Two female trail runners at Mt. Mitake
Two male trail runners warming up
Two female trail runners smiling

Up, Down, All Around:

Racing Mt. Mitake

Trail runners running in Japan
Two male runners posing after a trail race
Trail runners chatting
After a mild autumn, the bone-chilling temperatures of winter had finally begun settling in Tokyo. In the early morning on December 9, 2018, hundreds of runners milled about at the Takimoto station parking lot awaiting the start of the Mt. Mitake Trail Race

Amidst the hordes, Rich warmed up – clinging to his layers before reluctantly shedding them and depositing them at bag check. Meanwhile, Faith walked around greeting both new and familiar faces.

Both of us were there for the race, just with different intentions. Read about the Mt. Mitake Trail Race from two different perspectives: the runner and the spectator.

Runners walking steep hill
Switchbacks in Japan's woods

the runner

If you’re a runner that loves surprises, then stop reading, enter the next Mitake Trail Run and run it sans research. 

But if you like to be prepared, hit the trails, hit the hills, and hit your local staircases in preparation. Just make sure to run them both up and down. In fact, focus on the declines. 

Sure, when I registered, I knew challenging mountain sides and staircases awaited me on Mount Mitake, but I failed to consider the downhills which were steep, steeper, then STEEP. 

As I traversed Mitake’s natural obstacle course, using the term “run” would be an exaggeration, I second guessed my decision to run it. Winter marathon season awaited me.

Just one wrong step could injure me and doom those plans. With countless trail hazards aiming to trip me up, and kilometers remaining, the stakes were high and the odds felt stacked against me.

Although fear struck my running soul, I sharpened my focus and spiked each step with a shot of precaution.

Just when I grew to detest the quad and calf sapping climbs, the course terrain flipped. But in the face of earthy, rock-littered, root-strewn downhill drops, I found myself yearning for the climbs I had been cursing moments before.

As I calculated each footstep, seasoned trail runners left me behind in their rock-crusted dust. When they passed, I noted their expert foot placement, deer-like bounding and, above all, their unflinching courage.

Once I emerged from the woods, a long staircase greeted me. I never thought I’d be happy to see steps on a racecourse. But after the previous trails, I welcomed the sturdy concrete footing.

At the top, I crossed the finish line to Musashi Shrine, uninjured and swelling with satisfaction. With only a handful of trail races under my belt, Mitake’s course proved a formidable challenge.

Although I’m still a far cry from the mountain goats that galloped past me, Mount Mitake signaled a new level in my trail running career.

After claiming a cool, long sleeve finishers tee, I wandered around the narrow mountain roads until I found my baggage at a nearby onsen.

While we raced, trucks dropped off our luggage at one of several charismatic mountain bathhouses. Tired runners could warm up, soak their bones, change into fresh clothes, and even buy a meal. 

Trail runners at start line
Trail runners on the Mt. Mitake trail
Despite easy access from Tokyo, Mt. Mitake retains a remote mountain village vibe. I would recommend joining the race and spending a night at a local shokubo. Similar to a ryokan, the quaint lodgings often feature local cuisine and offer visitors a quintessential, “once upon a time in Japan” experience.

the spectator

Bus to Mt. Mitake trail race
Bus service is normally sparse but additional buses were made available for the race.

At 0445, I crawled out of bed and shimmied into the layers of clothes I had meticulously laid out just a few hours earlier. I would not be  running and up in the mountains of west Tokyo, it was bound to be a few degrees colder than the city.

I arrived at Tachikawa an hour later then boarded the Ome Line towards Oku-Tama. You had to be careful which carriage you rode since only part of the train would stop at Mitake – the other part would split off earlier at Ome station.

From Mitake station, it was a quick walk to board the public bus (read: not free of charge) that would take us to Takimoto cable car station. Normally, bus service is sparse but additional buses were made available for the race. The parking lot at Takimoto station hosted the start area but many runners opted to stake out a position at the start line under the torii and adjacent to the cable car tracks.

After the race, runners could use their bibs as a one-way return ticket from the Mitakesan cable car station back down to Takimoto station. However, spectators like myself paid ¥590 each way. 

Amazingly, despite staying within Tokyo, transportation to and from the race took no less than three modes of transportation (train, bus, cable car), approximately 4 hours of travel round-trip, and more than ¥3,500.

How’s that for Tokyo?

It’s a lot bigger than Roppongi or Akihabara. 

Mt. Mitake cable car Takimoto station
The Mitake Tozan Railway cable car at Takimoto station.
Mt. Mitake train cable car tracks scenery
The cable car tracks leading up to Mt. Mitake.

Prior to the event, the bag check process had only been explained in broad strokes. Having lived in Japan for some time now, I suspected that it would not be as simple as the race organizer seemed to suggest.

Besides supporting our registered athletes and race logistics, gaining clarity about race day operations and procedures are a huge reason why we make it a point to go to as many events as possible.

My suspicions were confirmed when I learned that bag check was split among several vans that would deposit runners’ bags at one of 17 (!) bathhouses in the area. 

During the race, the vans would drop off the bags and upon finishing, you walked to your assigned onsen to soak and freshen up (optional; free of charge) or just claim your bags to go home.

Of course, I would prefer to have known these finer details earlier but for the race organizer, it seemed to be a self-explanatory (?) process. Yet, these specifics hadn’t even been described in the Japanese athlete guide!

Which led me to think…If I didn’t understand Japanese and had been there to race, how would I have known? Sure, after spending a few extra minutes of pantomime mixed with broken English/Japanese and/or a kind bilingual soul to the rescue, I would have eventually understood. But that’s stressful!

These are exactly the kinds of situations we strive to alleviate. We’re there to ease things. You’re there to race. You shouldn’t have to feel added stress or confusion.

Despite the initial chaos, it was a great opportunity to interact with our registered athletes and explain an crucial process that hadn’t been described fully in the athlete guide.

Bag deposit van for Mt. Mitake Trail Race
One of several bag check vans.
Mt. Mitake Trail Race aid station
An aid station during the race.
While we encountered some snafus involving course cutters and difficulty in finding some of the onsen (specifically, #15), it was a great day out in west Tokyo. It’s no walk in the park but the Mt. Mitake Trail Race is a great chance to hit the trails of Tokyo away from the concrete jungles.

about the authors


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.


Born in Singapore and raised in Malaysia, Faith holds a Japanese passport, a BA from Southern Methodist University, and M.Ed from Vanderbilt University. Currently, she works as the Communications Manager at Samurai Sports where she spends weekdays at a desk and weekends at various races. 

In her free time, she trains regularly for her triathlon pursuits and hopes to qualify for her second 70.3 World Championship in 2019. Faith loves dogs, hates celery, and is always hungry.