A South African trail runner living abroad and exploring the trails of Japan shares his experience with us in this latest post. Written by Hennie Pelser.
When I grew up, I always thought of Japan as this overcrowded small Island where people’s only purpose in life is to work (see the movie Gung-Ho from the 80’s, featuring Michael Keaton, something like that). However it is an amazing country with great people, and it’s made up of 75% mountains, so it is a trail runners dream.
I joined a Japanese auto manufacturer in 2001, and have over the years had a few opportunities to visit for week-long business trips, but this is usually an in-out week-long work-binge, with very little opportunity to see anything other than the office and Hotel.
Then in October I came on a business trip to Japan and was offered a position in our HQ in Yokohama. As we do not have any children, my wife and I’s biggest concern was who would look after our dogs. Seeing as my wife like dogs more than she likes people, it was not a light decision. However they are now happy living with my in-laws in Kleinmond, so I think they got the best side of the deal!
I came over to Japan permanently from 1 April and my wife joined me at the end of June.
This is a crazy place. Crazy busy, crazy safe, crazy how on time everything is, and service is amazing. Living in Japan is completely opposite to living in Pretoria. I take the train to work every day, so I walk about 1.5K to Yamate station and then 4 stops to Yokohama. I never use my car during the week, we have been driving on the same tank of petrol now for 3 months. I live in a quiet neighborhood called Honmoku-Manzaka, and running a 10k in the morning is quite easy as the roads are not as congested as in Tokyo. There are also many parks I can run through in my morning run. Just currently the heat is absolutely crazy. I mean it’s ridiculous. I usually go running at 5:45am, and today it was 28 degrees, 93% humidity and the real feel as per my weather app 34 degrees. This makes running a bit difficult. Combine this with working 11 hours a day, red wine every night and not enough sleep, and you can really struggle to train.
You can also get homesick, I mean real homesick, like I-need-a braai-now-type of homesick. I had it twice sofar. First was in the last week of May. It was a hectic two weeks of work, I missed my wife and the dogs (she was still in SA then) and the house was way too quiet. On a whim I looked at trail runs that weekend. I found a race more than 400km from my house in the Niigata prefecture, however the entries were already closed. I mailed the organizer and said I was foreigner and asked if there was any chance of an entry lying around. He was extremely helpful and made a plan. Two hours later my entry was done and my hotel booked. Suddenly my week did not look as gloomy and dark as it had been up to then. The race was on the Sunday in a town called Tainai in Niigata. It was part of the Asia trail master series and was considered a short but tough 30km. As my training was not going as well as I had hoped up to then, I opted for the shorter 14km (on race day however it turned out to be more like 18km).
To get to Niigata I had to take the train from Yokohama to Tokyo and then take the Shinkansen (Bullet train) to Niigata. I tracked the speed in the bullet train with my Polar, it went over 320km/h! From Niigata you take the local train to Tainai, all in about 4 hours of travel. Tainai is a very rural town of mostly rice farms and I booked into the best and worst hotel in town (the only hotel). Next day they took us by bus to the start about 10km into the mountains.
I was one of the few Westerners, so being completely out of place was new for me. Being a rural area, English was non-existent, but people nonetheless came up to me for a chat and were very surprised to discover that I am a South African. The opening ceremony was so weird, it was the local brass band from the high school, and they were flanked by two Star wars Stormtroopers. Expect the unexpected in Japan.
It rained the night before and also just before the race, so the trail was very wet, and the route was out and back up the mountains. And to be honest I was getting nervous just looking up at them. My training up to then consisted of running about 25km during the week and a few bike rides, and also walking to the train station and back, over 2 hills. My strategy for the day was “borrow now, pay later”, meaning go as hard as I can, for as long as I can, worry about sore legs tomorrow.
The start was quite fast as we did some road running up to 3km and then just went straight up into the trails. I was surprised that I managed to stick with the front 5 but dropped off them as soon as we hit the climbs. However after a few kilometers, I managed to hike them in (gradients were very steep and very slippery). So it was me and two Japanese with another one waaayy in front. It was crazy fun, run, slide , slip, get up, swing from saplings here and there. Me and the younger of the Japanese duo managed to drop the other one on the long climb before the turnpoint. Coming back my companion hooked his foot on a rock and did a very spectacular claim to his own piece of rice farm. I helped him up but he was not feeling like racing anymore, so I went off on my own. Slip, slide, get up, swing, jump, hop, skip… was one of the most fun, but hardest courses I ever did. I eventually managed to hold off the three runners behind and came in second, absolutely broken. Then I had to do a post-race interview with the Japanese race organizer translating. Apparently they did not understand “Nee donner, eks moertoe”, so I settled for “Thank you, it was a wonderful race, I am so glad I came here”.
My prize for coming 1st in my age group (19-49), was 6 local craft beers, and a running cap. Oh and the Japanese that won the race was over 50. He is one of the local long distance trail runners that just wanted to loosen his legs before some other race that was coming the next week. And I could not walk properly until the Friday….