The Best (Ultra) Trail Races in Japan:
Up to 160KM
written by Tom (contributing writer)
In my first article in this series I showcased some of the most enjoyable trail races in Japan up to 42km. If you missed it please read about it here.
With this next list we enter into the hallowed ground of ultra-running. At 100km and beyond are some of the most famous races ultra-running in the world, including the Hong Kong 100, Western States, Ultra trail Mont Blanc (UTMB) and perhaps even Ultra Trail Mount Fuji (UTMF)!
This is now the place where most people stop understanding why it is that we actually want to run and hike for over 7 hours at a time; and instead, dismiss it as ‘crazy’. Recenlty ultra-running is now reaching a more mainstream audience. So if like me, running through the mountains forever is your idea of heaven, I’ve rounded up the most iconic, most beautiful, and most challenging ultra races in Japan.
Many of these races are very popular, so be prepared to make any arrangements for accommodation as early as possible. For Japanese nationals, these races will normally sell out immediately, but many of the races below have special entry systems for foreign runners.
Entry for Foreign Runners
Several races have specific entry quotas for foreign nationals, and it’s worth pointing out which do and which do not:
* Please note some of these races have entry requirements which include having run a certain number qualifying races successfully. Check the entry requirements carefully.
The races listed are not only what I consider the best of domestic ultra-trail races - they’re also races I’ve selected as personal ‘benchmarks’ in building up towards becoming a 100-mile finisher. In fact, the only steps I have left are to complete a 100km and/or a 100 mile (160km) race.
FT50K is the race that many trail runners in Japan might use to level up and become a fabled ‘ultra-runner’. Running over 42km on trail is no joke, but the great organisation by Funtrails somewhat decreases this burden for newcomers. Starting and finishing on popular hiking trails, the course is well marked, aid stops are plentiful and the variety of food is great!
Whether you’re too scared (or too wise!) to jump into the deep end of ultra-running, FT50K will provide you with a good introduction and have you coming back for more.
Funtrails Round Hanno also features 100km and 25km categories, as separate events in November. These races are also highly recommended. Due to the constant ups and downs, plus the added challenge of running through the night, the 100km has a notorious reputation for being a hard race.
Distances: 51KM +2,610m | 8KM +220m
Approximate costs: ¥14,500
• One day return from Tokyo (¥2,000) + entry (¥12,500)
Entry Language: English through Runnet Global
Recommendations: First, try the healthy vegetarian food at Alishan (アリサン). Secondly there is also a local onsen nearby called Miyazawa-ko Onsen (宮沢湖温泉 喜楽里別邸), where you can wind down after the race! Both are popular post-race hangout spots for members of Tokyo Trail Running, which has its unofficial ‘home’ in Hanno.
My final and favorite recommendation is the Times Mart, a well-placed convenience store near the race finish selling soft-ice-creams. I recommend taking extra ice-creams back to the finish to treat your friends who can no longer stand post-race.
Izu Trail Journey (ITJ)
Izu Trail Running • December • 72KM • +3,300m
Ok, now we are levelling up into true ultra-runner territory. From 70km and beyond, the amount of time spent on the course increases significantly. You may even need to use the headlight you carry around in your kit (normally for use only in an emergency).
In Japan’s trail running community, ITJ is considered a ‘fast’ and ‘runnable’ course due to its non-technical trails (i.e. flat dirt trails and ‘steps’) and rolling hills. But based on my experience, ITJ felt like an endless procession over at least 5 mountains, so you’ll need to be prepared for a lot of climbing across the day. The winners can finish this race in under 7 hours, but for you and me a time of between 9-14 hours is most likely.
This race haunts my own memories due to my challenging experience of descending down wooden steps made from round logs. This stretch on the route was a nightmare because my feet didn’t fit in between the raised logs, making running on them awkward to say the least.
Recommendations: The start is at a very quiet village port, so just enjoy the beautiful scenery and come well stocked up as limited items are available for purchase at the race expo and the very local konbini (convenience store). Runners finish at a well-known onsen town, but be warned if you finish towards the back of the pack, there may be queues to get in the most famous bathhouses there!
Distances: 72KM +3,300m
Approximate cost: ¥37,500
• Two-day trip from Tokyo (¥7,500+5,000) + race entry (¥20,000) + hotel stay (¥5,000)
Entry Language: Japanese through Sports Entry
While slightly shorter than ITJ, the additional amount of elevation gain means a steeper challenge. I entered the shorter 30km race which allowed me to make the start line by express train on the day of the race. However, after seeing pictures from the 67km race, I regretted having not entered the full distance and staying the night before-hand in order to make the 5am start time.
The race heads up, and I mean straight up, towards Mount Daibosatsu, a hyakumeizan (the 100 most famous Japanese mountains) before running south along a ridge from 2000m down to 1500m.
Due to the significant amount of climbing involved, the Haute Route Challenge is ideal for runners seeking both distance and elevation before stepping up to 100km or 100 mile (160km). At the Koshu Alps 67km race, a finish time between 11 – 14 hours would be impressive.
The best bit about this race? You can use hiking poles (aka cheating sticks!), which are normally banned in other Japanese races.
Recommendations: There are so many beautiful and famous temples in Enzan (Yamanashi Prefecture)! Have a look at Erinji with the crowds of tourists or head up the road to Takahashiyama Hokoji Temple for more solitary pre- or post-race reflection. After the race why not check out the old onsen Hayabusa? Though small, the large ceramic Koi (carp) spitting out water and the maple trees covering the rotenburo (outdoor bath) are beautiful.
Finally, make sure you go out and find a local green-grocer to take home several packets of the cheap locally grown grapes or just eat them all, as I did, while on the train home!
This route is well known by my running club, Tokyo Trail Running, as being one of the most runnable and beautiful ridges in Japan, for its non-technical rolling trails and near constant views of Fuji-san!
Distances: 67KM +4,500m | 53KM +3,250m | 30KM +2,100m
Approximate cost: ¥25,000
• 2 day trip from Tokyo (¥4,000) + entry (¥16,000) + hotel (¥5,000)
Entry Language: Japanese
The godfather of all Japanese ultra running races, Ultra Trail Mount Fuji (UTMF) is modelled on the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB) in Europe.
After running UTMB in the French, Swiss and Italian alps (yes, it covers three countries) the founder (Kaburaki-san) brought back this race concept to Japan and created UTMF – A race of similar distance and climbing while circumnavigating Mount Fuji. In the first few years the UTMF actually did achieve this, but in recent years the course has been changed to run only about 270 degrees around Fuji, and instead winds back through the more beautiful trails in the north-east of the area.
Ultimately, running a 100-mile race is the goal of many ultra runners. Whether Japanese or international athletes from all over the world gather at UTMF, one of the most famous and iconic races of this distance in Japan. However, with approximately 15% of the course taking place on roads (rather than trails), some people have suggested that the race features too much road running.
Unfortunately, this race is also notorious for its bad weather. In its earlier editions UTMF took place in autumn and quickly became victim to typhoons and torrential downpours. One race was discontinued at 40km after the trails turned into rivers. And recently despite becoming a springtime race, the last year’s race was also discontinued when snow started falling at Mount Shakushi. You’ll only survive the elements and finish the race if you come well prepared!
Recommendations: Enjoy the many scenic spots with beautiful views of Fuji in the background – from the five famous lakes, or at shrines such as Arakura Fuji Sengen Jinja. Such sightseeing is recommended before the race; as after running around Mt Fuji for up to 48 hours, you’ll surely have had enough of it for at least a year or so…(perhaps just in time to enter the next edition of the race).
3776d, a hostel run by an energetic and friendly French national does an excellent transport service for UTMF runners staying at his cabin during race weekend. The owner, Jerome, is a high-level trail runner himself and knows exactly what you expect as a participant of UTMF.
Distances: 166KM +7,620m
*Since 2018, UTMF has only offered the full 100-mile distance. Please note you must have a certain amount of previous ITRA certified race finishes, and therefore the sufficient amount of ITRA points to enter.
Approximate cost: ¥76,000
• Two-day trip by Shinkansen (¥10,000) + race entry (¥36,000) + hotel package (¥30,000).
Entry Language: English registration available
Well done if you made it this far through all my recommendations and followed them through! You’re well on your way towards becoming a 100-mile finisher. In Japan, this particular achievement means you will now be introduced to fellow trail-runners as a ‘Hyaku miala-’, enjoy the privilege!
About the Author
A relative newcomer to the trail running scene in Japan, Tom’s love of the mountains has intensified since coming to Japan in 2016. He blends his interests in architecture, photography and running by exploring Japan’s varied mountain trails and remote religious architecture. Some of his most memorable experiences have been getting lost on obscure and unmarked mountain sides, often while leading friends up steep tree-lined slopes in the belief that the actual trail really is ‘just there’.
Since he started running in the UK in 2015 he has gradually progressed from 5KM Parkrun to road marathons, and finally on into ultra running distances up to 70KM. He currently has set his eyes on one day becoming a ‘hyaku maila-’ (the Japanese title for any finisher of a 100-mile race).
Tom is a proud member of Tokyo Trail Running.