Japan's Vibrant Trail-Running Scene
Bamboo forests, onigiri at aid stations and big mountains give Japanese trail races a unique flavor
A fall training run up Mt. Aono near Tsuwano Japan.
Before moving to Japan last January, I knew that over 75 percent of Japan was mountainous and figured it was safe to assume that there were some trails on those mountains. Hopefully, I thought, I’d find some trail races. What I did not expect, and was thrilled to find, was a country whose enthusiasm for trail running parallels that of the United States.
From March through October, a runner can take his or her pick on any given weekend of several trail races throughout Japan. In a country smaller than California, with one of the best transportation systems in the world, traveling from race to race is a breeze.
Though races may be easy to find, they are not as easy to complete. You don’t race in Japan to run a fast time; you race to learn what conditions your body can survive. Here’s what to expect:
The scenery in Japan is thrilling, but you have to work for it. Trails take you through mountain rainforests complete with bamboo forests, ancient Buddhist and Shinto shrines, terraced rice fields and mountain villages that probably look the same as they did 200 years ago (with the addition of cars and telephone poles). If you’re racing in the Tokyo area and the weather is clear, you’re likely to get some great views of Mt. Fuji.
Mt. Fiji at sunset during Hasetsune.
Japan’s trail races tend to celebrate the spirit of self-sustenance. Most ultras only have an aid station every 20K or so. Many of those aid stations have only water, sometimes in limited quantities. When steep climbs make for slower miles, you can easily spend several hours between aid stations—running with a hydration pack is not optional.
Be advised: the closest trail-race aid station stocked with Coke, gels and PB&J's is 5,400 miles away in California. Instead, expect miso soup, bread stuffed with anko (mashed adzuki beans and sugar), onigiri (rice balls sometimes stuffed with seaweed or fish), fruit, chocolate and sports drink.