customs and things to look out for. Players were told to ask the price of beer before entering a nightclub because some of the clubs charged $200 or more for a brew.

They also were told that Osaka is a zero-tolerance town where drugs are concerned and that unlawful behavior would bring imprisonment. As a result, many players chose to remain at the hotel, where beds were so small that those more than 6 feet tall have to place a chair at the end of the bed to keep their feet from hanging over. But at least, as some players noted, the toilet seats were heated.

This will be the first American Bowl in Osaka (the first 10 were in Tokyo), a region that has become the center of Japanese college football, which overshadows the country's professional "X League." Nearly 35,000 fans will fill Osaka Dome, a baseball stadium that has two layers of luxury boxes and spongy artificial turf.

But this trip is more about the players than the venue. Nearly 100 local reporters used translators or partial English to quiz players. Linebacker LaVar Arrington said the large media turnout and language barriers made things intimidating.

"I'm pretty overwhelmed," Arrington said. "I don't think you can prepare yourself for things over here. I'm nervous right now, which doesn't happen too often, so I'm going to stop talking."

The Redskins spent their first full day in Osaka trying get over jet lag from the 13-hour time difference. They practiced when it was nearly midnight EDT and dressed in a locker room that had only four showers for nearly 100 players and coaches. Offensive tackle Chris Samuels was the first casualty, missing practice because of digestive problems.

More than two dozen fans watched practice, but the players seemed sluggish during the two-hour workout. The 14-hour flight the preceding day left some needing a few extra minutes to get acclimated.

"Waking up at 4 in the morning is crazy," Bailey said. "It felt like nighttime, but it still throws you."

Former Redskins quarterbacks Sonny Jurgensen and Joe Theismann tossed balls during warmups that the team's current passers could only envy. Jurgensen even tossed a couple behind his back accurately.

But practice is practice, and the players soon concentrated on adapting to a makeshift offensive line. They also had to adapt to the turf, which seemed like that at Philadelphia's notorious Veterans Stadium, where the football field can't hide the underlying baseball infield.

"Every field is the same," running back Stephen Davis said. "It's just in a different country."

Team owner Dan Snyder literally beat the war drums during an evening reception. A taiko band brought Mr. Snyder, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and 49ers owner John Young onto the stage before several hundred guests they were greeted by Redskinettes for passionate bursts of drumming mixed with toasts of sake.

Spurrier seemed amused by the excessive attention to a "bowl game" that marks his Redskins debut. He views Osaka simply as the start of a five-month preseason and regular-season grind.

The excitement has "been building, but the [regular-season] opening against Arizona will be different," Spurrier said. "This is an exhibition."

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