I often find the best way to get to know a new city is to shun the guided tours, skip public transportation and venture out on foot. There’s really nothing quite like walking aimlessly through an unfamiliar locale, snapping photos, absorbing and just getting lost in cultural discovery. Well, actually there is something similar — speeding up the stroll by lacing up the Nikes and running through a new locale, but I didn’t always think this way.
I’m lucky enough to travel the U.S. frequently for work, and fitting in a workout is essential to keep from getting doughy while maintaining sanity. If desperate, I’ll contemptuously hit the “go” button on a hotel dreadmill and attempt to make the static miles fun by pretending a puma is chasing me. You should definitely try this next time you’re bored on a dreadmill – really sell it, too. Frantically look over your shoulder every once in a while and just yell.
But even the predator game gets boring the third or fourth time you get kicked out of the gym, which is why it’s so much more fulfilling heading outdoors. I’ve run some amazing spots in this country: the reservoir in Central Park in NYC; the Rockies in Winter Park, Colo.; through the temperate rainforests of Oregon; and even some really unassuming places like LaCrosse, Wisc., where I ran over the I-35W Bridge toward the Minnesota border and ended up running along the calm, sandy beaches of the ol’ Mississip’. Did you know there were beaches in Minnesota?
I travel a lot internationally as well but never took the running shoes until recently. This is embarrassing; I was afraid to run in foreign places at first.
Why? Not exactly sure where the trepidations came from – perhaps harboring insecurities about my gangly gait being culturally offensive, or being fearful of getting sniped by the KGB in Red Square (I really was), but international running only started for me in 2013. Sure, I’ve done some Alpine hikes in Interlaken, Switzerland, a run toward the ocean en la playa in Tulum, Mexico, and sprinted to a restaurant in Reykjavik (so as to not freeze), but I never really ran outside. So I threw caution to the wind and started with Japan.
Tokyo is not the most conducive city for running. I eased into it by timidly jogging near my hotel in Akasaka district, in Monato, a lovely residential area of Tokyo dotted with shrines and affluent shopping (read: a McLaren dealership). This wasn’t the crowded insanity of Shibuya shopping district, but still busy, and I ended up finding a wide-enough sidewalk circumnavigating the border of a walled two-mile loop.
On the northeast end, I found the wall opens to an intricate, white gate protecting the stunning Akasaka Palace, which houses visiting dignitaries. Unfortunately, I couldn’t actually enter the palace grounds but was still able to take in the perfectly juxtaposed rush and hush of Japan on one street corner, and I high-fived the palace guard.
In Kyoto, a few days later, I laced up again and followed the gorgeous cherry-blossomed path along the Kamo River north toward the Higashiyama Mountain Range. Wooden pavilion residences and businesses face the river as they have for hundreds of years. I waved to smiling fishermen, who had a pretty sweet hut set up under a bridge, and watched as little kids crossed the river hand-in-hand via stepping stones. Fellow runners and walkers smiled and gave quick nods the whole way up to where the Kamo splits. I turned around at this point, basking in the other side of the Kamo, but gave a quick glance to the east, toward Mount Hiei, where, as author John Stevens chronicled, “Marathon Monks” ran a loop of up to 52 miles a day for 100 days straight to find enlightenment – 52 miles!
Tokyo and Kyoto were an amazing start to boosting foreign running confidence, but my favorite run in Japan was the Mt. Misen trail on Miyajima (Shrine Island). A quick ferry ride from the mainland, Miyajima is a popular spot for locals and tourists alike. Most visitors take the gondola lift up the 1,755-foot peak, leaving trails empty and quiet.
I took the dirt path preceding the trailhead, past an ornate pavilion with paper lanterns strung in the trees, and weaved next to a large temple compound where the uphill climb starts, consisting mostly of rock-carved stairs. Little shrines cheered me along the difficult ascent through the ancient Misen forest, with flashes of the stunning Hiroshima Bay through the natural serenity of the landscape.
I ran out of daylight (and energy) three-quarters of the way up, and while I didn’t make it to the summit, what happened in the failed attempt was a full meld of my passion for travel and running. I may not have run 52 miles like the Marathon Monks, but I found my own enlightenment, my own peace in running a very unfamiliar land. From the hyper-pulse of Tokyo, to serene Kyoto, to the ancient wilderness of Mount Misen, I ran Japan. •