Run Local, Eat Local

A Visit to Yamagata Prefecture
and Shonai Town

Gassan Ryujin Marathon Race Report by Faith (Communications Manager)

Samurai Sports at Gassan Ryujin Marathon

Have you ever been to Yamagata Prefecture? I hadn’t either until I had the opportunity to travel to the quaint town of Shonai for the Gassan Ryujin Marathon.

As a supporter and fan of smaller races with more personality and warmth, I was very pleased with my experience both at the race and in Shonai Town. A podium spot sweetened the deal but the omotenashi hospitality was unlike anything I’ve experienced – and I’ve ran a lot of races!

From preparation of an early breakfast to the arrangement of a race shuttle, to the bento lunch, generous entitlements, and the way the mayor welcomed runners and greeted supporters throughout the day – dressed in a samurai outfit…it was all such a treat! 

Gassan Ryujin Marathon start

gassan ryujin marathon

  • Marked its third anniversary this year (2018)
  • About 860 registrants
  • Distances: 1.2KM Family Duo, 3KM, 5KM, 10KM, and 21.1KM
  • All runners received a small icebox with a variety of local pickles, lunch bento, bowl of potato soup, and towel

itinerary

Saturday, October 13

1016 Depart Tokyo station (Max Toki 315) 
1224 Arrive Niigata station
1232 Depart Niigata station (Inaho 5) 
1431 Arrive Amarume station 
1445 Car to Kannoyu (about 20 minutes)
1530-1630 Brisk walk
1800 Dinner at Kannoyu
2300 Sleep

 

Sunday, October 14

0630 Breakfast at Kannoyu
0700 Car to race site
0710 Arrive race site
0845 Half marathon starts
1100 Early lunch at race site
1200 Car to Amarume station
1439 Depart Amarume station (Inaho 10) 
1636 Arrive Niigata station 
1649 Depart Niigata station (Max Toki 336)
1900 Arrive Tokyo station 

Bridge in Shonan, Yamagata
Shonai town in Yamagata

travel

I had a lot of help arranging the travel and am indebted to Nihonkai Travel Agency for sorting out an appropriate train itinerary, as well as my accommodation. I brought the train itinerary to the Midori no Madoguchi and JR swiftly produced tickets.

I am a worrier, so I opted for reserved seats which set me back a cool ¥27,000 – those who prefer to live on the edge (or are ballin’ on a budget) can purchase the same tickets for far less. Additionally, if you’d rather sit in the lap of luxury, the Green Car is best.

Due to the lack of public transportation options in the area, Nihonkai also arranged for a car to take me from Amarume station to the hotel and from the race site to Amarume station. The race organizers provided a shuttle from the hotel to the race site.

Yamagata

  • Yamagata-ken (山形県) is a part of the Tohoku region and faces the Sea of Japan
  • Famous for agricultural abundance, especially Tsuyahime rice
  • Capital city is Yamagata – about 2 hours from Tokyo
  • Population: about 1.1 million
  • The prefecture boasts one of the oldest populations in Japan

Shonai

  • Population: about 22,000
  • Economy centers on agriculture
  • One of the first towns in Japan to sell energy from wind farms

accommodation

Shonai is a small town and accommodation options are scarce. Nihonkai Travel Agency arranged for my one-night stay at the Kannoyu, a small Japanese-style inn located about a 10 minute drive from the race site.

It was about ¥9,000 for a traditional tatami room with futon; breakfast and dinner were included. Check it out here.

Shonai farmers market in Japan
Rice barrels in Yamagata

WORTH CHECKING OUT

CLASSE AMARUME

Housed in a renovated rice granary a short walk from JR Amarume station, Classe is a sort of base for visitors to Shonai Town. 

At Classe, you’ll find everything from a restaurant, bakery,  local produce store, and a tourist support station. Upstairs, there are tables perfect to catch your breath before setting out for an afternoon of sightseeing, or grabbing a quick bite while you wait for the train to take you home.

Don’t forget to swing by the store for fresh seasonal vegetables (for prices far cheaper than anything you’ll see in Tokyo!), regional snacks, and various food items – perfect for yummy souvenirs! 

Fresh vegetables in Yamagata, Japan

Race day

After reluctantly crawling out of the futon at 0615, I quickly dressed and packed up to check out. In the most gracious of gestures, staff had prepared breakfast early for the handful of runners staying at the hotel. I enjoyed a quick Japanese- style breakfast (rice, miso soup, various side dishes) before being ushered onto the shuttle bus waiting to take us to the race venue.

The shuttle dropped us off at around 0730 and I collected everyone’s race packets, then found a spot to set down my belongings in the warmth of the gym. After distributing the race packets to the Samurai Sports-registered runners, I began to prepare for the half-marathon with a one-mile jog mixed with interval sprints and active stretching. This would be a training day and I had no intention of pushing myself too hard.

Did you know...

Athletes registering through Samurai Sports have the advantage of same-day race packet collection (not applicable to all races)

Gassan Ryujin Marathon elevation profile

It was a brisk morning at about 16 degrees Celsus (low 60s) but it warmed to the mid-20s (mid 70s) as the day went on. I ran in shorts, a tanktop, ballcap, and arm sleeves. I regretted running with the sleeves and even with a ballcap, I silently cursed myself for having forgotten the sunglasses!

I average a 1:45 half marathon and intended to run at a comfortable 5 min/km pace but I was off to the races alongside fellow Singaporean, Alvin, who had me running at a slightly uncomfortable pace. After the gradual ascent of the first 10.5 KM, Alvin pulled the reins but I continued – now downhill.

After pressing on for 21KM (the course recorded just a little short for me), I crossed the finish line at 1:43 feeling pretty good about myself for a training day. The Gassan Ryujin Marathon is a small race so I wound placing 2nd in the women under 40 category. Best of all, my prize was two 2KG bags of local rice – freshly harvested. 

Gassan Ryujin Marathon entitlements

If there’s one thing this girl cannot live without, it’s rice.

There were no showers so I freshened up with several body wipes and changed in the make-shift ladies changing tent. This would have to do until I reached Tokyo and arrived home.

After changing into street clothes, I finally retrieved my participant entitlements, bento, and pipin’ hot bowl of potato soup. Then, I parked myself back in the gym and hunkered down for a delicious meal full of local Yamagata harvests and Tohoku regional foods. Forget stale bagels, orange slices, or a lukewarm cup of hot chocolate – this was the real deal!

in summary

The Gassan Ryujin Marathon may not be a marathon at all but the hospitality is second to none! There’s no denying that Shonai Town is out the way for us Tokyoites but it’s surely worth the time and money for an early fall weekend getaway.

A part of me wants to keep this race under the radar but I have no doubt that this event will continue to grow in popularity. Whether you’ve thoroughly explored the northern parts of Japan, can’t even point Yamagata on a map, or live just a stone throw away, consider the Gassan Ryujin Marathon as a part of your race calendar next year – you won’t regret it!

Gassan Ryujin Marathon participants
Female runners with prizes
Female runner in Japan

What I loved

Bento at marathon in Japan
Post-race bento (free for runners)

the food

Though I only ate at three places (Classe Amarume, the race site, and at Kannoyu), the snacks and meals at each location were unique to the region and delivered in ways that highlighted natural flavors. From the dried crispy prawns to the plain Tsuyahime rice balls and the salad with edible flower petals, it was hard to find something I didn’t truly enjoy (and I can be picky!).

the course

The half marathon route is a gradual but steady climb (approximately 100 meters total ascent). It makes for a slightly uncomfortable first half but it’s absolutely possible to negative split the second half, which is almost entirely a gradual but steady downhill.

Gassan Ryujin Marathon course map
Out and back riverside half marathon course
2018 Gassan Ryujin Marathon prizes
Race goodies! *bags of rice were a podium award

the race goodies!

No matter the distance, every runner pays the same amount to register for the Gassan Ryujin Marathon. That might seem silly and you might not even like it,  but considering the amount of freebies you get, 4,000 is a sweet deal. All runners receive a small Styrofoam cooler box with three kinds of local pickles, a hand towel, a lunch bento full of regional cuisine, and a miso-based potato soup – a local favorite. Sure, you might not get a shirt or a medal but honestly, all of those things just collect dust and never get see the light of day after the race.

About the Author

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. 

Female runner holding prize