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The Next Trail Running Mecca
An abundance of trails, marathon running madness and a deep cultural appreciation for the mountains: why Japanese trail running is booming.
There are, in most people’s minds, two global trail running hubs: America, with its abundance of well-groomed trails and massive mountains, and the European alpine countries, with their technical descents and fanatical fans. But, if you look at recent race results, you’ll notice that these two trail running superpowers haven’t had it all their own way - Asian trail runners, in particular the Japanese and the Chinese athletes, have joined the party, in style.
Ultra-Trail Mt. Fuji is, arguably, Asia’s largest trail ultra race. Part of the ultra-trail world tour, and considered a partner race to the famous Ultra-Trail Mt. Blanc (UTMB), the 100-mile race that circles Mt. Fuji is as brutal as it is famous. Connecting mountain trails, local footpaths and forest roads around the foothills of the mountain, it brings the runners up close and personal with one of Japan’s most iconic landmarks.
When we talk about trail running, it’s hard to think of a country more well suited to the sport than Japan. Over 70% of Japan is mountainous. But not only does Japan have an abundance of mountains - many of which, although not particularly high, make up for it with alarming steepness - it has a deep and rich history of marathon running that continues to this present day. Since 2015, Japanese runners have completed more marathons than any other nationality.
While marathon running is well established, having been through a boom in the 1940s and 50s, trail running is just beginning to establish itself, as the craving for an escape from the notoriously hectic nature of Japanese city life becomes more and more intense.
Hiroaki Matsunaga has run ultra races all over the world, having seen success at the international level, but UTMF keeps drawing him back.
“Running UTMF is like paying a respectful visit once a year to get your power recharge from Mt. Fuji, the gods of the mountains and the gods of the land,” explains Hiroaki.
“Why is Mt. Fuji special? Because we’re Japanese! But for me, especially because I was born in Shizuoka and grew up seeing Mt. Fuji every day. When I was in elementary school, I was aspiring to become a pro-soccer player, so I’d go running in nearby mountains to train, and Mt. Fuji would always be visible in the distance. It’s been something close to me since childhood, and its beauty is ingrained in my DNA.”
The patience and commitment to training needed to be a successful runner also seems to be ingrained in the Japanese DNA. “Japanese people probably like endurance running, because the patient and earnest nature that many Japanese people possess make it easier to adapt to the sport,” says Hiroaki.
But beyond that, lies something more powerful. More unique. “I believe there is a deeper reason, going back to the ancient tradition of mountain worship. All mountains had their own form of worship, and it was a place for people to carry out their practice to reach enlightenment. Nowadays, I think people dive into trail running to detach themselves from their busy lives and go into self reflection — whether they are conscious of it or not.”
This year’s UTMF tested the runners commitment to worship as the mountain gods threw everything they had at them. “Because of the weather, it was by far the most difficult conditions in all the years I’ve been at UTMF,” says 5-time finisher of the race Kiyomi Kuroda.
The first day of running took place in almost unbroken rain and there was little let up as the night set in and temperatures started to plummet. By 24-hours into the race, the rain was lashing down, and at the highest point of the course, Mt. Shakushi, thick snow was starting to accumulate. “As the snow and cold got worse, I took out my emergency blanket and prepared myself for the weather,” says Kiyomi. “The climb down from Mt. Kumamori was so slippery, at night the trail was a total white-out, the rain was endless, and my body refused to climb.” The organizers made the call, 28-hours into the race, to cancel it due to the conditions. Kiyomi was denied her finish line moment, along with most of the field.
As one of the front runners, Hiroaki was able to cross the line earlier in the day. In some ways that was important, but in many ways, trail running transcends finish lines. “You discover something new every time you run, pay attention to things you hadn’t acknowledged before — those realization make you a bigger, kinder person and give you the power to keep moving forward in life. It’s a time to look within yourself more than it’s a sport,” says Hiroaki.
“You can’t get to that state in a short distance races; it’s the 100-miles that get you there. While the sport itself becomes the focus of other types of running, 100-miles is more like a practice. You can say that it’s a form of ascetic practice. You withdraw yourself from the outside world and push yourself to the limits with cut-off times and all."
And you “die” every time you finish a race. Then you start another life when you start training for the next race. You don’t literally die of course, but you get to die and rise back again every time you run. Each 100-miles is like one lifecycle, so the more you do it, the faster you get to grow as a person.” says Hiroaki
Japan is a country obsessed with self-improvement, with personal betterment and steady progress forwards. No sport seems to better serve that yearning than ultra trail running. The mountainous nature of the country and the history of running might set the backdrop for success, but the real reason trail running seems the perfect fit for Japan lies within. In a country notorious for its technological connectivity and commitment to work, trail running seems like the antidote to modern life. “Mountain worship exists in Japan since ancient times. Running in the mountains probably carries the same meaning in modern times. I think Japanese people still have a longing to reach enlightenment and introspection,” says Hiroaki.