When I flew out of New Zealand one week ago, I left the last of my English-speaking destinations and took my first of a few flights in the direction of home. Now, a few countries, one major time zone change, and no major holidays stand between me and the Big D on July 22nd. But there’s still tons of the world left to explore, miles to cover, and fun to be had…
Starting now, in Tokyo! I’m a week deep into my stay here and have experienced both a running and cultural atmosphere unlike any I’ve come into contact with before. I’ll start with my running escapades and my next post will cover some more sedentary stuff.
First of all, Tokyo is a lot of things: vibrant, colorful, bustling, exciting, and delicious. One thing it’s not, however, is a running paradise. The streets and sidewalks are congested, the pollution is stifling, green space is sparse, and it’s mostly flat as the corpse in “Light as a feather, stiff as a board.” (If you didn’t play that as a child, it’s not too late. And while we’re at it, might I suggest a round of Dizzy Grizzlies or two?)
However, if you do enough snooping around, you can find some good places to run and some even better people to run with. After all, running is massively popular here, so I knew there must be places to escape the urban madness and log some decent miles. Before I arrived, I was fortunate enough to connect with Bob Poulson, chairman of the Namban Rengo international running club, and get some good tips on the Tokyo running scene. Through him, I’ve gotten to meet an awesome array of runners of all levels and backgrounds, to live with members of the club, and to explore bits of Tokyo in my favorite way: running!
Although most of my first week’s runs were up and down a paved street, I’m now staying near a great park called Yoyogi. It’s a great place for picnicking and people-watching and has a nice dirt trail that runs along the perimeter.(Thought I was bad at reading maps in my own language? Just wait til you see me use one in Japanese!)
This past weekend, I experienced a unique blend of running and Japanese tradition through an “onsen run” that Bob organized. About a dozen Namban members and I stashed our backpacks in some of the public lockers that are conveniently scattered all over the city and took off on a nice run along a shady path. A few cherry blossoms were hanging on (although they bloomed early this year and I just missed them) and I loved all the neat Japanese architecture and gardens we ran by.
We ended back at the lockers and walked next door to an onsen, or hot spring bathhouse, to clean up and rejuvenate before dinner. Other than a few giggly moments in YMCA locker rooms, this was my first encounter with public nudity that I’ll admit took some getting used to. Once I accepted the fact that everyone was naked and no one (but maybe me) felt awkward about it, I relaxed a bit and enjoyed the popular Japanese pastime.
Here’s how it works: men and women enter separate facilities, strip down entirely, and enter a bathing area to shower off (usually sitting on a stool). Once you’re clean, you’re free to roam around the array of indoor and outdoor spas, each of which is a little different (jets/no jets, sitting/standing, regular water/gold water– still not sure what was in that one). There’s also a sauna and a very cold bath, which brought out the running nerd in me and doubled as an ice bath. When you’ve had your fill of the baths, you shower off once more, put on fresh clothes, and emerge clean as a whistle! Afterwards, I enjoyed a big bowl of soba noodles and vegetables while getting to know some interesting and lovely Nambaners.
On Wednesday night, I got a totally different glimpse into the Tokyo running environment when I showed up at Namban’s weekly track practice. I heard that the track gets crowded, as it’s only open to the public for a few hours a week, but I was not prepared for the running carnival that I encountered:
It put a whole new spin on the idea of a full track! However, given the crowd, things were controlled and efficient, and people practiced proper track etiquette for the most part (faster runners on the inside lanes, passing on the outside, being aware of your surroundings, etc.). I don’t think that such a busy track would make a productive training area in most places, but it totally works here and creates a pretty inspiring atmosphere to train in.
Afterwards, as per tradition, the club members and I took another public bath in a sento and walked across the street for drinks and socializing. We splintered off into a few separate groups for dinner and I got my first bowl of authentic ramen noodles.
Clearly, Namban Rengo does it right: hard training followed by delicious meals and fun mingling. I look forward to discovering more Tokyo training grounds and traditions with them over the next few weeks, and will be back soon with some non-running thoughts on my first week here. If you like Japanese food (and believe me, you do), you’re in for a treat!