Tuesday, April 17, 2001

TR Japan

4/11 – 4/4/17/01

Koniche wa! (Hello – to set a Japanese mood).

Where to start? This trip started out as an alternative plan to my original desire/plan to go back to Europe, specifically the Balkan region, to complete a few more European countries. Belgrade, Yugoslavia and Bratislava, Slovakia had scheduled marathons in April only one week apart which would allow me to complete two marathons/countries in one trip. But after many frustrating weeks of trying to contact the race director in Belgrade, I finally gave up and started looking for an alternative. The race director in Belgrade finally did contact me about two weeks before the marathon to say that it was on (they weren’t sure because of the turmoil, etc with Milosevic) but it was too late by then to change my plans.

I had already contacted the race director for the Nagano 3rd Commemorative Olympic Marathon and he had been kind enough to make an exception and accept my entry even though the race had reached its cap of 5,000 runners. This race was well organized as the race committee even arranged hotel accommodations for me and sent me a package on how to travel from Tokyo to Nagano, etc. I actually was not too keen on going back to Japan since my previous business trip twenty years ago had been very unpleasant. I had found the Japanese businessmen to be rude, arrogant and downright hostile and I came back with the false opinion that the whole country and all the people were like that!

But I did resolve to try to put that experience in the past and go with an open mind and I am happy to report that this time I came back with a much different and better opinion of Japan and its people. Nicole had also been to Japan on business and had encountered the same attitudes so she was not keen on going with me – especially for a short six-day trip. Although the trip is too long and the 13-hour time difference is a killer, I regret in retrospect that I did not try harder to convince her to accompany me.

Exactly 24 hours after I left our house I entered the lobby of the hotel in Nagano. Boy, that direct 13 ½-hour flight from Dallas to Narita is long and tough – especially in a coach seat! Upon arrival at Narita I had to drag my jet-lagged body through the airport to find the Japan Rail office to trade an Exchange Order for a Japan Rail Pass. I had learned that a first class return rail ticket from Narita to Nagano cost $200 whereas a one-week Rail Pass cost $240. And a Rail Pass provided unlimited first class rail travel anywhere in Japan for one week. But it can only be purchased outside of Japan BEFORE you leave on your trip. Anyways I found the office and picked up my Rail Pass as well as reserved seats on the Narita Express into Tokyo and the Shinkansen (Bullet train) from Tokyo to Nagano. 2 ½ hours later I was in Nagano. The Japanese rail system is very modern and efficient. The Express and Shikansen are easy to use but the other trains are much more difficult (more on this subject later).
After checking into the hotel conveniently located across from the train station and in the center of downtown Nagano (much like a European city) I decided to grab a light dinner and hit the sack since I had only two hours sleep in the 24 hour trip. I quickly discovered that very little English is used or spoken in the small cities and rural areas of Japan. None of the restaurants have bilingual or English menus and very few service/support staff speaks English. All written communications is in Japanese Kanji and Kana. And there was no way that I could make any sense or interpretation of those symbols! Fortunately many restaurants have ‘plastic’ meals displayed in the window and/or pictures in the menu so I could just point to my desired meal. There were many occasions where I had to accompany a server out to the front of the restaurant to point at my meal. The Japanese eat a lot of noodles and rice in addition to all kinds of really strange stuff. I stuck to noodles and rice and ate quite well!

After an unfruitful night of trying to sleep (remember it is now 8am my time and my body thinks it is time to get up) I dragged my tired body down to look at the breakfast buffet. Marinated fish and eel accompanied with strange kinds of seaweed did not appeal to me for breakfast (for $15) and I was glad that I had refused the breakfast option! I wandered a few blocks from the hotel until I found a ‘Mr. Donut’ that served me a delicious cinnamon roll and coffee for $4! The following mornings I ate a ‘sausage/egg McMuffin’ at McDonalds – damn, those taste good compared to marinated eel! Now that I was fortified it was time to explore the city. Off to the tourist office at the train station. Fortunately one person speaks English and gives me the one (and only) English brochure. She advises me that there is only one city tour – in Japanese! So I decide to use the brochure and a map to do my own walking tour of the city.
I also decide that I can do my city tour in one day and that I should tour around Japan the following day (day before the race) so I go to the rail ticket office and make reservations to do a loop over to the west coast of Japan to dip my toes in the Sea of Japan. Now I am ready for the tour.

Nagano is a small compact city, population 360,000, located nearly in the center of Japan. It is nestled in a valley with two rivers, the Sai and Chikuma flowing through it and completely surrounded by mountains. The city is about 1500 feet in elevation and the highest mountain is approximately 9,000 feet. The city has many cherry trees that were in full bloom with canopies of red, pink and white blossoms. With the snow-capped mountains as a backdrop it was very pretty. The main tourist attraction is the Zenkoji Temple, a 1400 year-old Buddhist Temple. It is considered a shrine by many Buddhists who make pilgrimages to the temple. The temple is built into the foothills of the mountains and is quite impressive.
I also visited a covered market area that is the old market center of the city. The other main attractions are the Olympic venues that are spread throughout the city. But they are in the suburbs and I knew that the marathon course ran past most of them. So I decided to walk over to the race HQ to pick up my race packet and see what was happening. I just happened to be talking to a race volunteer when the race director walked by and informed me that he was going to make a final inspection of the course and invited me to go along. So the race director, two officials, the volunteer/guide/interpreter and I made a tour in our own private Greyhound bus! Along the way they pointed out many highlights of the city and race course and provided me with little details about the city and race such as:
Nagano city and prefecture (province/state- there are 48) is a major agriculture region of Japan - #1 for apricots and #2 for apples.
Nagano is a sister city of Clearwater, FL.
The marathon had 5167 registered entries –of those only 35 were foreigners.
Of those 35 – 12 were invited runners from Africa and East Europe
- only 14 were Caucasian
And they of course pointed out and explained the use of the various Olympic venues as we passed them along the course: the Olympic Torch Platform at the start in Yamanouchi Town, the M-Wave (speed skating), the White Ring (figure skating), and the Olympic Stadium where the race finished (now a baseball stadium).
They were very proud of their city and eager to show it to me with true hospitality and friendliness.

The next day was my tour by train through the mountains to the Sea of Japan. This turned out to be a bit of a challenge as well as adventure. The challenge was the train system. I had decided to take local trains on the out leg to see more of the country. But the local trains do no require nor accept a reservation – I was supposed to just get on the train and show my rail pass. Where is the challenge you say? Finding the damn train. The Japanese rail schedules are printed in Japanese e.g. Kanji. The destinations, everything –except the departure and arrival times are unreadable by gaijing like me. Likewise for the display boards in the train stations! Fortunately the ticket agent had given me the departure times of all my connections and the English name of my destinations. When it was time to make a transfer/ connection I would rush off the train and look for a departure time that matched my schedule and then rush to that track to see if it was the correct train. I could only verify that by looking at the specific rail cars that carried bilingual names for the destination! After a few hectic changes I got the hang of it and had no problems. We passed over and through the Japanese Alps that still had lots of snow and ski resorts still operating. Then it was down to Naoetsu located on the Sea of Japan and along the Nanaura coast to the city of Niigata. The Nanaura coast reminds me of the California coast south of San Francisco – rugged and very scenic.

Niigata, the City of Water, is a port city located on the Sea of Japan and has three rivers flowing through it: the Agano, the Nakanokuchi and the longest river in Japan – the Shinano. A historical tidbit: Niigata was designated one of the five treaty ports to conduct trade with the outside world when Japan signed the Japan-USA treaty of Amity and Commerce in 1858 that reopened Japan to trade after 230 years of self-imposed seclusion. Unfortunately I only had about two hours in the city to enjoy lunch and walk to the Bandai Bridge that is the symbol of the city. But there appeared to be lots of touristy and interesting attractions to see in Niigata.
Now it was time to catch a Shinkansen almost back to Tokyo before transferring in Takasaki to another Shinkansen to Nagano. Took 4 ½ hours by local train and 2 ½ hours by Shinkansen but I did see a lot of beautiful country in that region of Japan. And I did come up with a mystery that I was not able to solve. Other than a few ancient temples and castles I did not see a building or home older that say 40 years old during all my travels across the country? Japan is centuries old –what happened to the old buildings? My hypothesis: the old buildings were constructed of wood and tin and not meant to last long? If you have a better/correct answer, please let me know?

After arriving back in Nagano I made my way to a restaurant that advertised itself as a ‘western restaurant’ serving Italian food – only to find that the menu had no English, no pictures and nobody could speak English. So plan B – go to a Japanese restaurant with picture menus and order noodles for my pre-race dinner!

Sunday! Finally it is M- Day! They bus the runners from the train station to Yamanouchi Town. They seed all the foreigners (the remaining 23 excluding the elite runners) in the top 500 so we are close to the start line and watch the elite runners going through their warm-ups and sprints as they prepare for the 9:05am start. The start line is in front of the Olympic Torch Platform with snow-capped mountains in the background. It is sunny, 50 degrees with a slight breeze – perfect race weather! The start is at 2500 feet elevation and the course drops 1000 feet over the first five miles so I caution myself to ‘take it easy’! A gun booms and we are off! All reminders, strategies, etc are forgotten as the pack screams down the mountain and everyone is sucked up with the crowd!
Before I know it, I am passing the 5-mile (8K) marker in 36 minutes –way too fast! I force myself to slow down and by 10K am running a smooth and easy 7:48/mile pace. I continue this pace and cruise through the half in 1:40 and change – the fastest 1st Half that I have run in the past six years! I still feel good so decide to hold the pace to see if I can break 3:25? There is lots of crowd support all along the course as we run through apple orchards along the Chikuma River. There are even bands –those tom-tom drums or whatever they are called - all along the course. About 25K we enter the suburbs and start passing the Olympic sites and the crowds get heavy. And so do my legs! At 32K (20miles) I do a ‘gut check’. I am still on a 3:25 pace but feel/know that if I hold my current pace I will probably hit the wall or crash in the final 10K. So I wisely (?) decide to slow down and use the five-minute cushion to cruise in under 3:30. But it is too late! By mile 21 the temperature is almost 70 degrees and my legs are really heavy and I am struggling to run a 9-minute pace. It gets worse! By mile 23 my legs are hurting and I have to suck it up and ignore the pain to run an agonizingly slow 9:30 pace. My 5-minute cushion is disappearing quickly and there is not a damn thing that I can do about it! As we approach the Olympic stadium I am able to pick it up a little and struggle across the finish line inside the stadium in 3:32. I am very disappointed and upset with both my performance and time!
In retrospect I had decided to push my body to the limit and not leave anything on the course. But that is such a fine line and when you cross or exceed it there is no going back - you have to live with the painful consequences! But I promised myself to run a much smarter race in my next marathon!

After a long, unpleasant bus ride back to the train station and a long HOT bath, I decided to check out the ‘Farewell Party’ being offered by the marathon committee. It turned out to be a very nice affair. They had lots of food –different types of Japanese hors d’oeurves and lots of booze – all free! The elite athletes were there and I was very impressed at how great the elite women looked all dressed up in designer clothes? I shared a table with several local Japanese runners who religiously followed their custom of pouring their guests drinks and then toasting them or any other reason to drink. And a glass is never allowed to be empty – they immediately fill it up and then propose another toast. I had to leave after a few hours while I was still able to walk.
Normally I like to feast on red meat, a la steak or roast beef after a race. Luckily I had found an international hotel that advertised ‘Canada Beef’ and staggered over to that hotel. A ‘sissy cut’ (8 oz portion) of roast beef cost $30 but fortunately I had eaten a lot of shrimp, raw horsemeat, fish, etc at the party so I was able to get by with just one portion. Otherwise I would have had to order two and probably three meals. And since beer was $7/glass I figured that I saved about $70 to $100 in booze at the party too!

Now it was time for bed and to get ready to leave Nagano for the next leg of my adventure. Since I still had two days to go before catching my 6pm flight on Tuesday, I decided to use my Rail Pass and check out Mt Fuji. The following morning after another delicious breakfast of sausage/egg McMuffin I caught a ‘Limited Express’ train to Otsuki where I had to transfer (and pay for) a private train to Lake Kawaguchi located at the base of Mt Fuji. Mt Fuji is a very impressive and majestic mountain. It is a volcanic mountain that sits all by itself and is surrounded by five lakes at its base. The lakes are at 2500 feet elevation and Mt Fuji has a 9,000 feet vertical from there! There are 10 ‘steps’ or ‘stations’ for climbing the mountain. Brochures state that it can be climbed in six hours and descended in 3 hours. The prime climbing/hiking season is July and August.
This time of the year is very scenic and spectacular however as the village is covered in a canopy of cherry blossoms with a backdrop of majestic Mt Fuji still half-covered in snow! I cheated and took a bus to the 5th step which is as far as the road goes and started to hike from there towards the 6th step. But after a mile of slipping and sloshing through wet, slippery snow with only running shoes and a paper running jacket, I decided that I had all the fun and adventure I could stand. So I retreated to the warmth of a bar at the 5th station to drink Kirin while waiting for a bus to take me back down the mountain.
I found a great 1st class hotel built into the hills overlooking Lake Kawaguchi and Mt Fuji and explored the village. I strolled around the lake at sunset and was offered the views of a lifetime. As the sun set to the west of Mt Fuji the cherry blossoms and lake were brightly lit in a red glow as the sun reflected off the snow of MT Fuji in the background. It was truly one of those special moments when you realize how fortunate you are to be able to enjoy them!

The next morning I got up early to do a very pleasant and enjoyable 7-mile run along the lake as I watched the sun rise over the lake and mountain. Now it was time to begin the journey home. But this had been a remarkable and totally different trip from my previous one. I had enjoyed every minute of it (well maybe not the last 60 minutes of the marathon) and had found Japan to be very beautiful and the people very friendly and hospitable.
My recommendation is to spend an obligatory day or two in Tokyo but then escape to the villages and towns in the country to see and enjoy the real Japan!

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