Take Refuge From the Summer Heat in Akagi's Famed Mountains

written by Rich D. (2018 participant)

If there’s one fact I’ve learned after a decade living in Shikoku, it’s that humidity trumps temperature when it comes to comfort. Unfortunately this year, we’ve experienced uncanny highs in both, making it the most hellish summer I’ve ever experienced.

Coveting whatever vacation days I have left, I worked all summer, enduring the heat by hovering around electric fans and making my sweat-glands work overtime, as loads upon loads of laundry can attest to.

Needless to say I jumped at the prospect of escaping Shikoku for a weekend and the Akagi Trail Run in Gunma Prefecture presented the perfect chance.

The Plan

“Why Gunma? But Gunma is so hot!” my coworkers warned.

But I ran all summer, even in the mind-frying afternoons, acclimating myself to the heat and humidity. Furthermore, I refused to worry about what was beyond my control.

Instead, I focused on preparation like getting extra sleep, drinking enough liquids, lathering myself in sunblock and adorning a hat, sunglasses and light breathable clothing.

Trail race race briefing in Japan
A view from the back of the start. Gloves, hat, pack, water-bottle, sunglasses all recommended.

Besides, Gunma couldn’t be any worse than Tokushima, could it?

Crowds at trail race
The race started out crowded, but still, the wide trail made running easy.

Exactly Where Is It?

Rather than the heat, getting to the actual race concerned me. The race’s location, nestled around Numata Town and Showa Village, lay a ways away from Tokyo’s Haneda airport, where I’d be flying into.

After jumping from diesel train to a bus to plane to monorail to electric train to bullettrain, I finally boarded the final leg of my trip from Takasaki to Numata. Thank goodness for the shinkansen, I can’t sing their praises enough. Sure it was pricey, but it was worth every yen because it offered easy boarding, roomy, comfy seating, and most important of all, it significantly cut my travel time from Tokyo Station to Takasaki (about 60min).

When I finally arrived at Numata station (沼田駅- about 50min), I sought a cheap way to Akagi Rin Gakuen (赤城林間学園), the race’s mountain venue. Asking and searching around the station provided no answers. With a heavy heart and light wallet, I settled on taking a taxi.

With a few hours until hotel check-in, I headed to Numata’s historic castle area. There I lucked upon Numata’s tourist center and asked about ways to Akagi Rin Gakuen. As usual, Japan’s customer service proved beyond compare, the clerks looked up bus information, pulled out maps from here and there and informed me of the bus times and bus stop locations.

Hit The Trails

Trail runners in Akagi forest
A few kilometers in and the pack has already thinned. Notice the soft, groomed trail.

Early the next morning I boarded an empty bus at a random bus stop on a random street at a random time. Two other runners, decked out in obvious gear assured me I was on the right bus. Within 20 minutes we arrived.

The second of two morning trips, the 8:40 bus just made the start with enough time to change and check my baggage. Although I was still undecided about getting back, with the race about to start, I’d worry about that later.

Once the megaphone chirped, the elderly man holding it taking sadistic joy from everyone cowering from the ear-splitting sound, runners funneled into the trailhead. The race was on! As a long time road-racer dipping my toe into the trail scene, I absolutely loved this event. The wide, groomed trail presented a safe, soft, runnable route. A felicitous balance of ups and downs sapped my legs on the climbs and sent me flying on the descents. Perfectly placed aid stations offered water, wheat tea and (one) even had watermelon. However, the required 500ml water bottle rendered aid unnecessary, at least for the 15km (it was closer to 13km) course I ran.

What An Event!

Unlike my coworkers predictions, Gunma proved heavenly; so cool and comfortable that I barely broke a sweat during my time on the trails. Heck, I even ran 9 km back to the nearest train station, with a fully-loaded backpack, sun beaming overhead, roads devoid of any shade and yet I was (nearly) bone dry by the time I arrived.

Accommodations at the start and finish were great. With about 600 participants total, 300 running the 15KM and 300 doing the 30KM, there were enough runners to create a festive atmosphere but Akagi Rin Gakuen didn’t feel overcrowded. Finishers received a race-result printout, a t-shirt full of stylish sponsor logos, shaved ice, an ear of corn, and have access to a nearby facility’s bath. Stalls selling foods like udon, BBQ pork, and BBQ chicken mean you won’t leave on an empty stomach.

Everything about the race was great! Although I want to run again next year, the travel logistics might prevent another trip. Residents in and around Tokyo should have no problem getting to and from the event.

For those of us in the south-west and the north-east, it’s a bit of a haul. Moreover, infrequent local buses and trains makes for tight schedules and time-consuming waits. As such, I recommend anyone traveling from afar take Monday off to leave more time to enjoy the post-race accommodations and leave time for sightseeing before the return trip.

Trail race in Japan
The views along the course vary a bit, keeping things interesting.
Trail runner in Japan
All that uphill lead to a thrilling sprint downhill to the goal, we were flying!

Hopes For A Sequel

However, travel woes aside, I recommend the Akagi Trail Race to all runners. Come for the race, a fun course should satisfy all-comers, trail rookies and vets alike. And stay for the amenities and festive atmosphere. The Akagi Forest Trail Run nurtured my growing appreciation for the trails. Hope to see you in the mountains!

About the Author

Although Rich started as a “casual” runner back in the USA, a move to Japan that coincided with Japan’s marathon-boom awakened the true runner within. Now, the self-proclaimed running otaku’s passion for motivational manga is only surpassed by his quest for interesting and challenging events around Japan; a quest that takes more travel, time and money than he’d like to think about.

Photo of contributing writer, Rich