I’m back in Japan.
Last year I arrived in Tokyo completely unprepared for what I was to find. If Japanese people weren’t so nice I likely wouldn’t have made it past the airport. Unable to go forward, too poor to go back before scheduled, I would have spent ten unhappy days in the airport, wandering between gates like Tom Hanks in The Terminal. Fortunately for me, the nice people of the land of the rising sun kindly directed me to the correct taxi service, which safely took me to my hotel without incident. I reached my hotel room, laid down on the bed and breathed a sigh of relief.
Try as I might, I soon found that I couldn’t huddle in my room for the whole trip. Just outside my window flashed the bright neon lights of Shibuya – Japan’s fashion district – and whether or not I was mentally or emotionally prepared, I had to see what it was like. So I took the elevator downstairs and walked out into a world completely unlike anything I had yet seen.
I’m more of a mountain guy, to be honest. I grew up in a small town and still gravitate towards small towns. Though I now live in what is undeniably a small city – Boulder, CO – I am right at the edge, near the mountains and the trails which I use every day. When I want something fun to do, my mind gravitates not towards Las Vegas or tropical beaches but to the mountains. The wilder the better, the bigger the better, the fewer people the more attraction. So, knowing this, you can imagine my surprise upon finding myself all of a sudden in the fashion center of one of the largest cities in the world. Overwhelmed is only one of the emotions I felt.
Other emotions I felt were: scared, surprised, a little angry, pretty tired, excited, hungry and curious as to why the hell everybody looked like a freaking maniac.
All around me were lights and noise, bustle and action. The streets were filled with not just regular cars and taxis (all of which, by the way, were driving on the wrong side of the road), but also with massive semi-trucks whose trailers were wrapped in album art for boy- and girl-bands with poorly-translated English names. Radiating from the trailers we said band’s particular brand of noise at top volume. The buildings on either side rose in unbroken sweeps of metal and glass, often draped for several stories with advertisements for fashion companies (imagine a ten-story Lana del Rey). Along the street level flashed blinding lights of all colors. From each storefront boomed tinny pop music. Neon signs lit up and blacked out, expanding and contracting with an unceasing line of ads and enticements. The higher the neon sign, the larger the neon sign. In the distance flashed Japanese characters forty or fifty feet high.
You know that scene in every movie about Tokyo where a normal intersection is running at its limit with a huge amount of traffic, then every light goes red and the street is completely overwhelmed by thousands of people crossing in all directions? That’s where my hotel was. Right above that intersection. I stood and watched for at least thirty minutes one night with the same fascination I generally reserve for car wrecks or public meltdowns. And what noticed above all was that everybody was dressed like they were in a music video. From the shoes upward, people had on some of the craziest and most diverse outfits I’d ever seen. Bright colors, unexpected skin, heavy makeup and tight could not be tight enough. I stared in awe.
That was only the beginning of the bug-eyed orgy. Every restaurant has phlegm-colored plastic food on display at street level along with a menu. If you wish to eat at that restaurant, you look at the accompanying floor level and take the elevator up. Looking for a department store? They’re everywhere, but whereas in America we have a surplus of land that allows us to expand horizontally, Japanese stores expand vertically. Walk into any outdoor store (as I did many times while touring the city in the following days with the local Montrail/Mountain Hardwear representatives), and you can look at shoes on the first floor, backpacks on the second, climbing gear on the third, skis on the fourth and so on up to the seventh or eighth floor. If the intersections seem packed, get used to it. The population density is incredible.
Buy any food item in a convenience store and it will come wrapped in three layers of plastic with a plastic tray. And buy two, for that matter, since Japanese portions are sadly inferior to American sizes. And for those in need of electronics, you have come to the right place. The electronics stores in Shibuya are massive and always full of bright lights, helpful staff and eager consumers. Though the prices aren’t much better than in America, they do have the benefit of appearing insanely huge before you convert the number to dollars. To give you an example, a camera that costs 29,000 Yen is actually a more reasonable $300. So you’re like, “holy shit! Twenty-nine thousand Yen!” and then you’re like, “Oh, three hundred bucks. Whatever.” And then you buy a camera and take a bunch of pictures.
The reason I was in Japan last year was the same reason I’m going this year. It’s called the Hasetsune Cup (Ha-set-sue-nay) and it’s one of the biggest trail races in Japan. Here is some more information about the race that will totally bust your gourd:
- The name “Hasetsune” is a shortening of the name “Tsuneo Hasegawa”. Tsuneo Hasegawa was a well-known Japanese mountaineer renowned for his dedication to long, self-supported adventures in challenging places. He died doing on one of said adventures, and his friends decided to start a race in his honor.
- The race is 71.5 kilometers long, which cruises in at a cool 44-ish miles
- It starts at 1:00 pm, which means that every runner has to run for a while in the dark. The cutoff is 24 hours, which should give you an idea of how challenging the race is.
- Looking for aid? You came to the wrong place. Hasetsune has a total of one aid station(s), and at said station you are only permitted a maximum of 1.5 liters of water.
- The race is really hard. It reportedly has over 6,000 meters of elevation change, but I think that means it has 3,000 meters of up and the 3,000 meters of down. That’s still a huge amount of climbing and descent, and it all comes in agonizingly short bursts. Straight up for two hundred feet, straight down for one hundred. This zig-zag pattern denies any recovery or rest and steadily builds up to a major peak, then proceeds in a similar manner down the other side. There are three peaks in total, and they all hurt.
- More than two thousand people run every year.
- The race is technically within the city limits of Tokyo, though it’s about a two-hour drive from where I was staying in the city.
The primary sponsor of the Hasetsune Cup is Montrail, hence my presence and shameless promotional activities. What you may not know about Montrail is they do really well in Japan, so they are able to roll out extra colors and features that aren’t seen in the States. In fact, last year I was surprised to find another entire Montrail shoe that is only sold in Japan and South Korea. This year I will be running in a special Hasetsune version of the Bajada, with coloring around the outsole that mimics the view of the lights of Tokyo from the top of the third peak on the Hasetsune course. This goes to show how far out of their way they are going for me. I have a relatively big foot in America (size 11), but in Japan the sample size is even smaller. In a country where I look over the heads of most people while walking in the city, building a shoe to my size before it is on the market is a significant effort. So, if anybody who works for Montrail in Japan is reading this, thanks guys. You rock. I love my my shiny shoes.
The race was a wild adventure. I was asked to give a short speech just before the start, but they were running behind schedule. I still gave my speech, but upon stepping down from the podium the gun went off and I wasn’t even in the starting corral. I had to run down the line, leap the barriers and dodge several hundred people before I reached the front. After that things went about as smoothly as they can go when you’re running at your anaerobic threshold up a mountain. I huffed and puffed along as well as I could and took a long time to get into rhythm. Soon enough I found myself running alone through the woods.
The course had an air of mystery. We ran all day and night through damp forests, carefully stepping between the many roots and rocks. The clouds hung low in a dense fog which dampened the sounds of the birds and wind, making them seem far away and sad. I hiked uphill and ran downhill through a serene land of hills and water, wood and vines. The peace and tranquillity seemed distinctly Japanese. The mountain forests felt like the ancient stronghold of a deeply spiritual people. I felt a calm respect for the generations of people who had walked these hills before me, and an overwhelming gratitude for the opportunity to walk them myself.
I raced hard too. By the top of the first major peak I had run through the two liters of water with which I had begun the race, and was forced to run more than ten kilometers farther without water. At the one aid station I filled up my bladder, but with eighteen kilometers to go (more than ten miles) it was empty again. At that point I was winning, but this was late in the race, when whatever is left to go wrong doubtless will. I was getting tired and felt an incredible unquenchable thirst. With so far yet to go I kept looking behind me for the approach of the competition.
Running in the dark down the third peak I suddenly realized I was running next to a rushing stream. Not being able to see any of my surroundings, having no idea from where this water came, I quickly waded in and drank my fill. Drinking again five seconds later I kept repeating in my head, “I’m totally getting Giardia right now. I’m totally getting Giardia right now.” But I knew that I could not finish the race with any efficiency if I did not drink that water. So I went for it, Giardia be damned.
The rest of the race passed quickly. The trail leveled out and became smoother, and I ran fast along the contours of the mountains in the dark, steadily descending back into the town. As I reached the paved roads half a kilometer from the finish I took a wrong turn and wasted a desperate two minutes wandering around looking for the right way. But when I found it and ran in to the finish it was all worth it. I had won the race, even set a new course record.
I was warmly received by the race’s spectators. This reception continued for several days after the race. Everyone was happy for me and wanted to hear all about how the race went. I spent the rest of my trip smiling and bowing obsequiously to or with various people at various events. I left a hero, determined not to return ever. With all the positive press I had received, I didn’t want to risk ruining my good name.
But I couldn’t help myself. In August I got the email from Mountain Hardwear: “I know you’re not planning on running Hasetsune again, but you should really think about it.” I could have said no, and at first I meant to. But the idea brought back so many positive memores that by the end of the day I was already making plans for the trip. Like it or not, Japan has a hold on my heart.
Since arriving this year I have spent most of my time on the following:
- Trying to stay awake when it matters
- Being wide awake at 4:30 in the morning
- Fighting with the morality of eating at the Krispy Kreme right outside my hotel’s lobby
- Being confused about the park system. One park is only open between 9:00 and 4:00, while another has a shrine on one end that doesn’t allow running. I have to walk (on the road through the shrine; the road with cars) or they’ll blow a whistle at me. However, you are allowed to run on the other side of the shrine. But where that delineation stands still eludes me.
I have also spent some time productively. The Japan Montrail/Mountain Hardwear team has connected me with local writers for lots of interviews, and I spent the last two afternoons being herded around the city for appearances at stores. This is actually pretty cool, because I get to see the city better than I would otherwise. Though the public transit system in Tokyo is apparently one of the best in the world, there is no way in hell I would be able to navigate it without the help of someone who can understand Japanese characters. The Japanese team provides that in the form of Tomonori, Yohei, Miyuki, Yuji and Hidei, so I have nothing to complain about. I have seen Tokyo.
That means the time has come to see somewhere else. This afternoon we are quitting the city and heading out to the town that hosts Hasetsune, two hours away. The race begins tomorrow at 1:00 pm, and the pressure is mounting. I don’t have anything to do between now and then, which means I’ll be able to complete my pre-race tradition of walking around nervously and sweating a lot. I’ll post an update after the race. But until then – arigato gozaimas! Sayonara.