Oise-san Marathon: A Local Race Through the Best of Mie Prefecture
Ok, so to be honest, I had no flippin’ idea where Ise is even located. Geography is not my strong suit and I’m a lazy millenial. So for months, I would glance through the gorgeous photos of men and women running (captured in various states of half-marathon distress) through a road lined by trees and traditional Japanese buildings. Though just an image on my laptop, the street evoked within me a sense of nostalgia for a Japan of the past (from before I was born) and a spirit of “wa“, or a unique Japan-ness not easily found in the city.
With the leaves turning in early December, I had a feeling the race route would be beautiful, if not stunning. I looked forward to visiting the city, if only for less than 24 hours (it was for work after all). Lo and behold, the Ise Marathon 2017 took place on a pleasant winter day with nary a cloud in the blue skies. Prime running conditions. It was most definitely worth writing home about.
Let's Go to Ise
Located in the eastern coast of Mie Prefecture, the city of Ise is often grouped together with neighboring city, Shima. Though comparably less well-known to other famed locations dotting Japan, e.g. Kyoto, Hiroshima, or Nagano, Ise has increasingly drawn attention and tourists since hosting the G7 Summit in May 2016. Easily accessible from Osaka, Kyoto, and Nagoya, Ise is a perfect long weekend getaway for those seeking a more restorative and tranquil experience in Japan.
The Ise-Shima region is well-known for its religious roots, historical significance, and natural beauty. Of course, we’re talking about the Japanese here and the region is also very popular among foodies for its abundant harvests from both land and sea. Among the Shinto faithful, Ise is a holy city revered as the home of Ise Jingu (Ise Grand Shrine), the most sacred Shinto shrine in Japan. Dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu, Ise Jingu is an especially popular destination for tourists.
It's a Breeze
Japan is famous for many things, and if you’ve ever spent even just a day here, you’ll notice that the Japanese have a habit of being meticulously organized and hyper-conscious about timeliness. The Ise Marathon was no exception, making the entire race day process smooth for every participant. The last thing you want to deal with before a race is stress!
Unless driving, Sun Arena is not easily accessible to the public. However, event shuttles were deployed from a number of convenient public transport locations. Moreover, the buses ran with enough frequency for everyone to arrive with enough time to grab their race packets from the Samurai Sports staff at the information desk.
The natural flow of the event site meant you would then move directly to the bag check inside the main arena. Bag check items had to fit in a provided teeny tiny plastic bag but much to the relief of many runners, it seems the event organizers were willing to bend the rules a little here.
The 5K started before the half marathon in a different but adjacent area outside of Sun Arena. Broadly speaking, the 5K route was the last 5K portion of the half marathon course. The fastest half marathon runners and the slowest 5K participants eventually found each other, but it wasn’t a massive congestion issue by any means.
Upon crossing the finish line, you were given a commemorative towel and more or less ushered back into the Sun Arena. Runners exhibiting various states of exhaustion were welcomed back indoors to the main arena with a warm applause from race staff. At the main arena, you could collect your race timing certificate, personal items from bag check, and a variety of finisher entitlements.
Vintage Scenic Japan
Those running the half marathon will be treated to a run through Oharai-machi dori (street), or 800 meters of stone-paved pathway reminiscent of a traditional Japanese townscape leading to the naiku entrance. Visitors can also stroll through the adjacent Okage Yokocho, a beautiful recreation of an Ed0-period Japanese marketplace. Rustic shopfronts and eateries serving Ise specialties line the streets and during the race, local residents will stand by to enthusiastically cheer runners on. Much of the run admittedly takes part on local roads and highways; however, the blue skies, crisp air, and the mountainous woods in the distance make for pleasant views throughout the 21 kilometers.
Though access to Ise Jingu was once restricted to the Imperial family and high society aristocrats, it’s now open to the public and definitely worth a visit. If you find yourself in Ise, it would be silly not to visit the naiku (inner shrine) and time permitting, the geku (outer shrine). Home to the sun goddess, Amaterasu, the naiku is considered to be the most sacred shrine in Japan; Toyouke, the goddess of food and the harvest resides in the geku. Some parts are admittedly primed for tourists and may even feel a bit kitschy, but the temples are holy grounds and should be treated as such.
Feed Your Post-Run Hanger
Due to its coastal location, Ise is well-known for its fresh seafood; local specialties include oysters, awabi abalone, shark, and Ise ebi (spiny lobster). If you’re looking for carbs and protein, you can opt for hearty meals of Ise udon or the beef from neighboring city, Matsuzaka. If you think Kobe beef is good, you’ll definitely want to try Matsuzaka beef – only 2,500 cows that meet specific (high) standards are slaughtered annually (read a New York Times article about these high maintenance cows here). Those with a sweet tooth may prefer to enjoy Japanese desserts, especially those involving variations of mochi and red bean paste.
From the wee hours of the morning, the open-air parking lot adjacent to Sun Arena were bustling with food vendors setting up their booth. The lower parking lot sold reasonably priced food and drinks, while the upper parking lot hosted sponsor booths that exchanged food, drinks, or sports-related items for a sheet of coupons included with finisher entitlements.
Food options ranged from steamed oysters and grilled awabi, to tekone zushi (sushi rice with marinated slices of tuna) and pipin’ hot bowls of Ise udon. Famished runner or not, it was absolutely enthralling taking a peek at all of the dishes advertised, you could easily spend a half day trying local specialties!
Runners less interested in a meal could opt to “shop” for a broad variety of sponsor samples, which included but were not limited to protein shakes, a hand of bananas, and chicken noodles. The grounds did get congested with time so it may not be for everyone, but we certainly appreciate a solid post-race festival and in this aspect, the Ise Marathon truly delivers.
A Run to Remember
The Ise Half Marathon comes highly recommended for its race course scenery and superb organization. Running through traditional Japanese streets surrounded by stunning autumn foliage is absolutely #peakJapan. Whether you’re there for the sights or the eats, you simply can’t go wrong with the Ise-Shima region.