Ten years ago, trail running was virtually unknown in Japan but, in the last few years, it has become one of the country’s hottest new outdoor sports. Thousands of hydration backpack-toting runners head into mountains on any given weekend, and the race scene has blossomed as well.
One of Japan’s most famous trail running competitions is the Hasegawa Tsuneo Cup Mountain Endurance Race. Now in its 17th year, it is simply known as the “Hasetsune” and is the goal for many a trail runner; the race attracted 2,000 participants in 2008. Runners must tackle a technical 71.5K trail within 24 hours, and it’s here that new trail stars are born. Kenichi Yamamoto burst onto the scene last year when he stunned some of the race favorites with an impressive combination of strength, stamina and speed.
In a country that produces some of the world’s best marathon runners, the concepts of “taikyu” (endurance) and “gaman” (to endure) appeal to the national psyche. And the steep, technical mountain trails of Japan are the perfect arena for athletes to test their strength, mind and spirit.
The lighter side to trail running is also gaining a lot of traction. “Fun running,” as the term suggests, is trail running not for competition, but purely for the fun of it. People who have never laid foot on a trail are stepping off the pavement and discovering the simple pleasure of running in the mountains.
Walkers and hikers are lightening up their loads, picking up their pace and rediscovering the trails. One passionate advocate of fun running is Hiroko Suzuki whose love of the mountains has taken her on (some very long) trails around the world. This “ultra woman” really goes the distance.
Trail running in Japan is going through “growing pains.” Hikers and trail runners sharing the trails have acrimoniously clashed at times and the issue of ecological conservation versus recreational use is still a hotly debated topic. However as more people are attracted to running trails, seminars and clinics are available to teach newbies how to get started.
Like other trends in Japan, new sports have boomed and then quickly faded into the horizon. Is trail running just another short-lived fad or is it here to stay? The answer to this, as any passionate trail runner will tell you, can be found on the trails.
Q4: Kenichi Yamamoto
The Adrenaline Hunter
Kenichi Yamamoto is a young, up-and-coming trail runner who recently blew away the competition to win the prestigious 2008 Hasegawa Tsuneo Cup Mountain Endurance race in an unbelievable time of seven hours, 39 minutes. He’s an intense competitor, but his reason for running in the mountains is not just to race but, as he puts it, to have fun. He loves downhills and speed, and his like-minded “Adrenaline Club” buddies blaze across mountain trails in search of more. He’s young, eager, competitive and fast—meet Japan’s “Adrenaline Hunter.”
How long have you been trail running?
Although I didn’t call it “trail running” at the time, I’ve actually been running in the mountains since high school. That’s about 15 years ago. The first time I ever heard of the word “trail running” was about four or five years ago.
What were you doing running in the mountains as a teenager?
I joined my high school’s mountaineering club, and we used run in the mountains with 15-20 kg. as part of our training program. I really loved the mountains and spent a lot of time up there.
When did you get into trail racing?
A friend with whom I jog in the park told me about a 71.5K mountain endurance race called the “Hasetsune.” It intrigued me, so I signed up for the first time five years ago. I’ve entered the race every year since, except for one year while recovering from a knee injury.
How was your first Hasetsune experience?
Very tough. Until then, the longest race I had run was a 21K half-marathon, so I found the distance to be very, very long. It was really difficult to focus on running. My mind kept wandering to things such as warm baths and beer (laughs).
What did you carry during that first race?
Fifteen onigiri (rice balls). Although I ended up only eating five. I also carried my water in a plastic water bottle used by mountaineers. Every time I wanted water, I had to stop to pull out the bottle from my pack and ended up taking a lot of three-to-five-minute breaks to stop, eat and drink.
So how long did it take you to finish?
It took me more than11 hours to finish. Last year, you won the Hasetsune in a scorching seven hours, 39 minutes. What kind of training did you do? My “training” is usually done at work. I am a Physical Education teacher at a high school, and I’m also an advisor to the school’s Mountaineering Club. As part of their training program, I get the students to put 15-kg. weights in their backpacks and head up to the mountains to run.
Of course, I do the same thing and run along with them. We do this about six times a week. Two or three times a month, my students and I load up our back packs with tents, sleeping bags and all our gear and go hiking across the mountains as well. On my days off, I usually run in the mountains by myself.
That’s a lot of running…what other training do you do?
I take my students bouldering and climbing. We try to squeeze in some road runs as well. We also play soccer matches against the track and field team from time to time for fun. A lot of my training is done at school.
What do you think about while training?
I always aim to be number one. When I train, I like to train hard to be the best I can be. I run as fast as I can through the mountains but have fun doing it. I don’t worry about keeping track of time and really just get out there to enjoy the scenery while running as hard and fast as I can.
I heard you’re also an avid mogul skier. Has this helped your trail running?
Yes. I ski during the winter season and trail run from spring to fall. When skiing moguls, the body needs to absorb the bumps. In order to do this, you need to stay very relaxed. This is the same with trail running. If you can keep your body relaxed, it’s much easier to absorb rocks and roots or whatever. Trail running, like skiing, also requires very quick judgments during high-speed downhill descents.
So you are an adrenaline junkie?
I love running fast downhill. I only like to climb if there is a fantastic descent waiting on the other side.
Did you have a strategy when you are racing?
I don’t have a strategy at all. On the day of the race, I’m completely relaxed. I’ve done all the training I can do and prepared as much as I can. There’s nothing more I can do on race day, so whatever happens, happens. I just go with the flow. I don’t worry about the competitors around me too much. In fact, during the Hasetsune I didn’t even keep track of my time. I’m a slow starter and tend to pick up speed during the latter half of a race. I was surprised when I passed Tsuyoshi Kaburagi (2007 winner) and Minehiro Yokoyama (another past winner) but I didn’t think about it too much. I felt strong and was running well and just kept going at my own pace.
Why do you think you were able to perform so well during last year’s Hasetsune?
I was able to get plenty of rest two weeks before the race. I got eight to 10 hours of sleep a night, ate properly and reduced the amount of training to give my body enough time to rest and prepare.
And what did you carry with you this time? Any rice balls?
No rice balls. This time I had 15 Powergels, Vespa supplements and plain water (真水) in a hydration backpack.
Any goals or races you have planned this year?
My biggest goal this year is the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc race in France. This is my first race abroad, so I’m not sure what to expect. I’m going to prepare the best I can, but my main goal for this race is to make it to the finish line. In Japan, I plan to run in the OSJ Shiga Trail Festival Series in July as well as the Hasetsune in October. My goal is to run as fast as I can, and win.
Best trail moment?
“I was very happy when I won last year’s Hasetsune, but I would say my happiest trail moment was two years ago. I had badly injured my knee the previous year and couldn’t run at all, so completing the Hasetsune was a huge comeback for me. I was just so overjoyed that I could run again and surprised I could make it into the top ranks.”
Worst trail moment?
“The worst trail experience was definitely during the Ontake 100K race. I had decided to enter at the last moment on a whim and didn’t properly prepare. After about 70K, my feet, knees and joints—everything—hurt so badly, I could barely run. On top of that, I had a seriously painful case of “runner’s rash” (chafing). As you can imagine, it was extremely difficult to focus on the race. I still ended up coming in sixth place, but I paid the price.”
Profile: Kenichi Yamamoto
Name: Kenichi Yamamoto (山本健一)
Marital status: Married with a four month-old daughter
Sponsors: Haglofs, Vasque, Oakley, X-Socks
Accomplishments: 1st place, 2008 Hasegawa Tsuneo Cup; 1st place, Japan National Mountaineering Championships
Favorite trail: Kaikomagadake and Kuroto-one (Southern Japan Alps) Other interests: Skiing, surfing, mountaineering, trail running
Secret weapon: Adrenaline
Trail Running Course Guides
Ready to for the hills? Here are two popular courses easily accessible from Tokyo. Both trails are well-marked with route options suitable for beginner trail runners all the way up to advanced trail blazers.
Trail Name: Takao-Jimba Trail
Overview: This trail is famous; so famous it’s included in the 2008 Tokyo Michelin Guide. Mt. Takao is a popular hiking destination and a mere 50 minutes from downtown Tokyo, so it can get very crowded on weekends with families, students, tourists, hikers and other trail runners. Don’t be turned off by this, though; the scenery is awesome, especially during the cherry blossom season, and most of the trails are completely “runable.” Given Japan’s mountainous topography, this can be hard to find. If possible, try to hit the trails on a weekday.
Don’t be turned off by this, though; the scenery is awesome, especially during the cherry blossom season, and most of the trails are completely “runable.” Given Japan’s mountainous topography, this can be hard to find. If possible, try to hit the trails on a weekday.
Details: Start your run at Takaosanguchi Station, the last station along the Keio Line. If you plan on doing the 26K round trip (starting and ending at the station) stash your belongings in the coin lockers located outside the gates. Walk through the small village towards the cable car station. From here, you can take the chairlift or cable car part way up or, if you are a true trail warrior, run all the way up to the top.
There’s a network of routes converging at the peak and, depending on which one you pick, it will take you from an hour to an hour and a half to the top. My personal favorite is Route 6, a peaceful 3.3K track that runs alongside a stream. The peak of Mt. Takao, at 599 meters above sea level, offers fantastic views of the city. There’s a visitor center where you can pick up maps and info about the area as well as stores selling onigiri, snacks and even ice cold beer.
The 9.5K trail from Mt. Takao to Mt. Jimba includes everything from wide dirt paths to a fast single track. There are at least five washroom stops, picnic tables, viewpoints and teahouses (called “chaya”) en route, making it convenient for minimalists wanting to pack ultra-light and buy drinks and food along the way.
The trail takes runners up and over numerous small peaks, great for runners looking for a challenge. Those who wish to bypass the peaks can take the smooth, comfortably flat detours (called makimichi) that wind around the peaks, allowing you to avoid climbing every hill along the way. These single track shortcuts are fun and fast and provide some fantastic trail running.
There are numerous trails that will end up taking you back down the mountain, so be sure to follow the route marked “Jimba” (Look for the words 「陣馬山」on the trail markers). Along the way you’ll pass Ichodaira（一丁平）, Shiroyama （城山）, Kagenobuyama (景信山) and Myououtoge （明王峠）before reaching Jimba’s Great White Horse.
This well known stallion, sitting majestically atop Mt. Jimba, has silently greeted thousands of hikers for more than 50 years and will undoubtedly greet you too as you reach the peak. When you reach the top you can enjoy the wide open, park-like field perfect for a mountain top picnic or an afternoon nap.
There are three teahouse/shops where you can buy food and drinks, as well as washrooms. The panoramic views are beautiful and, on a clear day, you should be able to see Mt. Fuji, Tanzawa, the Southern Alps, Nikko, Enoshima and the towering skyscrapers of downtown Tokyo.
Once you’ve rested, there are many route options for your run back home. The easiest, albeit the longest, is to turn around and run back the way you came. This is a popular option favored by the speedier trail runners. Another option is to head north and run down to Jimba Kogen Shita bus stop（陣馬高原下バス停）. Note the bus comes only once an hour and will take you to JR Takao Station. You can also descend westwards to the Wada bus stop for JR Fujino Station.
My recommendation however, is to head south along the Tochiyaone Ridge. There are steps, single track, switchbacks and, in some sections, steep descents making for an exciting downhill run. At the end of the trail, you’ll hit a paved road. Turn left and go up this road for a few hundred meters and enter a rustic village that has three tiny hot spring inns where you can reward your body after a great run.
Jinya Onsen, at the top of a cliff, is particularly special with large Japanese cedar bathtubs and wide open windows overlooking what I call “the Garden of Eden.” Sit in the hot spring and close your eyes. Listen to the sounds of the chirping birds and babbling brook below. Gaze down into the lush valley. Moments like these make trail running in Japan special.
Getting There: From Shinjuku, take the Keio Line to Takaosanguchi Station. Alternatively, take the Chuo Line to Takao Station, transfer to the Keio Line and get off at Takaosanguchi Station. Travel time is approximately 50 minutes.
Hiking Map: Yama-to-Kogen Map #27 “Takao Jimba”
Topographic Map: Yose, Hachioji
Keio Bus (Jimba Kogen Shita bus stop): http://www1.bus-navi.com
Kanachu Bus (Wada bus stop): www.kanachu.co.jp
Tel: (0426) 87-2363
Tel: (0426) 87-2537
Tel: (0426) 87-2736
Trail Name: Hakone Gairinzan
Overview: Hakone is well known for hot springs, but it’s also become a “hot spot” for trail running. Imagine a massive volcano furiously erupts, spewing red, hot lava in all directions more than 3,000 years ago. As it cools, it leaves a massive caldera and a precious gift to runners—a fantastic trail running course.
The route is referred to as “Gairinzan” (外輪山) and runs along a mountaintop ridge. The trail traces its way around the rim of this ancient caldera, offering astounding 360-degree vistas and postcard perfect views of Mt. Fuji, the Hakone Valley and Lake Ashi below.
Details: Depending on how far you want to run, you can take the bus or train to different trailheads. For the longest route, start right at Hakone Yumoto Station and take the steep trail up to Tounomine (塔ノ峰). To shorten the course, hop on the Hakone Tozan bus and get off at Miyaginobashi Bus Stop （宮城野橋）or Miyaganino Bus Stop（宮城野）and take the trail up towards Myojogadake（明星ヶ岳）. Another short but sweet course that takes you directly to Mount Kintoki starts from Kintoki Trailhead （金時登山口）.
Whichever route you choose, you’ll first have to pay your dues with an hour to an hour and a half of steep climbing up to the ridge. Once you reach the top of the ridge, follow the undulating trail west toward Mt. Kintoki. Some sections are wide, smooth trails with a wall of tall grass growing on both sides. Other sections are single track trails that will make you want to shout and run with glee. After one last climb, you’ll reach the top of Mt. Kintoki. The peak straddles two prefectures (Yamanashi and Kanagawa) with a chaya (teahouse) on both sides. Stop in and order some hot miso soup and sign the guest book to commemorate your ascent. Of course, don’t forget to take a photo with “the ax” and Mt. Fuji in the background.
Once you’ve taken in the fantastic views, head down toward the Kintoki Trailhead where you’ll be able to catch a bus back to Hakone Yumoto Station. Remember to plan some additional time, so you can stop by Hakone’s famous hot springs as well.
Getting There: From Shinjuku, take the Odakyu Line “Romance Car” Express train directly to Hakone Yumoto Station. Alternatively take the Odakyu Line to Odawara Station. From there transfer to the Hakone Tozan Tetsudo Line to Hakone Yumoto Station. Travel time is approximately 85 minutes by “Romance Car” and just under two hours via Odawara.
Route Distances and Times
Route 1: From Hakone Yumoto Station to Kintoki Tozandou Bus Stop.
Time: Hike: 9-10 hours; run: 7-9 hours
Route 2: From Miyaginobashi Bus Stop to Kintoki Tozandou Bus Stop.
Time: Hike: 6-7 hours; run: 4-6 hours
Route 3: Out & Back (to/from Kintoki Tozandou Bus Stop)
Time: Hike: 2-3 hours; run: 1-2 hours
Note: All distances and times are approximate. Actual times vary depending on the individual and the trail conditions.
Best time to go
All year around
Hiking Map: “Yama-to-Kogen,” Map #29: Hakone
Topographic Map: Hakone, Sekimoto, Gotemba (箱根、関本、御殿場)
Hakone Navi: www.hakonenavi.jp
Hakone Tourism Information:
Tel: (0460) 85-5791