Ten performers, 27 days, 30 performances. One stand-out little fan.

Ngā Raukura Kapa Haka Performance group, led and organised by Jamus Webster, have just returned to Rotorua after spending nearly a month away as part of the build-up for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.

Members of the roopu (group) were handpicked by Jamus for their skill, experience, passion and dedication to kapa haka.

Each member dedicates their lives to Māori culture, language and the Māori arts.

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"Kapa haka is a huge part of being Māori, whether you perform for fun, or at a competitive level, but for some it's their bread and butter and source of income," says roopu member Maiau Houltham.

A huge team of organisers helped to put the trip together, including Te Puia, NZMACI and NZ Tourism.

Nga Raukura shared a once in a lifetime opportunity performing in Japan. Photo/supplied.
Nga Raukura shared a once in a lifetime opportunity performing in Japan. Photo/supplied.

The group selected for this trip come from strong cultural backgrounds with long lists of kapa haka achievements.

Selection was also considered based on the repertoire of songs/items and haka that were required for the trip.

"Professional representation is highly valued and important as members not only represent Ngā Raukura, Te Puia or NZ Tourism who funded our trip, but also their families, their iwi, their hapū, and their country," Maiau says.

The purpose was to be an accompanying cultural group to help raise the All Blacks' profile in Japan by showcasing the cultural background.

Maiau says the Japanese organisers behind this year's Rugby World Cup wanted to bring Māori culture, unique to New Zealand, to the fans in Japan.

Ngā Raukura spent the past month following the All Blacks around Japan, performing at numerous Rugby World Cup fan zones, in all of the New Zealand hosting areas, including the All Blacks pre-match lunch in Beppu, the Ritz Carlton in Osaka, and the New Zealand embassy in Tokyo.

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The roopu performed about 30 times. On some days they would do four shows and on others only one.

"Each performance was special as there would always be new groups of fans coming to watch."

Performances were based in fan zones which moved around to different suburbs and even different cities.

The group often returned to the Ginza Fanzone where they had one special little fan.

Zion Mitchell, 3, is half Japanese, half American and lives in Tokyo. He quickly became the group's biggest kapa haka fan.

Rotorua group Ngā Raukura with their biggest fan in Japan, Zion Mitchell, 3. Photo/Kanna Mitchell
Rotorua group Ngā Raukura with their biggest fan in Japan, Zion Mitchell, 3. Photo/Kanna Mitchell

There were 22 shows in Tokyo in total and Zion came to every single one of them.

By the time he had seen the group perform for the 10th time, he knew most of the items.

Ngā Raukura were able to spot him in the crowd and bring him onstage to perform with the group.

Every photo opportunity or audience participation meant that Zion would be front and centre wanting to be involved.

Members of the group became close with his mother, Kanna Mitchell, and if his mother had to work, his grandmother would bring him to the shows.

"They were the absolute best! On our last show we invited them backstage with us to have photos and to say our final goodbyes. They were such beautiful people. Zion cried.

"He was just fascinated by our culture. He loved the haka and just really wanted to immerse himself into our culture and performances.

"He made us feel like our job was worthwhile and how proud we should feel to be Māori."

Ngā Raukura was also fortunate to be able to tick off some highlights.

They performed a collaboration with New Zealand band Six60 and met with All Blacks players, staff and ex-players.

They had dinner with the mayor of Beppu and visited Fuji Q Highlands theme park, which has some world-record roller coasters and haunted houses, she says.

Maiau says watching the All Blacks play live against Canada was another trip highlight and the atmosphere was absolutely unreal.

"I never take my culture or language for granted, but I do sometimes forget about the impact our culture has on the world.

"I've come home grateful, appreciative and proud of the many opportunities being Māori has given me.

"Japan was nothing short of amazing, and now we're home and it feels good. I'm going to miss this lot, it's being a hell of a good month. Rugby World Cup 2019 you were so good."

The only hard thing about being away from home was being away from whānau.

Maiau missed her young daughter and partner.

"It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, but you never really feel whole without your family, partner and kids.

"It was definitely the most challenging part of being away.

"On our last Friday in Tokyo when we were told a typhoon was going to hit, our last weekend shows were cancelled, and at that point, we just wanted to get home".

Little Zion's public Instagram @zion0113, is full of photos from his time watching the group perform.

These are memories he will treasure forever, just as Ngā Raukura will.