Japan's Other Big City Race
written by Rich D. (contributing writer)
I love Osaka! It’s such an energetic, provocative place. But this sprawling wonderland often plays third fiddle in tourist plans to the likes of Tokyo and Kyoto, despite myriad sights to see, interesting things to do and, best of all, delicious foods to eat.
For example, for history buffs there’s Osaka Castle. For sports fans, there are several professional teams, a spring sumo tournament, and even the legendary Koshien Baseball Stadium. For those looking for a cultural experience, the National Bunraku Theatre has events throughout the year. Rounding the experiences are oddities, like the Cup Noodles Museum, the Mr. Donut Duskin Museum, the nearby Minoh waterfall and even the Universal Studios Japan theme park.
Yet, despite all the great things to see and do, it’s the food that keeps me coming back for more. That’s because Osaka’s cheap, delicious foods – the savory takoyaki, the filling okonomiyaki, the risky fugu blowfish whose poison must be expertly removed, and colorful kushikatsu skewers – are the best reasons to travel to the area.
Albeit, my declaration comes with a caveat if you’re a runner, in which case Osaka Marathon is the number one reason to visit!
And that’s why I was keyed up when word came that I had actually gained entry to the 2019 race. Up until this year, I had gone years without winning the lottery.
Wait, I get to visit Osaka AND run its marathon?
That’s a win-win if there’s ever been one. And I know from experience, having run the very first Osaka Marathon several years ago. Back then, it was only my second full marathon and my first “big city” event, the race still conjures vivid memories.
I recall a long stroll from the baggage check to the start line that almost made me miss the coral entry cut off time. Once the race started, raucous cheering, with Osakans slamming noise makers and shouting “Gamba!”, the Kansai dialect’s version of “Gambare!”, delicious aid station treats, and a relatively flat course (aside from a tough hill in the final 5KM) propelled me to run a personal best (at the time).
Notably, my brother joined me for that trip, thereby nixing the proverbial “loneliness of the long distance runner.” For the first time, I had a travel companion and personal support for the big event. Together, we survived the overcrowded labyrinth of the event expo, filled our bellies with fugu and udon noodle soup in Shinsekai, and took a long soak in the soothing hotel onsen before calling it a day.
But There’s a Twist
These wonderful memories made me worry about running the race again: the 2019 Osaka Marathon would not only introduce a new date, but a new course as well. Would these changes be a boon or a bust?
Either way, I was eager to find out and I order to avoid any surprises, I did some sleuthing.
At the very least, the change of date struck me as an improvement. Now, instead of suffering through October’s remnant summer heat, runners could look forward to performance enhancing cool to cold December temperatures.
As for the course, rather than running to the drab concrete Intex Osaka Event Center at the city fringes, participants would return to the race’s start in Osaka Castle Park, thereby eliminating the previous course’s final hill climb and making for a climactic, prominent finish. Surely a giant, golden tiger adorned castle would provide more motivation for a final kick than the former course’s shrinking skyline, thinning crowds and blustery seaside winds.
All things considered, the 2019 Osaka Marathon tripled my excitement. Not only did I win entry into the race, but I’d experience the new, promising course, on its new, promising date, in its inaugural year.
On paper, everything looks great, but how did the new Osaka Marathon actually stack up?
I’m happy to say all the ingredients that made me love the first Osaka Marathon remain. Furthermore, the changes only served to improve an already great race.
First, regardless of the event, let me point out that Osaka is an extremely accommodating city. Its excellent transit system and the sheer number of lodging options, of varying price and comfort levels, make it convenient to visit – even during a peak marathon weekend. I stayed at a youth hostel located only twenty minutes by train from the start line and, despite it being marathon weekend, there were plenty of empty bunks to be filled. In smaller Japanese cities, this is unheard of as marathon weekends sell out in an instant.
Also worthy of note is Osaka Marathon’s unique incorporation of charity. Entrants can choose from a variety of causes, ranging from “brighten(ing) the future of children” to “conservation of our natural environment.” Each charity is represented by a color. Runners wear bibs to show off their chosen charity. There are even special cheer sections for each color/charity. This year I chose the “to preserve our beautiful city and livelihood” charity, which landed me on team purple, represented by a purple bib with my nickname “リッチ” (Rich) scribed across the front. The purple cheer squad in the final five kilometers exploded in support when I passed by.
The pre-race experience in Osaka Castle Park still has its positives and negatives. On the one hand, the park is easy to access and its size serves the sheer number of participants and staff (over 30,000) well, but it also makes for a long trek between the baggage check and starting corrals. That much hasn’t changed in the new edition, except that it’s a colder walk in December than it was in October.
Off and Running
Thankfully, once the race started, the Kansai crowds were as fervent as ever. If you feed off of crowd support, Osaka is the race for you. Aid stations offering sports drinks and water were frequent and well stocked. Food options started from about the halfway point. I gobbled up bananas and some gels, but was so focused on my pace that I missed out on unique offerings like takoyaki and anpan – caloric indulgences would come after the race.
The course was mostly flat and brought runners within sight of the impressive Abeno Harukas (Osaka’s tallest building), the National Bunraku Theater, Shitenouji Temple, and the funky looking Kyocera Dome. Pay attention to your whereabouts and the race actually makes for a great sightseeing tour of the city. My favorite moment came on Midosuji Boulevard, where the afternoon sun shined through the golden corridor of ginkgo trees aligning the street to create a fleeting image worthy of a master painting.
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.
As expected, crossing the goal in Osaka Castle Park made for a fun finish. When Osaka Castle appeared in the distance, I knew the race’s end was near and pushed hard to the finish. Thanks to temperatures that hovered around the 10 degree Celsius mark, I felt fresh for that final push and lively crowds lining the final kilometer offered extra motivation. What’s more, without the original route’s cursed final hillclimb and energy-sapping winds, I actually had the energy to execute a glorious final kick!
Once the finish was behind me volunteers offered peanut butter sandwiches, water, stylish finisher towels and a colorful medal. Unlike the old course’s finish, which necessitated a train from the city outskirts, I was only a short train ride from the heart of the city and therefore, close to the best eats in town.
That isn’t to say the new Osaka Marathon is all unicorns and rainbows. The course is littered with turns and most are of the 180 degree u-turn variety. And although that final climb is gone, the hills scattered throughout the course felt bigger and longer than the official altitude measures let on. Worst of all was the marathon expo, which holds visitors hostage, veering left, then right through a narrow, overcrowded walkways with no exits in sight until the very end.
But these are complaints common to many a marathon and so they fail to dampen my love for Osaka or its marathon. All the changes made for the 2019 edition, including the new course, the new finish and the new date, only served to improve an already great event. Now if they’d only offer all-you-can-eat takoyaki after the finish line, that’d be perfection.