Rac­ing around Ja­pan

Marathoner runs through Tokyo’s high-paced streets and Ky­oto’s beau­ti­ful his­toric sites

Truro Daily News - - DESTINATIO­NS - SHARON LINDORES The au­thor was a guest of Tokyo Tourism, Ja­pan Na­tional Tourism Or­ga­ni­za­tion, Shangri-la Ho­tel, Tokyo, Ibis Ho­tel, Ky­oto, Four Sea­sons Ho­tel, Ky­oto, and ari­gato food tours. The or­ga­ni­za­tions did not re­view this ar­ti­cle.

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.


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.

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