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  • Writer's pictureSusie Chan

Running the Nakasendo

I had been to Japan before. Or at least I thought I had. Tokyo twice, once for work and once for Tokyo Marathon. Having explored the capital city I thought I had a real taste of Japan. Now I know different.

This trip would be based around the Nakasendo Way. An ancient trail that runs from Kyoto to Tokyo (then Edo) 355 miles long the route known as “Central Mountain Way” it became an official route to Edo in 1604. It was a journey many ancient Japanese took. It is also the home of he”Ekiden” the Japanese long distance relay race.

I would run along some of the highlights of the route and taking in truly rich and real Japanese Experiences. The journey would be by foot, bike, car, and armed with the easy to use Japan Rail Pass the extremely slick bullet train would help link the journey together. The whole trip had been expertly put together by Go Central Japan and Inside Japan, giving me not a single logistical thing to worry about.

After a comfortable FinnAir flight that took me to the heart of Japan’s Centrair Airport, I spent my first night being hosted by a local runners who took me on a mini 10K run tour of the city sights. It was fuelled by local beer and the best egg sandwich I had ever eaten. I declared that I would try local beer at every available opportunity henceforth in the trip. (to offset the running you see..)

The next day the running was a hop over a runable mountain from Kyoto, and on to the vast and peaceful Lake Biwa. The calm lake was the setting for the next day’s excursion. With a hotel room furnished with a hot bath Onsen on my balcony, my body felt pampered ahead of a 45k bike ride that skirted around the beautiful lake shores ending up at the castle town of Hikone. We then got off the bikes and ran the next segment, picking our way through the linking roads of the Nakasedno. The autumnal scenery framed the day perfectly.

We ran 9 miles into historic historic Sekigahara. I’m a bit of a history buff, and it was here that one of the most historic and the bloodiest samurai battle took place. After a power struggle between clans at 8am on 21st October 1600, thousands of samurai’s fought for power. In just 6 hours 30,000 had been slain resulting in the powerful Tokugawa Shogunate which ruled Japan for the next 260 years. Standing the exact spot that these events happened was a real highlight for me. It’s worth mentioning that I had also dressed as a not very convincing Samurai for the occasion with the added bonus of the local tour guide let off a canon in my honour.

I was by now deep into the Nakasendo. The next day was glorious mountain trail running through postal towns of Nakatsugawa, Magome and Tsumago. The ancient trails easy to follow and well marked, with some challenging steep accents my flat-running legs where not used to! These gorgeous traditional hamlets boast buildings that have been there and unchanged in character for hundreds of years. It was like running back in time. Delicious local food and beer awaited me in the local welcoming Minshuku (Japanese Guest House) where I was staying. This was a world away from the Japan and Tokyo that I had experienced. So peaceful, warm and calm.

The next hike from Tsumago to Matsumoto , a route which offered glorious views of the Kiso Valley. I wish I had run up and over as it surprisingly runnable. I slowly moved towards the larger city of Nagano. It would be here my stop for the night would be Zenkoji Temple. I had never slept in a temple before, and was really not sure what to expect, I had pictured a sombre, perhaps drafty place to sleep. The reality could not have been further from that. Warm welcome, delicate food, local beer and a room that felt traditional but exquisite. In the morning I had a little run tour around town, and was blessed by a Buddhist priest in a fascinating ceremony in the temple. It was such a unique experience, highly recommended.

A trip to the famous Snow Monkeys on the way to my penultimate destination on the Nakasendo. A resort-town called Karuizawa. Famous for its Edwardian Western influenced architecture, great food and being home to John & Yoko Lennon, again this destination was so much more than I expected. It suited the autumnal weather, with waterfalls and breath-taking views at the foot of Mount Asama it’s a real gem only a short bullet train ride from Tokyo. It was here I picked up my running again on the ancient trail.

I was sad to not spend more time in Karuizawa, but the end of the Nakasendo was calling. Namban Rengo, a local run club in Tokyo, were meeting me to run the final 10K. The road was still vaguely recognisable as the Nakasendo in the width, but the traditional buildings had given way to the neon and buzz of Tokyo. It was a huge fun running down toward the bridge with everyone, we neared the Imperial Palace and onto Nihonbashi Bridge. Here, dragons marked the end of my journey and the end point of the Nakasendo

It’s so hard to pick out the highlights, every single day was unique and different to the one before. There are so many sides to Japan. It’s culturally so rich, the scenery stunning, and the people so wonderfully friendly. Every day bought a new surprise, a new experience, a new taste, a vivid view. And the running was nothing short of spectacular. All of these destinations are within very easy reach of the capital. Central Japan, it is nothing short of utterly enchanting.

Thank you to Inside Japan and Go Central Japan for all of the logistics and support. Check them out for bespoke running trips in Japan. AVIAREPS Japan for support and coming along for the miles. Finnair and Centrair Airport for the warm welcome. Hilton Nagoya & the run crew. Lake Biwa Marriot and the Biwa Bike Company. Minshuku Daikichi, all the guides who shared their knowledge, and especially James, Yo, and Ashley.

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