Racing around Japan
Marathoner runs through Tokyo’s high-paced streets and Kyoto’s beautiful historic sites
It was an amazing experience: There was the ancient, golden temple perfectly reflected in the pond, the geisha gliding along the streets in Gion and the fourthgeneration origami expert who created masterpieces in the blink of an eye. However, the best thing I saw in Japan was the finish line at the Abbott World Marathon Majors.
It may seem odd to go halfway around the world to compete in a race, but as someone who loves travel and running, a marathon somewhere I’ve never been is the perfect excuse for a vacation. And it seems I’m not alone. More and more people are traveling for sport. It’s estimated that $1.41 trillion a year is spent on sports tourism, according to the media and entertainment research firm Technavio. And those numbers are expected to grow.
Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York make up the Abbott series of the world’s biggest and most prestigious marathons. All of them are great cities to visit and run. Commonly known as the Majors, the races attract the fastest elite runners and thousands of amateurs — many of whom aspire to complete all six races.
But it’s a challenging feat. Fewer than 5,000 people in the world have completed the series. Tokyo was the final race I had to do, plus it gave me a great opportunity to indulge in Japanese cuisine and learn more about the country and culture. Running 42.2 kilometres through a city is a fantastic way to see a place. And the marathon in Japan’s capital is no exception.
The race starts by the tall Metropolitan Government building (which has a free observation deck, where on a clear day you can see Mount Fuji) and weaves its way through the city of 9.3-million people. The course goes past the Tokyo Skytree (at 634 metres high the world’s tallest, free-standing broadcasting tower), through Ginza (the city’s upmarket shopping area) and finishes by the gardens of the Imperial Palace (where the Tokugawa shogun ruled the country from 1603 until 1867).
Add to that cheering crowds, music and entertainment, with traditional dancers, drummers and the like, and it’s easy to see how fun it can be — especially when you cross the finish line and someone gives you a medal. On this occasion, I was lucky enough to get two medals — one for the marathon and one for the Majors — plus bragging rights, as I’m now one of 204 Canadians (76 women and 128 men) to have completed the series.
To celebrate I went for a delicious dinner of miso-glazed black cod at the trendy Gonpachi, also known as the Kill Bill restaurant due to its scene in Quentin Tarantino’s 2004 film. It’s built to replicate a traditional Japanese warehouse and has a buzzy, trendy vibe with a high ceiling and an open kitchen so you can watch all the culinary action.
Running does give you an appetite and this was just one of several fantastic meals on the trip.
Another one that stood out was the traditional kaiseki dinner at the Shangri La Hotel’s Nadaman Japanese Restaurant. Chef Taekhiko Yoshida’s seven-course menu started with boiled spring vegetable with deep fried squid, mugwort tofu with sea urchin and crab meat with tomato salad. And that was just the appetizer.
Sashimi, a simmered dish, tempura, teppanyaki, sushi and dessert followed. Every item was mouthwateringly delicious and visually stunning.
THE ART OF ORIGAMI
Tokyo is a very stylish city — the people are smart dressers, the food they eat is well presented and their gardens are beautiful. However, this simple, yet sophisticated aesthetic is perhaps best seen in paper — yes, paper. The traditional Japanese paper-making technique has also been recognized by Unesco for its cultural heritage.
Around 600 years ago the Japanese started to make washi paper from the bark of the kozo tree. I tried my hand at making it at Ozu Washi and it was amazing to see my screen of pulpy water turn into an artisan-like piece of paper.
It’s equally fascinating to see what can be done with paper and for that I went to the shop/craft centre Origami Kaikan. Its fourthgeneration director Kobayashi Kazuo is a master. The delightful 78-year-old smiles and chats about culture, history and how everyone can fold paper — all the while keeping his hands busy. Blink and you may miss that split second when the small square of paper that was lying on his desk has been transformed into a piece of art.
He’s entertained dignitaries, travelled around the world teaching workshops and loves the simple pleasure of turning anything — from origami paper to a chop stick envelope — into something quite wonderful. Flowers, rings and even Japanese dolls appeared one after another as he effortlessly folded colourful, little pieces of paper.
Japanese artistry was also on display at Mori Art Museum, which featured an exhibit on Hokusai, the prolific painter who lived from 1760 to 1849 and is known for creating the Great Wave. A lifetime of his works were on display — showing his sketches, painting and manga.
While there are many museums and galleries to visit, it’s also great just to stretch your legs (pre- or post-marathon) and wander the streets. And one of the best neighbourhoods to explore is around Tsukiji.
This area’s known for the famous fish market of the same name. It was the biggest such market in the world up until October when the wholesale auction building moved to a new location in Toyosu, a couple of kilometres away. Toyosu still supplies the other market stalls and restaurants in Tsukiji and so this is the place in Tokyo to get the freshest fish and seafood.
Asami Kubo, a guide with arigato food tours, took me and a small group around the area — which is bustling from 5 a.m. until noon.
wwe feasted on a breakfast of grilled fish, rice and sushi, while Kubo taught us some key words (such as itadakimasu — thanks before a meal, and oishi — yummy), plus a bit of etiquette — turn your chopsticks around if sharing dishes, and always drink your soup by holding the bowl with two hands.
Then we set off to explore the market stalls and a mix of food stands and shops that line the historic maze of narrow streets in the area. The market has everything from live shrimp (some people actually eat them live) to blowfish and, rather controversially, whale. Of course, there are plenty of other kinds of fish and seafood here as well.
We also stop by the Namiyoke Imari Jinja Shinto shrine — the guardian shrine for the market and traders. While there are several shrines and Buddhist temples in Tokyo, the best place to see some of these beautiful sites is in Kyoto. The city, a speedy two-hour and 20-minute bullet-train ride away from Tokyo, was the capital of Japan and the emperor’s residence from 794 to 1868.
Now known as the cultural capital of the country, the city has no less than 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites, making it one of the world’s largest collections in one city (by way of comparison, there are 19 UNESCO World Heritage sites in all of Canada).
Kyoto is home to about 2,000 temples and shrines — not to mention Zen gardens, palaces and the like. It would be a very long ultra race to try and fit them all in. As such, it’s best to be selective to avoid burn-out and the risk of one temple blurring into another.
Kinkoku, or the Golden Pavillion, built by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in 1397 is a sight to behold. Not only does the golden structure glisten, but it’s perfectly reflected back in the pond directly below it and is enchanting in a fairytale manner.
Across town, Ginkakuji, the temple of the Silver Pavilion, was built in 1482 by Yoshimitsu’s grandson Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who was a patron of the arts. During this period, the tea ceremony, flower arranging and ink painting came to prominence. It was also influenced by Zen Buddhism and the garden setting here is beautiful.
Another must-see site is the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, which was founded in 711 and is dedicated to the goddess of rice. Set in a forest, there are more than 10,000 vermilion-coloured torii gates here, which form a four kilometre tunnel-like walkway through woods, leading to a great view of the city.
Although Kyoto is overloaded with cultural gems, they’re spread out and somewhat hidden in the modern city of 1.5-million people. But the Gion and neighbouring Pontocho districts really give a glimpse at a more traditional way of life. Both areas have quaint, old-fashioned streets with geisha houses and small restaurants.
One night, Koichiro Ikawa, a guide with arigato food tours, took a small group of us around to a handful of restaurants, which generally had only four or five tables in them. We had a sake tasting and delectable chicken skewers, tempura, sushi and ramen noodles — all while learning more about the area.
Back in the day, there were thousands of geisha here, but now there are only about 250 in the city. The women are artisans and entertain at private parties. In Kyoto, they’re commonly referred to as geiko.
Girls who choose to become geiko are known as maiko and start their training around the age of 15. Ikawa pointed out the school where they spend about five years learning the art of conversation, the tea ceremony, traditional music, dancing and other skills.
Thanks to being taught exactly how they dress, I managed to spot a few geiko and one maiko in the early evening when I was wandering around the area. But be prepared to see a fair number of women in kimonos in Kyoto. Many tourists rent the beautiful, traditional dresses. Funnily enough, they seem to fit in to the ambiance of the city’s many charms. And they make seeing a real geisha that much more rewarding.
Sometimes the best experiences are simple ones — that can be found just by looking around, or taking it all in while running a race.
Kiyomizu Temple was founded in 798 in Kyoto.
The Tokyo Marathon is one of six races that make up the Abbott World Marathon Majors.