Travel Running Across Japan
Back in the day, I never really embraced the idea of running while I was traveling. I always took the approach that I would be walking all day and exercise would not be a problem, so why would I pack more equipment on top of it? Then several years ago I changed my perspective. The first trip I tried this on was a family trip to Ireland. I had run a couple times before another trips, but for this one I embraced it, in that I made running part of the trip itself. I chronicled my days, planned my routes, and I loved every minute of it. It allowed me to see the cities and sites from a new perspective early in the morning before the hustle and bustle of tourism and people began. There was this solitude that was so cleansing and while travel, in its essence, is supposed to be cathartic, it’s why we do it after all, but this added a whole new layer. I would run in places I probably would never see had I just been a tourist and this made the experience all the more valuable for me. I wasn’t concerned with my pace, my distance, or any of it. I just ran and enjoyed those moments.
When the opportunity arose again, this time to run Japan, I was over the moon excited. I had just visited last year and didn’t have the opportunity to run, so this time I really wanted to take advantage and already had ideas for places to run. Thankfully, working with Brooks, we had some great apparel and footwear that took us across a multitude of terrains and varying climates. It also allowed us to show off a brand that isn’t necessarily familiar to the locals and believe me we got questions from local runners as well. What follows is a city by city chronicle of the adventure and maybe will give you some ideas the next time you’re in Japan and are looking for places to run.
The first observation I would make about Tokyo is that it is a microcosm of Japan. A lot of people tell me they have visited Japan and have only been to Tokyo and to that I’d say, you are missing out. The majority of Japan is nothing like what life is like in the heart of Tokyo, so the way I ran here was an effort to find or discover those areas where there was more normalcy. There’s also a large number of people out regardless of the time of day so it was effort to move away from the horns and find some solitude and stillness in the city.
If you want to run with the runners of Tokyo, then there is only one place to go and that is the Imperial Palace loop. To me, it’s almost to much because so many people are running here now and it becomes significantly crowded. Pacing is in the 9 to 10 minute range because any faster and you’ll spend more time dodging people than enjoying your run, so to stay in the lineup you’re gonna slow down a bit. Not only are you fighting fellow runners, but you’re also fighting for space with tourists, so something to keep in mind. It is a nice loop, decently scenic (not the best), and you have minimal lights to deal with, so it’s kind of a great stop if you just want to hang with the locals and run. It’s about a 5k loop, so you can plan accordingly. While this offers a decent level of enjoyment, I also wanted to find something different so my running route took me into the northwest of the city at the northern end of Shinjuku.
My early morning run route in Shinjuku took me down quiet narrow little residential streets. Aside from a few bikes and the occasional taxi, it was solitude. I was surrounded by beautiful tightly stacked homes on either side who were just waking up to start their day. Old-fashioned Dutch style bikes were parked in most entryways, laundry drying on racks outside, but despite the amount of people who lived here there was still quiet. As my run continued, I turned towards a large green swath on Google maps figuring it’s a park and is probably scenic. Side note, most parks in Tokyo don’t open until 8 AM, but others do or have walkways around the exterior so just check times prior. In this case, the park was open and heavily trafficked by elderly Japanese were out for their morning workouts. In the middle of a large open area, two men, who looked to be in their late 70s, were moving in unison and practicing what looked to be sumo movements which struck me as ironic and humorous given their very small stature. I was also impressed by the flow and dexterity given their age. Others just walked briskly or jogged slowly through the park. The one thing that struck me was the amount of young people that were missing from the scene. During my initial 7 to 8 miles, I had come upon very few, and only on my return did I start to notice any. I realized later that many of the younger generation tend to exercise later in the day and I stumbled upon them at the Imperial Palace.
As you think about running in Tokyo, I would tell you to venture into the neighborhoods that surround the city center instead of the sites. While it might be novel to run through Asakusa, Akihabara, Shibuya, Ginza, or Roppongi in the early hours you will see all that during the day when you’re out being a tourist. What you won’t see is where the real people live. Those little neighborhoods, hidden little restaurants (you can come back to later) and the smells… wow the smells. As dawn comes in Tokyo and other major cities you are greeted by the smells of restaurants, bakeries, and food stalls who are beginning to prepare for the day and it can be intoxicating.
Moving on from Tokyo via train, our next stop was the base of Mount Fuji.
Mount Fuji (Yamanashi Prefecture)
As we got off the train in Kofu, where we are meeting our host for the next few days to drive us into Fuji, I had an experience I knew was already setting a great tone as a runner. We walked around the city of Kofu I happened to look over and see a running store and it was sick looking. The store was TODAY RUNNING COMPANY 道がまっすぐ (http://www.trc-michigama.com/). I talked everyone into going inside and the place was amazing. It was probably no bigger than 10’ x 20′ and was packed to the gills with Altra, Hoka, Inov-8, Salomon, Ultimate Direction, and basically every hard-core trail running brand that you might know of. Behind the counter sat this little dude with the goatee who was so chill and you can just sense right away that he knew these trails. I talked through a friend and we chatted for a couple minutes and it was clear we were close to the Japanese mecca for trail running. He was stoked to talk about Brooks and the Mazamas I had brought with me given that he didn’t have a lot of exposure to the brand. That being said, that shop needs T-shirts. I’m just saying, great logo, super cool spot, it’s the running store you dream about, but I needed something to take home with me. He did give us an awesome how to trail run in Japanese flyer though 🙂
Our hosts live in the Yamanashi Prefecture just below Fuji and the area is known for its five big lakes. They live right off Lake Yamanakako which has beautiful views of Fuji itself. In all honesty though, Fuji itself is picturesque and while I come from an area that has mountains like Hood, Rainier, Adams, and more, Fuji stands very proud, almost like it’s posing for you. At dinner that night, I was super pumped for the next morning just thinking about the possibilities and trying to plan my route around where to go and how to see things in the best possible way. There are so many options for trails when do you want to run on Fuji or nearby areas where you can get a good view of the mountain that your options are limitless. There are also some great shops in the area where you can buy gear, get tours and hire guides and whether it’s mountain biking or skiing and snowboarding in the winter, there is a ton of action sports tourism going on in this area. For me, it was off-season or between seasons, so I have the run of the place.
I honestly can’t say enough good things about this place and I can’t given you just one route. If you are a trail runner, then you could spend weeks exploring this area and every moment is met with beautiful scenery. Drive your rental car to any number of trails and just go for it. Or if you prefer a road run, then the lake itself has a fully paved loop you can take as well. It can of course get quite cold and snowy in the winter, but for a good portion of the year the place is a trail runners’ playground and the leaves in the Fall, just wow. I was sad to have a limited window here not only leaving old friends, but also having only a small time to explore the hills and lakes around Fuji and the mountain itself. The only advice I offer you here is to take your time, be respectful of hikers, and make sure you’ve got plenty of room on your camera roll because it’s hard not to stop to take a photo every few feet.
We left Fuji and the Yamanashi Prefecture and headed into Nagano, our next stop was Matsumoto. As a city, it is relatively unknown to a lot of tourists because there aren’t a significant number of sites to visit here. There is the beautiful Matsumoto Castle and a large number of onsen (geothermal hot springs). The onsen here are more resort in nature, so people come from all over to spend a day or two at them. What most people don’t know is that the area around Matsumoto is littered with trails. Also, the city itself, in its early morning hours, is really yours for the taking and it is one of the best ways to see the sites.
About a half-mile from town in the northeast of Matsumoto you’ll find trails that take you into the hillside and up to several nice views and climbs. I decided to also hit the road here because I wanted to get some early-morning photos at some of the more popular tourist destinations. Seeing Matsumoto Castle in the early a.m. hours or discovering that one little park with ponds full of koi and then having them to yourself amidst a thriving city is quite the thrill. There is also a large university here, so if you’re looking for a track make sure you stay in the northeast of the city just off the river and you’ll have access to the trails, the university, and plenty of road running opportunities. I would shy away from trying to run during the mid day because the city can get quite busy and there aren’t a lot of sidewalks so you’ll be running on traffic shoulders.
We trained from Matsumoto to Kanazawa via Nagano city (vs prefecture… confusing I know) where we made a quick stop to see one of their more prolific temples, Zenko-ji, and also see the city made famous from the ’98 Winter Olympic Games. Didn’t get a chance to run here given it was a quick stop, but maybe next time. Honestly, the city seems consistently packed with athletes given the venues are still standing and you’ve got lots of mountains nearby. I was bummed that I missed out on a good opportunity here, but also some of those athletes were intimidating. We however were off to run Kanazawa!
Kanazawa itself is a relatively unknown at city in terms of tourism. You find it in the list of places to go when you have a few extra days, but it’s definitely not on the must do list which is very short-sighted. It sits on the Central Coast basically two hours north of Kyoto and is a big mix of modern and traditional. There are now direct Shinkansen lines from Tokyo, so the city is bustling a bit more especially with businessmen and women, but again tourism is relatively low except from other Japanese.
Kanazawa makes for a great early morning run and here is why. The city is largely inhabited by everyday people going to work in what is essentially a modern town. Within that however are very distinct historical and beautiful sites that are untouched during the morning hours. A good example are the castle ground and while the castle itself was largely destroyed over the years, the park around the castle inside the gates is beautiful and is easy to log miles around. The Kenrokuen garden which is just next-door to the castle grounds is probably one of the top two traditional gardens in all of Japan. It doesn’t open until around 8AM, but I noticed that when I got there the gates were open and they were more than happy to let people walk through on their morning walks. You definitely need to slow down to a light jog if you’re going to do this so keep that in mind as you want to be respectful.
The big stop here for me was Higashiyama Chaya, which is a little district in the southeast of the city just over a bridge and it’s known primarily for its geisha and evening entertainment options. It’s littered with little restaurants and bars, but during the morning hours the only other people who are here are photographers because it is just amazing. As the sun rises, it hits these old buildings and it’s picturesque to say that at least.
Kanazawa is a very nice mix of old and new and is relatively untapped from a tourist perspective. Because of this you don’t have a lot of tourists in restaurants or in-your-face souvenir stores, and instead you have the Omicho market where locals shop for fish, meat, and produce and you have beautiful sites like the castle, the gardens, and entertainment district. Definitely a nice city to just check out and a great place to chill out while you log some miles.
I could honestly go on and on over Kyoto as it probably offers the most diversity from any other city we visited. The city itself while large, maintains that almost university feel. It’s Barcelona to Madrid in Spain or Florence to Rome in Italy. One feels younger and hipper and the other feels big and complex and industrial. In a city like Tokyo, you find big historical landmarks amongst modern development whereas in Kyoto you find large swaths of traditionalism sprinkled across the landscape. Also, the buildings are much much lower.
I would always recommend anybody visiting the city to stay near the river east of Pontocho in the Gion area or slightly north because it offers a good balance between being in everyday Kyoto, but also just on the edge of those things you want to see. It also provides easy access to the running paths on the river and most transportation lines. I have stayed in this area multiple times now and never regretted it. Everything is a walk away and if necessary, there is a subway stop even closer.
So where do you run in Kyoto you might be asking? The answer is there are so many opportunities. Your first best bet and simplest is the river path running north and south on the east side of the city. This is a paved footpath that runs the entire distance of the river and is frequently trafficked by other runners and walkers and is accessible most hours of the day. You won’t see a lot of elevation changes and it’s not necessarily super scenic, but it is relaxing and if you want to get some miles in then it’s very easy to get to.
While I did put some miles on the footpath, I also quickly decided to venture off and turned my runs into sightseeing opportunities yet again by placing landmarks at various intervals across the run. At one point I linked all the eastern temples from Shinnyo-do to Kiyomizu-dera which spanned around 10 miles and linked together a number of major temples, sites, and districts. What was actually great about it was that it became a great planning tool for where I might go during the day as an actual tourist because I already had an impression of what things look like and how to get to them. A couple quick notes and it should go without saying, but you shouldn’t run when you get to the temple. Stop your watch and walk around. Take photos, videos, etc, but don’t go running around the temple grounds. This is great run because it gives you a vast array of terrain and elevation, beautiful sites, and you can really make your own path from temple to temple or split it across a couple days.
The next run I would recommend is really anywhere else in the city. I had a few places that I had wanted to see and hadn’t had a chance to go yet including Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion), on the western edge of town as well as Nijo Castle and Kyoto Palace. In the early hours, none of these places are open so you won’t see much, but the adventure getting across town through neighborhoods and down little streets is definitely more than exciting. For those looking for a longer run or wanting to run in a totally different area, you can either make the 8 to 9 mile run out to Arashiyama, the Bamboo Forest, or train out there and run on the trails in the hills above the area. Lastly, because Kyoto is so large you have numerous schools and tracks that you can make use of if you’re looking for that as well.
I really found that Kyoto has one of the best mixes of potential opportunities for running of any of the cities we visited given its natural diversity.
Nara is a perfect day trip from Kyoto. It’s only about 40 minutes on the train and it’s an easy local train trip for most. I would recommend however spending the night. Not many people do it simply because they aren’t sure what’s in Nara, but that’s the beauty of it. The place is really your own if you spend the night. In terms of running opportunities, not only do you have the Deer Park and it’s surrounding area, but the entire hillside around the city is also full of potential opportunity. You’ll also see many Japanese runners take early-morning trains from Kyoto to run around Nara only to train back later in the day, so follow them if you can to the best spots.
The last spot on our adventure took us to Hiroshima. It’s another of those stops that people only seem to add on to their itinerary if they have some extra days which is very sad in a lot of ways. It’s only two hours via Shinkansen from Kyoto (via Osaka) and four hours from Tokyo so getting here is not a problem. The city itself is interesting in that unlike most cities in Japan, this city for obvious reasons was fully rebuilt. So the majority of buildings here are from the 50s and 60s and any medieval structures that were destroyed only having been rebuilt in the last 10 years or so. Culturally, politically, and socially Hiroshima is a tremendously important city to visit simply because it serves as a stark reminder of the horrors of not only war but the use of nuclear weapons. The devastation caused by the atomic bomb is painful to even imagine or even put into words, but the city itself is more an homage to peace and a consistent reminder to always reflect on the past while looking to the future. Honestly, you can’t help but feel emotional when walking through the Peace Memorial Park, visiting the A-Bomb Dome, the Museum, or seeing the Children’s Peace Monument.
From a running perspective, this isn’t a place to link sites together historical sites because they are very centralized, much of the traditional tourist attractions are in one small three-quarter mile area near the center of town. Hiroshima Castle has been fully rebuilt, but the grounds are primarily closed during the early morning hours. Instead, I would tell you to venture into the hills around Hiroshima. A few miles from most locations in town will take you into the foothills and provide views back on the city and the hills aren’t tremendously arduous to climb so they are fairly easy running for most. After you tackle the trails around Hiroshima, make sure to spend the night and visit Okonomi-mura, the Okonomiyaki tower. A local delicacy, it’s an amazing recovery food and a nice way to splurge after putting in some miles and the owners of each of the little bars in this tower are tremendously friendly.
Wrapping it up and headed home
As our trip came to an end, I had a chance to reflect on the last two weeks and all the miles I had covered. As I look back on the roads, trails, sites, and people I had seen and met along the way I was reminded at how small our world is and yet how vastly different it can be. Running is an amazing way to experience cities while traveling and with the technology we have at our disposal now, getting lost isn’t as unsafe as it used to be. Next time you are headed out on vacation, make an extra spot for your running gear and log some miles in those early morning hours. You’ll get to see those cities in a very different light and share the roads and trails with locals who you do share a common language with, running. Always remember to be respectful of other countries and their traditions, run a little slower than you would normally, enjoy yourself because it’s not a race, and try to meet some new folks along the way because more than anything running can bring people together.
I would like to thank one of our key sponsors, Brooks, whose gear saw us through this adventure. We had a chance to put some of their best gear through the ringer in a multitude of conditions and terrains and we are so gracious they wanted to participate. Definitely check out the Hyperion, a great low weight racing shoe, and the Mazama for your trail needs, it’s super quick and responsive. Also, the Brooks LSD Thermal lineup is awesome for cooler temps.