Today’s Running The World goes back to the country that started it off for me – Japan. Our three-week trip to Japan back in 2012 made me into a total Japanophile (the correct word is Nipponophile but that sounds a little saucy) and I was fascinated by the little I saw of the running culture when I was out there! That’s what sparked off the idea of this series in my head.
May I introduce two ladies to tell us about running in Japan…Chika, a Japanese runner, and Susan, an American ex-pat, who’s lived in Japan for 30-odd years. I found them by contacting Bob, the webmaster of Namban Rengo a big Tokyo club. (You should check out Bob’s blog as well). Bob suggested I speak to both Chika and Susan, to give a more rounded perspective of the Japanese running culture. A few weeks of emails later and this is what I learned.
Introduce yourselves, ladies.
Susan - I came to Tokyo, Japan in 1984 “for 18 months” with my new husband, and we’re still here (but for a 6-year stint in Boston from 1990-96) ! We have raised three children (all are runners), they are currently in various stages of education/employment in the U.S.
Chika - I live in Saitama Prefecture on the outskirts of Tokyo, which is located about 30Km away (1 hour by train) from Tokyo. This is the place where I grew up, where life is quieter than Tokyo, less crowded and with more nature. However, my office is in Tokyo, which means I commute an hour each way. I work for a Swiss company that produces flavorings and fragrances, as a product developer.
Recently, I’m spending loads of time on another interest, which is visiting art museums. I love paintings from the European 19th’ Century…Renoir, Monet, Millet, etc, and Andrew Wyeth. To make ‘collecting art’ affordable, I buy picture-postcards of those paintings each time I visit an art museum.
How did you get into running?
Chika – When I was a student, running was a part of the training program for other sports However, naturally I like running long distance and I was better than average. In 2004, when I stayed in Vancouver, Canada, I started running seriously, as a sport.
My first race was the 10Km Vancouver Sun Run. I found an advert for it at the University of British Colombia (UCB) and I brought it home to show my roommate, who already had done a full marathon in Japan. As she knew I did several sports, she asked me to do it with her. Then, I found a free running clinic at a running shop called Running Room. The manager of the shop was very kind and friendly, and welcomed me, even though my English was poor at that time. At the start, I was so nervous to be in a local Canadian environment, but after few months, I got really interested in the clinic and people, and even tried my first half marathon.I learned how nice it is to run with other people,sharing common interests and the pleasure of running in beautiful nature. So, I decided to find a running club in Japan after I went back from Canada.
Luckily I found an international running club in Tokyo, called Namban Rengo. Moreover, because my office is in Tokyo, it is convenient to join the club’s weekly workout. Tokyo has many places to train short distance run. You’ll find locker and shower facilities quite easily in Tokyo. Now I enjoy running for long distance around my neighborhood, in the countryside and surrounded by nature.
(Cat’s note: You can see an example of the locker and shower facilities in Tokyo when I checked out Joglis in Tokyo. It was great!)
Susan – My interest in fitness really began when I discovered Jazzercise, which I started here in Japan, then when we moved back to Boston I became an instructor. It was difficult to teach in Japan when we came back in 1997, that’s when I really started running, although I used to run about 2 miles a day from my senior year in college, off and on. I always ran alone until one day when a woman in my neighborhood in Tokyo saw me out there and said “Let’s run together tomorrow”. That was the beginning of a beautiful relationship with her, and of my love for “social” running. People tend to move in and out of Tokyo on 3-5 year postings, so I’m always hunting for new runners and they’re usually pretty easy to find, and now I’m lucky in that I have running friends all over the world as many have moved on.
I now run about 40-50 miles a week. I’ve done 19 marathons and lots of half-marathons, some 10K’s (not my favorite distance, too short but too long!). I spend my summers in Northern Michigan where I do the local 5K’s for fun. I’ve done all 8 Tokyo Marathons and hope to keep that trend going, although it’s difficult to get in on the lottery (although they do tend to let foreigners in, I’ve only been rejected once and I was able to get in by running for charity that year). I’ve run Boston twice and then various others around the globe. The Honolulu Marathon was my first and is still my PR.
How popular is running in Japan?
Susan – Running is a HUGE sport in Japan, both for men and for women (as I mentioned earlier, the Tokyo Marathon is difficult to get into because over 300,000 people apply for the 33,000 spots) and the Japanese are very good at it. It used to be difficult to find a marathon to run here because they put very strict time limits on them, but now there are more big open marathons popping up in the country.
Chika – Running is very big at the moment with many big marathon events across the country. It’s been growing since the first Tokyo Marathon but Japan has a history of loving running. Watching professional marathons has been popular for decades and the University Relay Races are some of the most popular events in Japan. (More on those later).
What kind of people run? Is the gender mix fairly balanced?
Chika – More men run than women, mainly because women are busy with more responsibilities at home. But women’s running is definitely getting more popular – in terms of the running industry, (clothing especially) the main driver is women. Running is still more popular with those who have the time and money and also those who are especially health aware.
Susan – I wouldn’t say there are gender or social class restrictions on running in Japan.
Let’s talk about racing – how popular is racing in Japan?
Susan - Racing is popular here but it’s hard to get into the races for several reasons. First of all, the registrations close WAY before the race, so you have to really be on it and pay attention to the schedules. It’s also hard to find any English-language information about races other than, say, charity-organized races like the Run for the Cure or the TELL Runathon (TELL is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing support and counseling services to Japan’s international community). There are web sites designed specifically to provide information about racing (RunNet is the best one I know of) but they are in Japanese.
Ekidens, or relay races, are extremely popular here. The word “ekiden” literally means “station transmit” and when ekidens first started, each runner on a team would run the distance from one “station” to the next, and then hand off a cloth sash, or “tasuki”, to the next runner. The tasuki is still a tradition in modern ekidens. There are university ekidens, corporate ekidens, prefectural ekidens, etc., but the most famous is the Hakone Ekiden, which is run every year on January 2-3. This is a college event, men only, and the teams of 10 run from central Tokyo to Hakone on the first day (5 runners) and back to Tokyo on the second day, about 109 kilometers each day.
Chika – Racing is very popular. Races are mainly organized by companies but sometimes by NGOs and occasionally by running clubs. In general it is pretty affordable but entry fees are creeping up. For those in their 20s, I’d say 10ks and Half-Marathons are popular. For those in their 30s, 40s and 50s, it’s about the Marathon. And for over 40s, the ultra-marathons are popular. Most races have a timing chip and in rural races, you can win unique prizes like wine, apples and rice. The most important Japanese race is the Tokyo Marathon, but my favourite races are the Osaka and the Naha Marathons.
How popular is trail running in Japan?
Susan – Trail running and ultra running are extremely popular here, Japan is a very mountainous country and even only one hour outside of Tokyo you can find some amazing trails.
Chika – Trail running is popular all over Japan!
(Cat’s note: These pics come from a wonderful blog Tokyo Bling, that I love. The blogger kindly let me use them especially for this blog post – thank you so much! If you’re into Japan and need your fix of Japan photography, I’d heartily recommend his blog!)
Click HERE for a really useful article about things to be aware of when running trails in Japan.
How safe do you feel when you run? Are there any particular issues regarding women running?
Susan – I feel 100% safe running in Japan! Japan is known for being a very safe country and it’s true. In Tokyo, if I were to get lost or tired, I could just hop on a train or in a taxi pretty much anywhere, which is a nice advantage too. If I go outside the city obviously that’s more difficult, but people are very helpful, I recently had another runner run me back to a park when I got lost.
Chika – Running in urban areas is very safe. Running in rural areas less so due to fewer street lamps making it darker, as well as more severe weather. The main problem for women is that they have less freedom for men after they get married, especially when they have babies!
What do Japanese female runners wear?
Susan – Women here wear skirts…like, everyone does!! That’s the biggest difference in attire. As I mentioned earlier, all the women wear skirts here, or shorts over running tights in the cold. They have some really fun patterns on their tights too! There is plenty of gear to be had as well.
Asics is definitely the #1 shoe brand, Brooks are finally available here. The biggest problem for foreigners is sizing, big sizes are generally not available so it’s impossible to buy running shoes here! There are running-specific stores, the two best ones that I know of in Tokyo are Art Sports and B&D Sports. There are big sporting goods stores as well, golf is very popular here BTW.
Chika – The most popular brands are Nike, Asics and Adidas, along with GoldWin. People shop at both general sports stores and specific running stores.
(Cat’s note: For more fashion inspiration, you can check out my tongue-in-cheek blog-post about Tokyo running fashion HERE.)
What do Japanese runners use for fueling and hydrating when on the run?
Susan – The Japanese have the BEST selection of sports drinks I’ve ever seen, and they change with the season. Oh, and there are vending machines EVERYWHERE in Japan, so you don’t have to worry about taking along a drink.
Japanese fuel on gels and powders just like Americans. During big marathons, the food/drink stations are amazing, stocked with bean-paste buns (a common treat here made from sweet soy beans) and even noodles sometimes.
I heard that Japan hosts many African runners who live and train in Japan, do you know anything about that?
Susan - Yes, many Africans train here, they are “employed” by corporations but basically are there to train and run.
Who are the running heroes in Japan?
Susan – The most prolific Japanese runner right now is Yuki Kawauchi, a “serial” marathoner that actually is what they call a “civilian” runner in that he is NOT employed by a corporation but works for the government and trains in his time off with his own expenses without any sponsorship.
Of course recent Olympic champions Naoko Takahashi and Mizuki Noguchi are still common names, Takahashi has become quite a good television announcer for Japanese marathons. Yukiko Akaba is a very talented female marathoner that they call the “running Mama” because she has a daughter, which is unusual for pro runners here. The young Hakone ekiden runners are always greatly respected.
Chika – I agree…Naoko Takahashi for women and Yuki Kawauichi for men.
How big is social media within the Japanese running community. Are there any good websites or Tweeters we should follow?
Susan – I follow @JRNHeadlines and @JRNLive , both run by Brett Larner, he’s great at publishing all the news in English and live tweeting during races. He also has www.japanrunningnews.blogspot.jp/ I also follow @tokyo42195_org which is the Tokyo Marathon twitter, but it’s only in Japanese. I have started my own Facebook page, Running Away From Home -Tokyo.
Chika – You could also try Jognote, which is becoming really popular. (Japanese language)
If I landed in Tokyo, where would you send me to find out about the local running routes, group runs, and local races?
Susan – First place would be the Imperial Palace! It’s a perfect 5K around, no stopping! There are several rivers in Tokyo that you can run along as well (Sumida River, Tama River and Arakawa River). In Akasaka there is the smaller detached palace where the Crown Prince lives (2 miles around) and the Jingu Circle, a marked 1300 meter loop, good for speed work. (Cat’s note: I found the Namban Rengo resource page incredibly useful when we planned our trip).
Chika – You could also try RUNNET which is the site many Japanese use to find out about local races, running clubs or general running information. (Japanese language)
If I was going to do any Japanese race, what would you recommend?
Susan – As I have mentioned, it is virtually impossible to jump into a race here unfortunately as the registrations close so far in advance, but the charity races normally planned by foreign organizations do allow on-the-day registration sometimes. I’m happy to be a contact for any runners visiting Tokyo through my Facebook page and post news there as well.
Chika – Do the Osaka Marathon!
What are the best and worst things about running in Japan?
Chika – The best thing is that it is very safe to run in urban areas and that in Tokyo there are many places where you can find lockers and showers. The worst thing is that entry to races usually open and close very early (up to 4 months out) .
Susan – The best thing is that it’s safe!! And the climate is wonderful EXCEPT in the summer when it is brutally hot and humid. And for such a big city the air quality here is remarkably good. The worst things are that there are lots of stop-lights unless you find the right route. It’s always better on Sundays/holidays. If you run on a rainy day you risk getting your eyes poked out because everyone in Japan carries an umbrella. There are some nasty allergens here so if you have hay fever that can be a big problem. (Those masks you see on everyone? It’s because of the allergies!).
Chika and Susan, thank you SO much for all your time and effort putting together this post. You can follow Susan’s Running Away from Home - Tokyo FB page HERE.
For other Running The World interviews, click HERE!