Although I currently live in England, my mind often reverts to the Land of the Rising Sun, where I have worked twice. Attending a Japan Day Festival in Manchester got me thinking about my favourite moments in that country—several of which are athletically related. Here are my top five athletic related accomplishments in Japan, all which happened during the two years (July 2008 – July 2010) I lived in Haguro, a small village in Yamagata Prefecture, while I was a member of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program:
1. Completing the Sakuranbo Marathon after being injured
When the name Yamagata Prefecture is mentioned to many Japanese, their first thought might be “cherries.” Quite appropriately, the city of Higashine in Yamagata Prefecture—located in the heart of a major cherry producing region—hosts a race named the Sakuranbo Marathon (sakuranbo meaning “cherry” in Japanese). Participants can either run 10km or a half-marathon but the most rewarding part of the event is… all finishers are treated to amazingly delicious cherries.
My first Sakuranbo Marathon experience saw me finish the 21 km in 1:19.16—not bad considering I had hit the wall a few kilometres prior to the finish. With some proper half marathon training, I was sure I could better that time in the next go around. But unfortunately, roughly three months prior to my second Sakuranbo Marathon, I twisted my right knee, thus rendering me unable to run for quite awhile. Having paid 3,000 yen to participate, I really hoping that money would not be wasted.
Fortunately, a good omen appeared the day prior to the race when I did some very light running without feeling any pain. Better yet, the Sunday of my second Sakuranbo Marathon was sunny—and full of friends who were participating.
I completed the 21km five minutes slower than the previous year. But I was just thrilled to have completed the race pain-free. And be treated to delicious cherries once again.
2. Setting a record in the Tsuruoka City Ekiden
Before coming to Yamagata Prefecture, I had always considered long-distance running to be an individual endeavour. That never bothered me, having always enjoyed competing. But one day, I saw a race on TV in which runners handed a sash to each other. The event seemed quite fun, and I figured it must be popular if it was often televised.
However, I thought there were no opportunities for me to partake in such fun. Well, not I learned about my village’s ekiden club. They were about to start preparing for the Tsuruoka City Ekiden, held on the first Sunday in November.
I was excited about the club, so I quickly joined the training sessions, which took place once or twice a week. The practices were fun, and I usually kept up with the other runners…
Who were good. In the season’s first race, the two squads we were divided into (the Haguro A and B teams) finished 1-2. Subsequent races strengthened my belief that our team was strong.
While I was excited about the city ekiden, others may have been nervous about me. In our previous race, I lost track of the car guiding the runners. Thus, I made a wrong turn and ran the wrong route for awhile. We won, but I was quite embarrassed. So to familiarize me with the course, the day before the ekiden, Eguchi-San (a teammate) took me to the Oyama Community Center, my starting point. He drove the 4.8 kilometers I’d be running and indicated certain key points of the course. Seeing how easy the course was calmed all my worries.
As for the actual race, when I received the sash, I had work to do as we were in fourth place. But during my leg, I constantly replayed the words of our manager, Souma-San, in my head, “No snake running.” I sometimes ran like a snake during training sessions, but I heeded his words that day. It didn’t seem like I was running fast—probably because I wasn’t mowing down runners like I thought I should. But I was running at a good pace as I passed one runner, and inched closer to those ahead of me. Unfortunately, I was only able to pass that one runner but when I handed the sash to Maruyama-San (another teammate), I thought I ran well.
Until I learned my leg at the Tsuruoka City Ekiden was record-breaking. I had run faster than the previous record for fastest fourth leg runners in the ekiden’s history, doing the 4.8 kilometers in 14:58. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the fastest of the fourth-leg runners—my Fujishima counterpart ran 14:29. They won the event, and we finished third.
But I was still recognized for my accomplishment. At the post-race party, I received a medal and certificate. Nice prizes for someone who had never heard of an ekiden before coming to Yamagata Prefecture.
3. Finishing Fourth in the Ishidan Marathon
Although I lived in a small village named Haguro, a famous mountain (well, famous in Yamagata Prefecture) lies within its borders—Mount Haguro. Renowned for being the home of mountain ascetics named yamabushi, Mount Haguro also welcomes a large number of leisurely hikers.
However, the middle of October sees Mount Haguro welcome a large number of visitors who ascend it in a different manner. The Ishidan Marathon, the latter of half of which takes place on the stone steps of Mount Haguro, features more than 200 competitors running through the streets of Haguro en route to the top of the mountain. In my fact, the first time I participated in the event represented the first time I reached the summit of Mount Haguro. But that race wasn’t the most pleasant of memories as I faded in the latter half, finishing 30-something. However, being served delicious homemade soup by my landlord’s wife immediately after the race soothed some of the disappointment.
I aimed to make the next edition of the Ishidan Marathon a better experience and assisted by arriving at the starting line in much better shape than I was for the previous year’s edition , I had a feeling relatively early in the race that ‘I’m running well.’ I ended up finished fourth. And I was rewarded for my exploit with a five kilogram bag of rice.
4. Climbing Mount Fuji
An iconic figure in Japan, one of my goals was to climb the 3,776-meter high Mount Fuji. As comfortable as I may be tackling numerous challenges solo, something told me that Mount Fuji is best accomplished as part of a group. Fortunately, Jen and Ian—two fellow English teachers—expressed an interest in ascending the mountain during a holiday weekend in July 2009 and they asked if anyone wanted to come along. So I got what I wanted….
And I quickly realized that climbing Japan’s tallest mountain was a totally different animal from going up the steps of Mount Haguro. While climbing the first few stages of Mount Fuji was relatively uneventful, the fifth stage brought large numbers of fellow tourists and more importantly, the cold. Although it was the middle of July, the temperature felt 180 degrees different from that at sea level. I just wish I had heeded the advice of Jen and Ian, who ended up providing me some clothes to combat the cold as I was unprepared for it.
Even if I had been better prepared for the Arctic-like temperature, the hike wouldn’t have been any more pleasant. Climbing on a holiday weekend during the limited hiking season meant we would have to endure sharing our path with large crowds. There were numerous times when the thought of abandoning the trek and returning to normal July heat seemed quite appealing to me.
But encouraged by the presence of Jen and Ian, the summit kept beckoning… only for the ridiculously long queue to stop advancing less than 100 meters from the summit. However, the sight of a misty morning from the summit was quite impressive.
5. Running 42.195 km in the streets of Tokyo
Despite being a relatively recently launched event, the Tokyo Marathon has become one of the capital’s major annual sporting events. I actually took part in the 2009 edition—however, it was only the 10 km race that is no longer part of the festivities. But I was yearning for more, so I applied to run in the real thing at the next edition.
Sounds simple. Except that more than 300,000 people applied for roughly 35,000 places. While the odds of getting the good news from the Tokyo Marathon organizers was as likely as me ascending to the throne of emperor, I was actually confident of being chosen. And sure enough, on February 28, 2010, I was at the starting line with 35,027 other people.
Unfortunately, I felt miserable at the starting line due to the cold and my feeling underdressed. In addition, as I really hadn’t properly trained for the event, I feared “hitting the wall.” But as I settled into a groove during the race, I was able to run comfortably past numerous Tokyo landmarks, such as the Imperial Palace, Tokyo Tower and Tsukiji Market on my way to finishing in 3:28.16. My first full marathon had seen me finish relatively strongly and better yet, the sun had come out by the time of the finish.
Rashaad Jorden is an American that is currently a postgraduate student at Leeds Metropolitan University in England studying Responsible Tourism Management. He’s taught English in both Japan and France before studying in the United Kingdom and dreams of returning to the Land of the Rising Sun. If you’d like more information about some of the places he’s visited in Japan, click here. You can also check out what he’s recently up to on his blog, Getting Pounded.