Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Race report: Hanase Trail Run

“Saisho no josei!” the Japanese woman in the orange volunteer vest exclaimed, “Fighto!” First woman. Fight! With 19K left to go, I was leading woman’s race at the Hanase Trail Run. I barrelled down the trail, willing myself not to look over my shoulder too often. I didn’t feel like a leader, I felt like a rabbit being chased by wolves. Could I really pull this off?

The Hanase Trail Run is a small, 25K trail race in the mountains about 1 hour north of Kyoto, organized by Kyoto Triathlon Club. I found out about it through a webpage called Sports Entry, heavily aided by Google Translate, occasionally to hilarious and strange results (for example, Google Translate directly translates the town name ‘Hanase' to ’Forest Speak Exchange’). I signed up in September, thinking it was good motivation to keep running in the wake of the OCC.

And then I ran. A lot. Not currently in possession of a bicycle, my preferred mode of alternate training, I have run more in the last two months than I have ever done in my life. I capped if off with the Koyasan week, which worked out to be 88K of running - my biggest single week since my injury last year. This was maybe a little excessively, and I knew I had to rest during the week leading up to Hanase Trail Run. I felt sluggish all week, and took four (!) rest days. The race was on Sunday, and I lived out the PhD dream by putting in a 12 hour day in the lab on Saturday. As I set my alarm for 5:30 am to catch the bus to the start, I started to wonder if this was a very, very bad idea.

It would be an experience no matter how it turned out, I reminded myself. I was just there to experience a Japanese trail race, and to run some nice, new trails. I didn’t have to compete if I didn’t want to, I just had to complete.

The bus ride to the village of Hanase was terrifying, driving up narrow, winding roads. The bus was heavily packed. There was an extra column of seats that folded open into the center of the aisle, effectively blocking escape from anywhere except the windows. A couple of times the bus stopped in the middle of a hairpin, revving the motor. I seriously hoped we didn’t start rolling backward.

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Under the start and finish arch, pre-race. Photo courtesy of Kyoto Triathlon Club.

The bus made it to Hanase safe and sound, nearly two hours before the race was due to start. I picked up my race bib, then milled around awkwardly. I met a Frenchman called Pascal, who had been in Japan for 26 years and runs a restaurant in Kyoto. He asked me how long I thought I would take to finish the 25K, and I told him, quiet honestly, that I had no idea. Twenty-five kilometers on trails isn’t just about the distance. I knew this race had a lot of elevation gain (1400 vertical meters), but I didn’t know how technical the trails would be. And I’ve stumbled across some extremely technical trails in Japan.

There was a large building with a tatami-lined room for the women to change and hang around in, and I sat there for a while, reading my book and eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Then I dropped off my backpack of extra stuff and started to warm up. Oddly, no one else seemed to be warming up. While jogging, I felt a cool wetness on my back and took off my race vest to realize that the water bladder was in face leaking very slightly. I taped it up with some sports tape I had in my backpack and crossed my fingers that the leak didn’t get much worse.

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I guess it’s time to replace my water bladder...

Soon enough it was time to line up for the start. My big regret from the OCC was starting too far back in the field, and I vowed not to make the same mistake here. I lined up behind a handful of girls, reasoning that with 45 women participating I would  likely be somewhere in the top 10. 

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Racers getting ready to start.

Then there was a lot of talking, including a speech from an important-looking man wearing a suit. I hoped I wasn’t missing any important race information, so when I saw another foreigner I decided to go ask him. His name was David, and he was an Irishman who had been in the Kyoto region for over 20 years. He, too, spoke fluent Japanese.

“San…Ni…Ichi…Go!” the announcer proclaimed, and we set off. The first few hundred meters were downhill on pavement, and I let my legs go fast, feeding off of the speed of the lead pack. Once the chaos of the start died down, I saw that there were only two women in front of me. So maybe I started I little fast, I thought, But I usually start too slow. Let’s roll with it and see where I end up! 

We veered off onto a dirt road, and I chatted with David, discussing trails around Kyoto. Apparently I’m missing out of the big event of the Kyoto trail running season, Higashiyama Marathon, in December. Three months here is so short in some ways! After a couple of kilometers on a gradual incline, the warm-up was over and we hit steep, switchbacked singletrack. I had passed one woman by now, and was in second place. I could see the first place woman one switchback above me, maybe one minute ahead. Well this is unexpected.

The switchbacks were hard work, and I wasn’t chitchatting anymore. I was towing David and a Japanese guy up the hill, setting what I hoped was a reasonable pace. I could hear the Japanese guy gasping behind me, and I wondered if he knew what he was doing. The switchbacks transitioned to flatter dirt road again, and I got to chatting with my Japanese follower. His name was Ken, and this was his first trail race, although he had run several marathons and half-marathons. I could tell. He would try to run whenever possible, whereas I prefer to walk early but with purpose.

Next the course followed an undulating ridge line through the forest. The trail was covered with crunchy fallen leaves, making it a bit hard to spot in some places. I had lost sight of the first place woman, and I wondered if I had lost her for good. Run your own race, I reminded myself. Suddenly the first place woman appeared, downslope next to the trail, with a handful of other guys. They had gone off trail, off the ridge! I ran passed them, kind of feeling like a cheat for passing at that point, but there really wasn’t space to stop.

A little while later, we passed the first orange-vested volunteer who enthused, “Saisho no josei!” 

“You’re leading the race!” exclaimed David behind me, “Don’t give up!"

Give up? I think it’s hard to overstate how incredibly competitive I actually I. From that instant, I knew that I would win this race or blow up trying.

It was terrifying yet exhilarating to lead the race. Every move had to be calculated. I had to bomb the downhills, but try not to fall as this would certainly cause me to lose time. I had to go hard on the uphills, but stay below my lactate threshold, since there was still so much climbing yet to come. Psychologically, it was difficult to never know how far behind the second place woman was. I saw her briefly, after going through the aid station at 9K, a few switchbacks below me.

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Leading the Hanase Trail Run at about 12K. Photo courtesy of Kyoto Triathlon Club.

Despite the intensity of being in the lead for the first time in my life, I was enjoying myself. It was a beautiful, if a little windy, fall day. I regretted packing so much water, as I clearly wasn’t going to drink it all with the temperatures the way they were. I wondered if I should dump some out to lighten my load, but this seemed a little silly. There were volunteers everywhere, pointing the way, cheering and shaking what looked like little tambourines.

I crested over the high point of the course, spreading my arms out and exclaiming, “Sugoi!” (amazing!) to the volunteer waiting on top. Shades of blue mountains spread out into the distance. I wanted to take a picture, but I was still unsure how much of a lead I had. From the top point was a long, long descent, much of which was on fire road. After trading places with a handful of guys for most of the race, I found myself inexplicably alone on the descent. I struggled to push the pace. I knew a fast downhill like this was where I was most likely to lose time to other runners, as my advantage is usually on the more technical trails. Still, with no one to help me push the pace, I found myself flagging.

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View from the top of the course. Photo by Bertrand Pigeard.

I also knew there was a monster hill ahead. “There’s a really steep hill after 20K,” David had told me, early in the race, “Save something for it!” I snacked on my Snickers bar and pear-flavored gummy candies, hoping I could avoid a bonk. I stopped briefly at the aid station at 19K, eating a couple more orange slices, before heading up the climb. Only 6 K to go, I told myself, You could actually pull this off!

The final climb was horrendous. My calves screamed, and I put my hands on my knees, pushing my thighs in an effort to climb faster. My head was aching; maybe I hadn’t been drinking enough water after all. I told myself that this would be a long climb, that I couldn’t expect it to end soon. It didn’t, and even when I was over the top I could barely believe it. 

The descent to the finish was long and technical, and by this time I was ready for it all to be over. I hit the dirt road, and thereby the final K, looking over my shoulder but seeing only men descending the switchbacks above me. I had a couple of minutes lead at least then. Still, I mustered what little I had and ran hard for the finish. Three hours, nine minutes, twenty-one seconds, and I had won. The second place woman came in 4 minutes behind me, and the third place woman just one minute after that. David came if a few minutes after that, and we chatted a bit about the race. “That poor woman who was chasing you!” he said, “She was working really hard up the final climb!"

I had some time to kill before the awards ceremony, and since this is Japan there was a bath house near the finish line. I had the most glorious Japanese bath, listening to the other women chat as I soaked luxuriously in a hot pool of water. It was kind of strange to be distanced from my competition by the language. I wished I could join in on the conversation, and I hoped they didn’t resent me for being a silent foreigner.

The volunteers were all very enthusiast. “Congratulations, Molly-san!” they exclaimed as I walk back to the finish for the award ceremony.

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Receiving my trophy on top of the podium at Hanase Trail Run.

At the award ceremony, I was absolutely loaded down with prizes. It was actually a little embarrassing because I almost dropped everything as I stood on top of the podium.

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The swag, clockwise from the left: A North Face running vest, a trophy, compression socks, some energy products (one of which is ominously call ‘Athlete barley’, some kinesio tape, and a bunch of root vegetables.

I bought a victory beer from a vending machine, and sat around watching the finish line and chatting with other racers. I proceeded to fall asleep on the bus ride back to Kyoto. It had been an absolutely magical day, and I was completely wrecked.

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Raceday friends: a Japanese guy whose name I didn’t catch, French Betrand, Irish David and Japanese Ken.

Results here. Strava here.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Friday, October 21, 2016

Japanese explains the Japanese

There was an earthquake during Japanese class yesterday. The biggest surprise wasn’t the quake itself, but the barrage of noisy cell phones that sounded a few minutes before the quake. Every phone with a Japanese SIM card automatically starts blasting warning messages when an earthquake is on its way. After the cell phones died down, I waited in suspense. The quake gently rocked the entire building for 15 seconds or so and subsided, no harm done. And the teacher continued to explain how the word for ‘minute’ in Japanese is modified depending on how many minutes you are referring to.

As a visiting PhD student at Kyoto University, I have the opportunity to take Japanese language classes. The language difference is definitely a huge barrier here in Japan, and even though I’m under no illusion that I will be anywhere near fluent by the end of November, I feel like it’s worth a try. In the this case, something is far better than nothing. Even though I’m only three weeks into classes, I’m starting to be able to read signs and pick up a few words hear and there, which is extremely gratifying after a month of a wall of meaningless sound.

Moving back to square one with a language is hard, and undeniably humbling. The most difficult aspect so far has been learning the alphabet(s). It’s been more than 20 years since the last time I had to learn the alphabet, and attaching seemingly meaningless squiggles to sounds isn’t trivial in the least bit.

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Japanese Katakana worksheet. Stroke order is important!

Still, the fascinating thing about learning Japanese is much the language reflects the culture. Here are four things I’ve learned about Japanese culture, as reflected by the language:

1) Everything should flow effortlessly. Japanese words, as a rule, end with a vowel, and consonants are often swapped when words are strung together to make the language flow more easily. For example, the Japanese word for ‘river’ can be pronounced ‘kawa’ or ‘gawa’ depending on what word it is prefixed with. In the same way, so many aspects of Japanese society are designed around convenience and efficient flow. One only has to watch the Japanese queue for and get on a train, a phenomenon that is so much less chaotic in Japan than in Europe, to see how they strive towards and achieve effortless motion.

2) Politeness is king. Although there is a Japanese word for ‘you’, I have been told not to use it. It’s considered very impolite to address someone so directly. You either use someone's name and an appropriate title (-san is polite enough for most circumstances) or don’t address them directly at all. Politeness and formalities are extremely important in Japan, and I’m now almost used to people bowing at me as a part of everyday conversations.

3) …but convenience is equally important. It is acceptable to shorten sentences to an almost ridiculous degree, removing both the subject and the verb, for convenience. For example, in English when you would say ‘Where’s the train station?’, in Japan you could basically just say ‘Train station?’ Convenience in everyday life is just as important, as starkly illustrated by vending machines even in the most remote places and 7-Elevens on every street corner.

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My favorite kind of vending machine is the ice cream vending machine!

4) The Japanese are masters of adopting foreign concepts, and making them entirely their own. For example, the Japanese alphabets are all based in the Chinese characters. The phonetics alphabets, hiragana and katakana, are essentially Chinese characters taken to represent a certain sound, and dramatically simplified. So although these characters are originally Chinese, they are twisted into a form that is uniquely Japanese. Another area of life where this happens is in food. The Japanese have adopted donuts, and Mister Donut shops (drawing on Dunkin’ Donuts) are ubiquitous. However, although the donuts resemble their American counterparts in shape, the taste and texture is something uniquely Japanese.

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I love Japanese donuts too.

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This was something I had for lunch the other week called ‘Taco udon’. Although there were most definitely udon noodle, it wasn’t a taco even in the vaguest sense of the term.

I don’t think English is quite so representative of culture, but that’s because English represents so many cultures simultaneously. Any examples to the contrary?

- 野生バジゥチュク

Monday, October 17, 2016

Pilgrimage to Koyasan

The sacred town of Koyasan (sometimes translated as Mt Koya), lies tucked away in a high mountain valley, surrounded by eight peaks that are said to form the shape of a lotus flower. For 800 years, pilgrims have been trekking the Choishi-Michi footpath from Jison temple to Koyasan to visit the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism and see the resting place of Kukai, the monk who did not die, but merely settled in for eternal meditation. Although there are fewer now that in its heyday, Koyasan still contains over 100 temples. A number of the temples will host visitors for the the night, provided the visitor joins the morning and evening ceremonies. Most tourists travel to Koyasan by a combination of train, cable car and bus. 

I am not most tourists.

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Ascending the stairs at Jison temple 

It should really come to no one’s surprise at this point that I decided to forego the whole cable car routine and run the Choishi-Michi trail to Koyasan. It’s interesting, in hindsight, that I would undertake any kind of religious pilgrimage, considering how non-religious I am otherwise. I wouldn’t, for example, get so excited about staying in a Christian monastery and participating in their prayers. Maybe it’s the fact that I come from a culture where Buddhism is an anomaly, and therefore mystical and interesting?

Or maybe it’s because I’m surrounded by temples in the city of Kyoto, and I’m increasingly fascinated by the intersection between religion, art and politics that has shaped Japanese history?

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The signs on the well-marked Choishi-Michi pilgrimage route.

Or, the most plausible explanation, I just like to run places. I also knew there was an hour of meditation with the monks impending during my evening in Koyasan, and physical exhaustion was most certainly necessary in order to achieve the spiritual calm to do such a thing. So I ran, through the houses of Kudoyama and up through Jison temple, following the well-marked footpath that was first paved and then transitioned into increasingly rough trail as I climbed higher.

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Running through the bamboo forest.

The long climb into the mountains wound up through fields of Japanese persimmon trees. The sun was shining and I didn’t regret my choice to wear shorts, even though the temperatures have been growing cooler in the last week.

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Japanese persimmon trees in the sunshine 

The Choichi-Michi is marked with stone pillars called ‘stupa’ that are supposed to be spaced every 109 meter along the path. I’m going to hazard a guess that they didn’t have a very accurate way of measuring distance in 1285, when the pillars were originally erected. I found the stupa to be rather unevenly spaced. Apparently many of the stupa are original, and I’d say they looked pretty good despite having stood for 800 years.

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The stupa lining the Choichi-Michi piligrimage trail.

After the initial long climb, the trail was fairly flat and runnable in many sections. I wasn’t feeling particularly peppy, and decided just to enjoy the day, alternately walking and running depending on my mood. I was excited and little bit nervous about the upcoming meditation. Those who know me are aware that patience is not among my natural virtues, and I saw the meditation as a challenge to myself. I know there’s no way to ‘fail’ at meditation, but my goal was to allow myself to be absorbed by it and really try to find to focus on the moment, rather than allowing myself to drift off, or, Kukai forbid, fidget.

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On the final climb to the Daimon Gate.

I met only two other runners, going the opposite direction as me. Clever people, I thought, they get to run downhill all the way! I passed handfuls of hikers headed in the same direction as me, although many weren’t going all the way to Koyasan.

It took around three hours for me to cover the just over twenty kilometers to the end of the Choichi-Michi. The final stretch of trail was extremely steep, and so I didn’t see the Daimon Gate until I popped up over the edge in front of it. The gate is absolutely enormous, and pretty awe-inspiring, a suitable bookend to such a venerable trail.

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The Daimon Gate on the outskirts of Koyasan

As it was still early, I decided to take a slight detour before entering Koyasan proper to climb Bentendake. Just after turning onto the trail, I encountered this nerve-wracking sign:

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Beware of bears! (Don’t go out alone)

I had just gotten over my fear of boars, and now I had to worry about bears! I kept going, jumping nervously every time I heard a rustle in the bushes. On top of Bentendake there was a tiny shrine (what else), before the trail descended steeply to a Nyonindo, one of the points of entry to Koyasan where women traditionally weren’t allowed to enter. There is a trail that circumnavigates Koyasan, so that woman could get near this holy place, even if they were forbidden to enter. In the spirit of solidarity with oppressed women of the passed, I continued along a stretch of this trail. Somewhere along the way I started to get really tired and regretted my solidarity.

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My ‘this-had-better-be-the-last-climb-of-the-day’ face.

I found the quickest route into town and hit up two coffee shops for some much-needed sustenance after my small lunch on the trail. Then I went to check out Okunoin, the largest cemetery in Japan. Anyone who’s anyone in Shingon Buddhism has their remains sent to Okuoin, in order to be close to Kukai in his eternal meditation. There are 200,000 gravestones of all sizes scattered throughout the forest, some overgrown with moss and some still fresh from the engravers tools.

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Someone important is probably buried here.

I had been told to make sure to check in to my temple before 5 pm, so I cut my sightseeing short and head over to Rengejoin, my accommodation for the evening. I was welcomed with tea, but to my dismay bath time wasn’t until after meditation and dinner. I felt kind of sticky from my long run, but reasoned that the bath would be all the better for waiting.

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My little room at Rengejoin temple. If you don’t sleep well on hard beds, don’t go here! 

A bell range through the temple, letting the guests know it was time for the evening ceremony: meditation. We gathered in the main hall, a dimly lit room decorated with intricate ornaments. We could choose between sitting on meditation cushions on the floor, or little stools. I went for the cushion, wanting the ‘cross-legged Buddha’ experience. The monks sat around the alter, and the guests were in a small room in front of the alter, almost like seats in front of a stage.

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A lamp decorating the main hall in Rengejoin temple.

After a long explanation in Japanese, the head monk switched to sing-song, melodic English, explaining how we should fold our hands and cross our legs. “Imagine a pipe, running from your head all the way down your back,” he explained in his peaceful voice, “And when you breathe in, the air flows down the pipe. Count each breath, to ten, and repeat. This is the most basic meditation.” I was a woman on a mission; I had to count to ten for forty minutes.

After some chanting and the banging of a gong, the room fell to silence and I closed my eyes. Breathe in (1), breathe out. I could hear people around me shifting slightly in their seats. Someone cleared their throat. Breathe in (2), breathe out. As my breath slowed, the sound of my heart beat seemed to increase in volume until it shook my body with every pulse. Breathe in (3), breathe out. The room smelled faintly of incense.

I wondered how many ten-breath cycles would make 40 minutes, and decided it was best not to keep track. Breathe in (4), breathe out. My mind wandered to everyday subjects, but the count was louder than the idle chatter in my mind. breathe in (5), breathe out. Don’t loose count. It doesn’t really matter though, you can just start again. Breathe in (6), breathe out.

My feet had fallen asleep and my back ached. I shifted my center of gravity slightly, sitting up tall, determined to stay in my half-lotus position to the very end. Breathe in (7), breathe out. I imagined bearded yogis sitting on cliffs in the jungle, meditating for days and nights on end. I couldn’t feel the places where my folded hands touched each other anymore. Breathe in (8), breathe out. The people around me shifted and sniffed and clear their throats, and it all seemed to blend into a part of the cycle of my counting. Breathe in (9), breathe out.

The gong sounded again, startling me. Was it really over? It was. The head monk had another explanation at the end, explaining about the purpose of meditation and loosing oneself into the cosmic Buddha and encountering transcendental beings. He might of lost me there, but the meditation was an interesting experiences nonetheless. 

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How can a dinner that comes on two trays be so small? Laid out beautifully, as always in Japan.

For dinner, we were served traditional monk’s food, shojin ryori, which is vegetarian. There was tofu in a lots of different forms, rice, pickled vegetables, some tempura vegetables, broth and slices of Japanese pear for desert. It was delicious, if not a ton of calories for someone who had run for nearly 4 hours that day. I may or may not have eaten a candy bar in my room afterwards.

Then it was bath time, and I took a glorious, hot Japanese bath. Feely tranquil, I retired early, setting a 5:30 am alarm to catch the morning ceremony.

For the morning ceremony, the monks chanted. Although this was interesting, and beautiful, I felt a bit distanced from it all, as a opposed to the meditation where I was an active participant. 

After a similarly frugal breakfast, I stopped and got coffee and a pastry before heading to the hills for another run. I ran the rest of the Nyonindo trail, circumnavigating Koyasan and climbing several of the small mountains around the village. The trail brought me through Okunoin once again, and I paid a visit to Kukai’s place of eternal meditation. 

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No photographs allowed in Kukai’s resting place, but here are some Buddha sculptures that you throw water on to prayer.

After a stopping in town for lunch, I jogged the short, steep Fudozaka trail down the mountain, dovetailing the cable car, to catch the train back to Kyoto.

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Above Koyasan on the Nyonindo trails.

I would highly recommend Koyasan for sightseeing as well as trail running or hiking. Staying at the Buddhist temple, and observing the ceremonies, was an enriching experience, although I don’t think I’ll become a nun anytime soon. Beside, I couldn’t fuel my running on shojin ryori!

{Strava data here, here, here and here}

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Phantom wild boars

Ever since my adventure on Mt Hiei, I have been experiencing mild wild boar phobia. I made the grave mistake doing some Google research wild boars. Even since familiarizing myself with the signs that a wild boar might be in the vicinity, I see them. Everywhere. 

It’s been rather harrowing. I keep telling myself, if wild boars routinely attacked hikers in the forest around Kyoto, I would know about it by now! But sometimes, if I am alone in the forest, a deep paranoia strikes me. I hear a rustle in the bushes, then realize it’s only a bird, startled by my movements. I peer at the ground, looking for cloved hoof prints in churned up patches of earth. I sniff deeply, trying to decide if the funk I detect is decaying wood or angry boar. The terrifying image of a wild boar charging and ripping apart my legs with its sharp tusks flashes through my mind.

This new-found fear hasn’t grown severe enough to keep me out of the woods around Kyoto. With only two weeks until my first Japanese trail race, I managed to get in 75K of running and some decent vert as well. Here’s how it went down.

Monday: Rest day, 45 minutes of easy yoga.

Tuesday: 8K easy along the Kamogawa river. There are so many birds along the river, herons, egrets, ducks and crows mostly. These are city birds, and they are used to seeing runners. Although the ducks and crows are commonplace to me, I still haven’t quite gotten over the novelty of watching a stately heron strolling along the river.

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An egret struts its stuff on the Kamogawa river.

Wednesday: A repeat of Damonjiyama, a small peak on the outskirts of Kyoto, for 17.7K. I was feeling tired but coaxed myself out nonetheless. I think Damonjiyama might be my favorite trail run around Kyoto so far. This time I didn’t mess around too much taking pictures, and as a result took a couple of crowns on Strava. Experienced mild boar phobia throughout.

Thursday: I probably pushed myself too hard on Wednesday as I felt fatigued on Thursday. I decided to take an extra rest day and did some easy yoga just to stretch out.

Friday: 10K easy along the river, and back via the Imperial Palace. I like that I can choose to run really flat in Kyoto. That’s a luxury I’ve never had in Norway. Running flat makes me feel like superwoman, since my times around automatically much faster than they would be on the hilly terrain back home!

Saturday: I took the train to the picturesque Arashiyama district to explore some new trails. Unfortunately, I was cut off by the road I was planning to run becoming private only 2K into my run and wasn’t able to complete the loop I had plotted out. I ran back to Arashiyama proper, fuming about the stupidity of private roads. I finally picked up the Kyoto Trail on the outskirts of Arashiyama. The trail led me up to a little viewpoint in the forest. On the way up, the boar phobia set in for real. I wish I had taken pictures of some of the patches of earth that I had convinced myself could only be the result of a boar rooting for food.

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A view of Arashiyama from the boar-infested forest.

It was a hazy, hot day, and by the time I stumbled out of the forest and back onto the pavement I felt hot and bothered. The water in my backpack was warm and tasted plastic-y, but I was able to supplement it with a can of Orangina from one of the ubiquitous vending machines. I churned out the final few kilometers along the Katsura river to the train station, and collapsed in a stinky puddle on the train back to the city center. If only autumn would start for real!

Sunday: After some major deliberating on what to do with my Sunday, I decided to run another piece of the Kyoto Trail, from northern Kyoto to Arashiyama. I started by taking the bus out to Kinkakuji, the famous Golden Pavilion temple. I was eager to get to trails and bypassed the temple, promising myself I would go back on another day for sightseeing. I jogged up through a residential district, and took a path up some stairs through the woods, glaring at an ominous sign depicting snarling wolves chasing small children. There aren’t really wolves here? I thought incredulously, what on earth is that sign trying to tell me? 

I veered off the road onto a singletrack trail that wasn’t marked, except for a ‘wildlife protection area’ sign at the entrance. Oh great, I thought, They’re protecting the boars now. A little afraid the trail might dead end (or lead to a nest of boars), I was surprised to find it weaving pleasantly through the forest, dovetailing a charming river. I was absolutely certain I would see a boar now, on this unmarked route, and my heart was in my throat the whole time. 

The climbing eventually started, winding steeply up the hillside towards a small lake called Sawanochi. I wasn’t on the Kyoto Trail yet, but there were some small trail signs in illegible Japanese that at least indicating that this was hiking trail. The forest encroached on the trail, and I was hunched over, occasionally holding my hands in front of my face to push away overgrown bushes.

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At the top of the climb, the trail joined the Kyoto Trail, and I breathed a sigh of relief. There is something comforting about the official-looking signs of the Kyoto trail, mounted on stout, immovable poles. The Kyoto Trail always looks like it’s going somewhere

Now the Kyoto Trail took me back down the hill, first on technical singletrack, then on a pleasantly runnable forest road. I was next led onto a paved road in a small village, and was jogging along when a whole convey of small pick-up trucks carrying oddly-drssed men with a series of gold statues appeared. At first I wondered if they were monks, but a whole passel of schoolboys in similar garb showed up behind them. It must have been a religious ceremony of some sort...

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Anyone know what these people could be up to?

I didn’t stay to figure out what was going on, but instead took the Kyoto Trail off the road and down to a pleasant path along the river that winds its way towards Arashiyama. The river is deep in the recesses of a steep, wooded hillside, and reminded me vaguely of Vermont, my home state.

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Beautiful running along the river

Once again the lovely trail dumped me on a road. I nearly ran past the little red archway, but stopped when I saw the sign for ‘Mt Atago’. Recognizing the name of one of the larger peaks around Kyoto that I had been meaning to get up, I spontaneously decided to throw an extra mountain into my outing. I went hard uphill, relishing the long, steady climb, passing more hikers than I had seen all day. This was clearly a popular outing. The summit of Mt Atago is (of course) a big temple. I stopped at the entrance, wondering if I had to pay to go in, but decided to just turn around. I was starting to run out of food and water, so I didn’t want to idle any longer than I had to.

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The summit of Mt Atago

The descent was a delight, perfect technical trail that wasn’t too steep so I could really bomb down it, channeling my inner Kilian. Some hikers stopped to cheer me on and asked if I was training for the Olympics. 

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The view of Kyoto city from Mt Atago.

Back at the base of the mountain, I ground up and over the hill to Arashiyama. I was completely out of water at this point, and regretted only bringing a 5000 yen bill with me - the vending machines don’t take those! The closer I got to the Arashiyama train station, the thicker the crowds of tourists grew. I eventually gave up weaving through the crowds and stopped to buy a roasted tea soft serve ice cream and walk the last kilometer to the station.

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Roasted tea soft serve, a Japanese treat!

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Marathon Monks' Mountain (and more)

On Sunday I decide to run Mt Hiei, which overlooks Kyoto from the northeast. This mountain is home of the marathon monks, who use one thousand days of long distance walking as a means of achieving enlightenment, so it seemed like a fitting objective for a long run. I decided to tackle the mountain as a point-to-point run, taking the train to Ogotoonsen on the shores of Lake Biwa, and running over Mt Hiei back to Kyoto. (It all makes sense if you look at the Strava activity).

Although Ogotoonsen is only 20 minutes outside of the center of Kyoto, it is truly the countryside. The rice patties begin just beyond the train station. Although there were signs for the highway up Mt Hiei, there was no indication that it might be possible to hike up this side. I was determined to find the way nonetheless. Examining my GPX track, I noticed that there was a trail that dovetailed the section of road I had planned to run in the beginning. I decided to look for it. I soon discovered that all access to this trail had been blocked off by the rice farmers, who had put up locked gates. After messing around for a while, I decided to abort this futile mission and just follow the track I had created.

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Rice farms and the mountains in the distance on the outskirts of Ogotoonsen

After running past farms and an area filled with houses, I crossed under the highway and continued on a small road uphill. This was clearly not a popular hiking trail. I began to wonder if this whole trip was a bad idea, especially when I stumbled across what was clearly a warning sign. Using Google Translate, I ascertained cars weren’t allowed on this road. I wondered why this was, imagining a crumbling, washed out road or a road that just petered out into the forest. I decided to try anyway.

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Would you go up this road?

The road climbed steeply through the tranquil forest. As a result of disuse, the asphalt was slowly being reclaimed by the forest floor. I was utterly alone, and I soon removed the headphones I habitually wear, especially when running the roads. I wanted to listen to the sounds of the forest. Then I saw a grey, rounded something moving through the trees in front of me.

Boar. It must be a wild boar. I had read that there are wild boar (and bears!) in Japan, and I was fairly sure I had just seen one. Visions of the creature ripping my stomach open with sharp tusks flashed through my mind. What should I do? Should I turn? I was far away from help if anything happened. Why don’t I have my med kit on me?? I decided the best course of action was to try not to surprise the boars. I needed to make noise, so I started to sing. At first I was so nervous no lyrics came to mind, but the singing heartened me and soon I was belting out my favorite tunes like I was being judged on Idol.

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Alone in the forest

Soon enough I had finished climbing the scary, boar-infested road and found the connecting trail that lead me to the main Kyoto Trail. Thankfully, the Kyoto Trail is copiously marked (although in Japanese) and frequently travelled. I soon heard the tinkle of her bear bell, and met a Japanese hiker making her merry way through the forest. I wished I had a bear bell. I noted that the change in my running vest pocket made a jingling sound when I ran, but since I was mostly powerhiking up hill the effect was limited.

The trail did a series of steep rollers, ascending ever higher. Heavy rain on Friday had rendered the soil slick, and I took the short, steep descents very carefully. I passed over the smaller summits of Mizuiyama and Yokotakayama, and I knew that Mt Hiei was next.

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What a beautiful world! On Yokotayama

The area near the summit was filled with different temple complexes, and the trail ran parallel with the highway. Of course the summit is the most developed place in the area! I thought. The temple complexes were cool though, especially the one with the raked zen garden.

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I believe this temple is called Jodoin.

The summit itself was a total anticlimax. There was a huge radio tower on top, gated of course. So I couldn’t even climb the final meters to the summit! This fights against my unholy desire to get to the top, but there was nothing to do about it. So I went back to the viewpoint that all the other hikers had stopped at (for obvious reasons!). It was a hazy day, and the view point overlook the hills north of Kyoto. The haze turned the hills into the layers of gauzy blue, mountains beyond mountains.

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Selfie ‘on top’ of Mt Hiei.

I was able to follow the Kyoto Trail downhill, and make much better time with less route finding than uphill. As I descended, it gradually grew hotter and hotter until I felt like my brain would actually cook into a mush. I couldn’t imagine grinding out the last 5 kilometers on pavement back to my apartment, and decided to treat myself to an air conditioned bus ride once I got down.

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Descending through the forest

I spent the rest of the run daydreaming about finding a vending machine that sold a particular grapefruit juice I have developed a fondness for. Imagine my delight when I got to press the ice cold soda can into my sweaty hand, and drink its contents on an air conditioned bus!

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Cold grapefruit goodness.

Conclusion on Mt Hiei? There are probably better access routes that that abandoned road to get to the trail. A nice run once I got to the trail though.

Here’s how the rest of my week went down.

Monday: Rest day. One hour of strength yoga (was sore for a couple days afterwards, hence less strength work this week than last).

Tuesday: I decided to play with bigger volume (running more kilometers) this week, and so I went for a fairly long run on Tuesday. I went to check out a small peak on the outskirts of Kyoto that’s been on my radar for a while, namely Daimonjiyama. I had to run about 4K on pavement to get to the base, during the course of which I meet a friendly Chinese runner who recognize my UTMB (OCC) shirt. He was on vacation with his family, and just sneaking out for a morning run along the river.

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Friendly Chinese guide.

It was a perfect day, sunny but for once not oppressively hot. I was delighted by the new trails, and happy to meet yet another friendly runner, this time a Japanese, who asked if I had lost my way. (I hadn’t, I was just studying my map to make sure I knew exactly where I was!)

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From the summit, all of Kyoto lay spread out before my feet. 

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The downhill trail passed by a waterfall, and through beautiful open groves of trees. I did this run at a leisurely pace, but rest assured I’ll be back - to take down all of the QOMs on the mountain!

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17K, 461 vertical, 2h17min 

Wednesday: Easy recovery run to Umekoji park near the train station. I met what seemed to be an entire high school Ekiden team running laps around the park. Although I had been feeling sluggish at first, their energy spurred me on and I sped up considerably as I ran a couple laps in the park. 6.6K, 0 vertical (yup), 40min + 20 min easy yoga

Thursday: Another longish run, this time on pavement. I ran the Philosopher’s Walk and then the Imperial Palace park. So much sightseeing done while running! My legs felt light and fast, so I rolled out some fairly fast kilometers with minimal effort. My legs aren’t quite used to running at this speed, so I felt the effects the next day.

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Selfie along the Philosopher’s Path. The trees will all be changing color soon.

14.6K, 60 vertical, 1h24min

Friday: Recovery run, to Umekoji park and then Kamogawa river. I felt like crap, but meditated on the Trial of Miles as described in the immortal running classic Once a Runner. 7.6K, 41 vertical, 46min + strength training

Saturday: Mom came back to Kyoto after a week of work in other parts of Japan, and we went for an easy run. I took her to the Philosopher’s Path, although we took the subway a little ways out and back to make the overall mileage shorter than on Thursday.

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Running for the camera under a giant torii.

7.3K, 39 vertical, 51min

Sunday: Mt Hiei adventure, 24K, 1029 vertical, 4h1min


Running: 77.2K, 1628 vertical, 10h

Two yoga sessions, one strength session

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Two Wild Bazilchuks in Kyoto

Last week, my mother came to visit me here in Kyoto and I took a few days off from work to get in some sightseeing. I’ve done a little sightseeing on my own, but I seem to gravitate more towards the ‘can I run there?’ than actually walking around and looking at things like a good little tourist. Here’s what we did; some of it is most definitely on the beaten track, while others are more on their own little side trail.

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Mom enjoying herself despite jeglag in Gion.

The first afternoon, I took an extremely jetlagged Mom to Gion. The Gion district is where old Kyoto lives on, and is famous for being the area where the geishas lived and trained. All the tacky tourist shops in the world (and there are plenty) can't seem to rob the mystique from Gion. In a weird juxtaposition of old and new, people wander around Gion in rental kimonos, often taking selfies. My favorite feature of Gion is all of the houses that have trees growing in closed-off courtyards, giving the impression that the trees are emerging from the houses themselves.

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Trees appear to grow out of the houses in Gion.

We walked from Kawaramachi up to Kiyomizudera temple, which takes about an hour depending on how much you stop. I still haven’t been inside any of the temples in the this area. It’s kind of enough just to walk around and soak in the ambiance. Afterwards we had okonomiyaki, a kind of Japanese savory pancake, at a little restaurant called Kiraku at the foot of Kiyomizu.

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Okonomiyaki (left), fried noodles (center) and grilled Japanese yam with bonito (right).

The next day, after a refreshing morning run, we headed out to walk the Kawaramachi shopping district and the Nishiki market. We stopped for what we thought would be a quick cup of coffee at a little café near Karasuma station. They had the world’s slowest service; it literally took 20 minutes to place our order and another 30 minutes for the baristas to make 2 cups of coffee. I will not be frequenting that one...

After quickly downing our so slowly prepared lattes, we headed to Nishiki market. This large covered market seems to go on forever. They sell all kinds of strange Japanese food, making me wish I knew what everything was. There were colorful pickled vegetables in all varieties, cracker-like snack foods in all shapes and sizes, various fried things on sticks (I tried something with quails eggs), and even a shop making fresh bonito flakes, a staple of the Japanese kitchen. In addition to the food shops there was also a Snoopy shop and a number of other fun, little boutiques. It took a long time to walk through the whole market due to the crowds, and we were bombarded with new sights and smells the whole time. The whole experience was pretty cool, if a little claustrophobic. 

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Mom considers the pickled vegetables at Nishiki Market.

Next we went to a very large and posh department store called Takashimaya for lunch. The restaurant area was on the top floor, and we ascended through several floors of luxury goods before we saw the kimono floor. They had some truly breathtaking silk kimonos for sale there - I would go there just to check them out! There were numerous busy restaurants on the top floor, and we finally picked one with only a moderate line. The food was beautifully presented in typical Japanese fashion.

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Clockwise from the left: Udon noodles with tempura shrimp, mystery side (probably involved pickled vegetables), sweet rice wrapped in tofu ’skin’. The little bottle in the center is Japanese seven spice, a condiment I am growing to adore since I like to add a little spice to my food.

Next we took the train out to Inari to visit Fushimi Inari Shrine, famous for the rows of torii. I wanted to hike up Mt Inari again, but it began pouring rain and we only made it about halfway before aborting the mission to drink tea in a little café. The rain looks good on Fushimi Inari, though!

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The entrance torii at Fushimi Inari

In the evening I took Mom out for Shinkansen sushi, at Kappa Sushi Nishkyogoku. It’s basically conveyer belt sushi, but there’s an upper conveyer belt that is used if you order special pieces, and the pieces come on their own toy Shinkansen train. Only in Japan! Kappa Sushi is a little outside the downtown, but it’s cheap sushi and fun presentation. 

The next day, we took the train out to Arashiyama, anther old district on the outskirts of Kyoto city. There were numerous temples, and we dutifully paid to see the insides of some of them. I often felt we were getting a little ripped often as the areas we paid to see weren’t very big. I wonder if it would be better to sell a sort of ‘all access pass’ to the temples in this area, instead of each temple charging its own admission.

The highlights were the bamboo forest, which was beautiful if a little crowded...

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Light filtered through the bamboo

…a yummy lunch of soba noodles and dipping sauce at a small café...

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…and a visit to Adashino Nenbutsu-ji temple, which contains thousands of tiny statues commemorating the souls of the dead.

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There were also some cool houses with thatched roofs that reminded me vaguely of the Rohan people in the Lord of the Rings. Apparently Arashiyama will be even morning beautiful when the leaves start to turn in a months’ time, so I’ll be back!

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Thatched roofs in Arashiyama.

In the evening we headed to Yamafuku for shabu-shabu (Japanese hot pot). The restaurant was really hard to find - I didn’t see it until I was literally next to the entrance! After taking our shoes off we were seated in a room on tatami mats, and treated to excellent service. The waiters spoke great English and explained how to eat everything (not always obvious in Japan!). While other types of hot pot I’ve tried are spicy, the Japanese is richly balanced, from the salty-but-creamy flying fish and soy milk broth to the sweet dipping sauce. We had wafer-thin, exquisitely marble slices of beef and pork, vegetables, and tofu. A great dinner, if not the largest portions I’ve eaten.

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Shabu-shabu at Yamafuku

After all this strenuous tourist activity, it was time to retreat to the spa town of Kinosakionsen on the north coast. We took the train from Kyoto midday on Saturday, and I enjoyed the quintessential Japanese train food: the Bento box. 

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I ate everything except the weird, glutinous rice on the lower right.

Kinosaki is a charming old-fashioned hotspring (‘onsen’) town that has been in use since the 8th century. Mom and I checked into our ryokan, or traditional Japanese hotel, and cooed over the neat decor and cotton kimonos, or yukata, in the closet. From the information in our room, we divined that you were supposed to put on the yukata and then walk from hotspring to hotspring in Kinosaki. Giggling like little girls, we put on our yukata.

“Are we really going to walk around in these things?” said Mom incredulously.

“Of course! How often do you have the opportunity to do something like this?” I enthused, although I privately was afraid of feeling silly.

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Mom in the garden at our ryokan in her yukata.

Once downtown, it became abundantly clear that yukatas were the outfit of choice for hot spring goers. We blended in nicely, except for the fact that we were the only Western tourists in sight.

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Ice cream eating in yukata

The hot springs were basically public bathhouses. Since everyone is nude inside I couldn’t take pictures, but they were typically beautifully laid out with both indoor and outdoor pools. We visited three hot springs, which was more than enough soaking for me. At least there was post-soak beer!

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Beer drinking in yukata

In the evening a group of kimono-clad women performed a traditional Japanese dance through the streets of Kinosaki. They wore odd, tapered hats that obscured their faces, but this had the effect of removing the focus from their faces and moving it to their dancing.

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Dancers in the streets of Kinosaki.

Here’s to a great weekend of sightseeing! (I’ll be back to my old tricks soon enough)

- The Wild Bazilchuk