Saturday, September 15, 2018

Race Report: Osaka Marathon

On a whim, I put my name into the mix for a lottery spot in the Osaka Marathon in April 2017, which would occur over the US' Thanksgiving weekend.  I usually try to find an international race to run this weekend, which provides me two holidays on the fourth Thursday and Friday of that month.  Two months later, I found out I was accepted into the race!  Fast forward to November, and I'm headed to Asia for the second time that year.  I decide to extend the long weekend by an additional two days, spending a couple nights in Seoul as well.  Wednesday night after work, I head to JFK Airport and lounge around at the airport for a few hours before my flight, leaving near 1AM - a whopping 14 hour flight from New York City JFK to Seoul Incheon Airport. I did pretty well for the long flight, sitting comfortably in Korean Air Lines' economy class, one of the better economy classes amongst the world's airlines.  We arrived in Seoul 4am, literally the first people arriving in the airport for the day.  While I make my way through the terminal and with barely any wait in connections, I head to the KAL Prestige Class lounge (thanks to my status with Delta), and catch some z's before my flight to Osaka, which wouldn't leave for another four hours.

The Seoul to Osaka flight was quick, only in the air for about 1.5 hours, and after landing at Kansai International Airport. It's an airport I've always wanted to visit, after learning about its controversial construction; while lauded for its innovative sliding joints technology, built to withstand earthquakes such as the 6.9 earthquake in nearby Kobe in 1995, the artificial island it was built on (which was expected to sink due to the weight of the material used for construction compressing the seabed) sank much more than anticipated, becoming the most expensive civil works project in modern history after twenty years of planning, three years of construction and $15 billion US dollars of investment.  Not only that, it has the longest single airport terminal in the world, a total of 1.1 miles from one end to the other.  Once getting landside, I stood in line to get my "2 Day Osaka Amazing Pass," a ticket that allowed me to not only take unlimited rides on the Osaka Metro, it also provided me free entry or special discount for 35 tourist spots around the city, over the course of 48 hours.  For ¥3300, or just under $30, it's a pretty amazing deal, especially if you take advantage of the discounts and free entries.

Made it to Osaka!
I then proceeded to take a limousine bus into the city, which took me from the airport to Osaka Station in roughly an hour.  This is probably the most recommended way to get from the airport to the city, costing ¥1550, or $14 USD.  From there, I was able to experience Japanese culture firsthand, hitting the ground running (not literally... I had a suitcase with me!) while getting my bearings on the very sophisticated Osaka subway. I eventually found my way to my Airbnb to drop off my bags, at a location near the Temmabashi subway station on the Tanimachi line, just north of the Ōkawa River in the neighborhood of Tenma. I was given the combination to the lock for the mailbox, where the key to my room was located, and in I went.  Mind you, Osaka is not too familiar/wary with Airbnb, so I was told that if I encountered anyone wondering why I was staying here or instead of a hotel, to call it a homestay/staying with friends.

The rainbow carpet at the expo
After dropping off my things, I went straight to the expo, which was quite an experience in and of itself.  The expo was all the way on the other side of town, at the INTEX Osaka (International Exhibition Center, Osaka) on Sakishima Island, an artificial island developed in the 1970s as a planned business, exchange, and trading district in Osaka Bay.  To get there, I took the metro from Temmabashi to Cosmo Square, a 23 minute train ride with a connection. It was a bit of a walk to get from the station to the expo, on a windy day.  When I arrived at the expo, it was a little confusing to get through; when I registered, we were requested to pick a color that corresponds with a charity of our choosing for a portion of our race registration to go to, however we were not considered charity runners for the race.  I tried to follow the basic directions as I could when picking up my packet, but ended up in multiple lines trying to figure out the process.  Eventually, I was able to pick up my packet, despite the confusion.  Afterward, we were directed through a multiple switchback "course" through the hall, zigzagging along past the different booths hawking official merchandise provided by Mizuno to Asahi beer to various energy drinks.  It was somewhat chaotic.
Enjoying an Asahi beer during the expo
So much food at the expo!
Near the end of the booths, I find the INKnBURN Japan booth, and ended up meeting with INKnBURN founder Megan Wheeler Tsuyuki, who created a local "satellite" in Japan to sell her INKnBURN products, many of which they were selling at the expo, including a special Osaka Marathon branded shirt, which I ended up purchasing.  Then there was the food court - never before have I seen a huge focus on food at a race expo than here at the Osaka Marathon expo, but then again, Osaka is the culinary capital of Japan.  Apparently, this is common at race expos; both Tokyo and Nagoya Women's Marathon, which a few of my friends have run, have said this was present at their race expos too.  Here, I have my first taste of one of Osaka's iconic dishes - okonomiyaki - a Japanese savory pancake with a batter made of flour, grated nagaimo (a type of yam), water or dashi, eggs and shredded cabbage, and filled with green onions, thin pork belly, various seafoods, and vegetables, and topped with katsuobushi (bonito flakes). It was delicious, and QUITE filling. I also made room for some takoyaki, another Osaka favorite - diced octopus (tako), tempura scraps (tenkasu), pickled ginger, and green onion all in a wheat-flour based batter, then cooked into the shape of a ball in a specially molded pan.  I didn't enjoy it as much as the okonomiyaki, but this would be the first chance I gave it.. maybe another try later would make it better.

Tempozan Ferris Wheel
Tsutenkaku Tower lit up at sundown
After spending a decent amount of time in the expo, I decided to make use my Osaka Amazing card for entry onto the Tempozan Ferris Wheel (at the time of its opening in 1997 the tallest ferris wheel in the world, but now in 19th place), getting an opportunity to view Osaka from 369 feet above during the 17 minute ride, then raced back into downtown to get another view now that the sun was going down at the Tsutenkaku Tower. At 338 feet tall, this tower is one of Osaka's most symbolic landmarks since it opened in 1956.  While there, the observation deck on the 5th floor has become a shrine of Billiken, the God of Happiness or "things as they ought to be." The statue of Billiken, a popular American charm doll that came to Japan in the early 20th century, became closely associated with the tower and is a popular symbol of good luck. Thousands of visitors place a coin in his donation box and rub the soles of his feet to make their wishes come true.  Additionally, the tower also has a floor dedicated to all things Pocky, a popular Japanese snack food of biscuit sticks usually coated with different flavored coatings, from chocolate to strawberry, to more exotic flavors such as green tea matcha and chestnut - which of course, I bought lots of to bring back home to friends, especially flavors that are unique to Japan, and aren't sold in the US!


The vibrant Dotonbori District!
It was still somewhat early, so before heading home, I decided to make a trip into the what can be deemed the "pure essence of Osaka," the Dotonbori District, to take advantage of the Japan Night Tour, another offering of the Osaka Amazing Pass. With multilingual guide Hachhan (who spoke not only Japanese, but also English and Korean,) I joined a small tour group of four other people and visited various sites all around the Shinsaibashi and Dotonbori area.  Stops included Hozenji Temple, located right in the center of this district (providing some beautiful ambience with beautiful paper lanterns lighting the adjacent street, Hozenji Yokocho, which literally means "street beside Hozenji;") Ukiyo Koji, a neighboring alleyway that served as a miniature history museum featuring reproduction maps of the cityscapes of Shinsaibashi and Dotonbori as they would have appeared in the Taisho Period to early Showa Period; the Aiaubashi Bridge, the site of a 300+ year old bridge regarded as a place where couples could sever their ties to each other; and the famous giant "Glico running man" neon billboard, installed in 1935 as an advertisement for the Glico confectionery company - all during the 45 minute tour.

Posing in front of the gate at Hozenji Temple
So much takoyaki!
Of course, the tour also included recommendations of the best food to find in Dotonbori - some of the food Osaka is famous for can be found in food stalls all around the area. Osaka, in fact, even has its own word closely associated with the Dotonbori district to describe its food culture... the word "kuidaore" is a Japanese word literally meaning, "to ruin oneself by extravagance in food." Before the evening ended, I tried takoyaki one more time... and once again, it wasn't for me. To me, it tasted like tires, or rubber... maybe the octopus texture just wasn't the way I like it (I prefer my octopus to be grilled!)  I headed back to my Airbnb, ready to crash after a full day of sightseeing... with still much much more to do!

Japan Night Tour complete!

The beautiful pagoda at Shitennoji
I woke up early the next morning, ready to take on a very full day of sightseeing, all using my Osaka Amazing card!  First up was the Shitennoji Temple, regarded as the first Buddhist and one of the oldest temples in all of Japan. It was founded in the year 593 by Prince Shōtoku, a practicing Buddhist when Buddhism was still not widespread in Japan. He named the temple after the shitenno: four heavenly kings of Buddhist tradition who guard the world from evil.  The prince had prayed to these kings during a time of war, and when the war was over he had the temple built in order to give thanks. While some of the buildings have been destroyed by fire and rebuilt multiple times over the centuries, they have always been carefully reconstructed to reflect the original 6th century design. In the pebble covered courtyard of the inner precinct stand a five-storied pagoda that can be entered and ascended, and the Main Hall (Kondo) in which Prince Shotoku is enshrined.

Osaka Castle in all its glory
Hoping to get there early enough before most tourists would show up midday, I then headed up to Osaka Castle Park, to see one of Japan's most famous landmarks. Osaka Castle, which sits on 15 acres of land, played a major role in the unification of Japan during the sixteenth century of the Azuchi-Momoyama period; in addition to a tour of the turrets that surround the castle (some of the oldest structures in the whole complex) and learning about its defenses and surveillance methods, I toured all eight stories of the main castle, which was recently restored in 1997 to it's Edo-era splendor, starting from the top down.  It was a very busy morning, though -- already full of tourists, so there was a little bit of a wait to get in. For the most part, I was able to get the gist of the 521-year history of this important landmark, in addition to admiring the beautiful views from its observation deck on the top floor.

A beautiful view from the castle
Located on the southeastern end of the Osaka Castle Park is the Peace Osaka, also known as the Osaka International Peace Center.  This museum was very informative, focusing on the destruction of Osaka after the air raids in World War II, as well as the broader themes of the tragedy of war and the importance of peace.  I've been told an even more informative museum along the same themes exists in Hiroshima (where one of the atomic bombs during the war was dropped), but I highly recommend this one in Osaka, especially for English speakers, as there is an audio guide, some video presentations, and some exhibits all translated into English.

After a quick ramen to ease my hungriness for lunch at a nondescript ramen shop nearby, I headed down to Tennoji Park, where I seemed to walk into a dog meetup of some sort, since there were dogs all of the Shiba Inu breed wandering all around the park with their owners.  I even witnessed one of the most strange things ever - a group of people seemingly doing line dances with their dogs.  In any case, after walking through this veritable "twilight zone," I headed over to the Tennoji Zoo, Japan’s second largest and third oldest zoo, having opened in 1915. The 11-hectare zoo is a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, but not a particular interesting place - it contained many animals I've seen before, and in better maintained facilities.

Ukiyo-e woodblock printwork
Before dinner back in Dotonbori later that night, I fit in one more site before most of the museums closed for the day - the Kamigata Ukiyo-e Museum. Also included as part of the Osaka Amazing Pass, this museum is a small, but impressive private museum and the only one of its kind, showcasing the traditional Ukiyo-e woodblock prints of the Kamigata region (what the Osaka-Kyoto region was commonly called during the Edo period.)  These prints had much more realistic depictions than in other printmaking styles in Japan, tending to express the true personalities of their subjects. After perusing the beautiful works of art, I met up at a restaurant found by my friend Febry from California, who was running the race as well. Joining her and a few of her friends also coming to visit Japan, we had a delicious carbo-load fest on an Osaka favorite, kushikatsu, skewers of deep-fried assorted meat and vegetables. Probably not the best carb-loading due to all the oil, but it still hit the spot.

Ferry and I, ready for the race!
Afterward, we then got some Kyoto-style coffee at Caffe UCC, a sit down location of a popular coffee company, Ueshima Coffee Company, that manufactures coffee and tea products in nearby Kobe, but owns a coffee farm in Hawaii.  There, I had my eye on trying a unique slow-drip coffee brewed with a siphon, that was made popular in the nearby city of coffee.  Kyoto-style slow drip coffee is made by letting water slowly, drop by drop, drip over coffee grounds. As this process has evolved, Kyoto-style brewers have become more and more elegant. These brewers now resemble tall, gilded hourglasses. After enjoying my cup of coffee as a nightcap,  I headed back to my Airbnb to get my rest because the next morning was race day!

My kit all laid out, with my brand new INKnBURN shirt
The startline of the marathon
Like most international races, Osaka has a later start at 9, so wake up a couple hours earlier around 7am.  Thankfully for me, it was an easy 20 minute walk from my Airbnb to my corral, which I had mapped out the night before.  It's a chilly race morning in the low 40s as runners assemble on the roads northeast of Osaka Castle.  Lots of people are wearing shirts from other marathons in Japan, and it is no surprise to me that there are many of them in this country! Additionally, there are lots of costume-wearing runners - among them, I see a guy dressed in a full body suit as "Bowser" from the Super Mario series.  The race begins, and it is pretty crowded as we make our way down Uemachi-suji, the main road west of the castle.  In the first ten minutes of the race, there were lots of walkers around me, and several bottlenecks just after crossing the start mats - it seemed that there were more than a few Japanese celebrities participating in the race (more likely the much shorter 8.8 kilometer Challenge Run) that had tv crews around them and other runners with their camera phones out taking pictures.

Lots of people dress up for the races... even as Bowser! I wanna throw a blue shell at him!

J is for Jim... or my corral for the race :D
Minions on the run!
We continued down the road, turning left along Hommachi-Don, eventually running underneath the elevated highway.  We hit the first mile mark as we made a right turn past the bustling Morinomiya station at the southeast corner of Osaka Castle Park.  We would run a little over a mile down Tamatsukuri-suji, and along the way, I saw four runners dressed in full-on Minion costumes just ahead of me.  I picked up my speed a bit to get in front of them so I could capture them running past me with my cameraphone.  Before long, we were turning right along Sennichimae-dori, reaching our first real hill of the race.  It wasn't very big or long, so soon, we were making our way downhill, with an impressive view of the thousands of runners ahead of us, passing underneath the Hanshin Expressway and Nippombashi Station.

Running under the highway
Beautiful ginkgo trees along Mido-suji
Passing Namba Station, we turned left onto Mido-suji Boulevard, one of the most beautiful parts of the route, and the first part of the route we'd be repeating on an out-and-back section later in the race. Considered the primary main street of Central Osaka, Mido-suji is lined with ginkgo trees on both sides, and during the fall, the leaves turn into a most brilliant yellow color.  The line of yellow trees seems endless.  Here, we would be running for about 1.75 miles, passing some of the more high-end shopping areas of the city as well as running over the famous Dotonbori Bridge, which I had seen two nights before on my night walk tour.  The Challenge Runners would also be running this segment of the route with the marathoners right up to their finish line ahead. Because of the turn off for the marathoners, we were being regularly asked to move to the right to the much narrower frontage road, while the Challenge Runners would be to the left in the wide main street.  This was slightly frustrating, as there were many more marathon runners than challenge runners, so it felt as if we were being herded like cattle into this small area of road.

Before long, we split off to the right as the Challenge Runners made their way to their finish line in front of Osaka City Hall.  Marathoners went along a 1.5 mile route on Tosabori-dori Street, just one street away from the Kyu-Yodo River. It was an out-and-back route, as many runners were going in both directions on either side of the wide street.  We'd eventually make a turnaround near the Osaka Business Park, returning right back along Tosabori-dori, turning right onto Naniwa Bridge (best known for its pair of stone lion statues) and onto Nakanoshima Island.

Osaka Central Public Hall
Nakanoshima Island is actually a narrow sandbank that divides the Kyu-Yodo River into the Tosabori and Dojima Rivers. Many governmental and commercial offices (including the city hall of Osaka), museums and other cultural facilities are located on Nakanoshima.  The island also contains Osaka's first public park, Nakanoshima Park, which was opened in 1891 shortly after the city was founded. As we continued along the route through the island, we ran past an attractive red-bricked building, which I later found out was the Osaka Central Public Hall, a beautiful Neo-Renaissance building completed in 1918.  It was great hearing "Ganbatte" (Japanese for "good luck") or "Fighto!" yelled out by the many spectators that lined the streets here. I did my best, to utter out a breathless "Arigato!" or "Thank You!" whenever I could.  We were even entertained by a kids' cheerleading team, cutely dressed in obviously American-inspired cheerleading outfits!  We rounded the corner past Osaka City Hall, seeing the tail end of Challenge Run participants crossing their finsh line, as we continued on the return 1.75 section of the Mido-suji Boulevard, with a bit more space to be able to run on. By the time we got back down past the Dotonbori district, we were over 10.5 miles into the race.
Soy Sauce on the run...
Impressive... a full samurai costume!
We turned right onto Sennichimae Dori, now making our way further west, as we ran underneath an elevated highway once again. Soon, the elevated highway veered left, and we were left exposed, with the slightest increase in elevation up ahead, but that was because we were crossing the Taisho Bridge over the Kizu River. From the bridge, we could see the unmistakable dome of the Kyocera Dome Osaka, a 51,000 seat baseball stadium that's home to Orix Buffaloes, a Nippon Professional Baseball team. We made a slight right turn over another bridge, and then headed out to yet another turnaround point.  Along the way, I got to see a few other notable costumes - like a runner dressed as a Kikkoman Soy Sauce bottle, and a another runner in a full samurai warrior outfit!  As we made our way back, we finally reached the halfway point of the course, as we traced our way back to the node that we had turned already a few times on at Mido-suji Boulevard.

Lots of runners ahead...
There, we turned right, and began our southward jaunt right into the heart of Osaka's Naniwa Ward.  While we ran down a largely commercial street which makes up part of Japan's National Route 25, much of the rest of the area is pretty residential.  Past Daikokucho station, we turned right, and ran yet another out-and-back section (though a short one), lined with monotonous high rises aplenty - though high rises a little smaller than those in the downtown.  In the distance however, we could see Tsutenkaku Tower, before turning back.  After the 25km mark, we reached another turn onto Naniwa-suji, heading south once more into the Nishinari Ward. While a bit quieter than what we had run earlier, this section of the race was a bit repetitive and a little boring, to be honest; it was mostly all the same views.  I did notice though, that where there were spectators lined, they knew how far into the race we were and provided random runners with much needed Salonpas type pain relief-spray, as we soldiered on in this second half of the race.

So many TV towers, everywhere we went!
Enjoying the Maido Aid station!
Eventually, we were continuing south along Japan's National Route 26, a highway with its lanes divided by a metal barrier. We passed the 30k mark then turned right onto Nanko-dori, a road with a manicured topiary along the median, as we approached Osaka's Suminoe ward. Another turn took us onto another road, where long roads of tables lie in front of us. The "kuidaore" was out in full force as we passed the 32.5 kilometer mark, approximately 20 miles into the race.  The "Maido Aid" station, passes out amazing local food to runners, homemade bites of food made with care by people from local food vendors!  Among the treats were takoyaki (again!??) rice balls, bean jam buns, and cucumber rolls!  If anything, I realized the Japanese had perfected the way to get past the infamous "wall" during a marathon... feed all the runners!

Lots of dress-up on the course!
We turned right as we approached a lime green pedestrian bridge over the street, beginning our westward course on Suminoe-dori toward Sakishima Island, where the finish line was located, at the INTEX Osaka Building, site of the race expo.  The street was lined shoulder to shoulder by so many spectators at this point, as they cheered us in with less than 10K left in the race. Among those spectators were many dressed in elaborate costumes, that I made sure to get selfies with! Overhead, the tramway for the Nankō Port Town Line (known to locals as the "New Tram") rumbled, with trains heading in and out of Sakishima Island.  We passed a few large boat docks as we continued on toward the finish, passing the 35K mark.  We turned right as the road ahead merged with the elevated highway, eventually taking a ramp upward to the highway, which we ran along shortly as we crossed over onto the island, then followed the course as it made its way around to INTEX Osaka. The rain began to lightly fall as we approached the 38k mark, as we rounded the corner to the convention center.  I crossed the finish line in 4:56:07, thrilled to be back under 5 hours for a marathon!  After grabbing my photo in front of an okonomiyaki spatula (known as "kotekote" in Japanese) statue, I slowly walked back over to the Cosmosquare Metro station, and began the long trip back to my Airbnb near the startline.

Victory Headstand #1... with the okonomiyaki spatula!

Showing off my newest bling!
About to take my first bite of fugu
After showering and a long afternoon nap, I got back together with Febry and her friends for dinner that night, where we headed into the Namba area to get sushi.  We all decided to be daring and try fugu, or puffer fish, a delicacy in Japan. Fugu can be lethally poisonous due to toxins in its skin; therefore, it must be carefully prepared to remove toxic parts and to avoid contaminating the meat.  The restaurant preparation of fugu is strictly controlled by law in Japan, and only chefs who have qualified after three or more years of rigorous training are allowed to prepare the fish. We ordered fugu prepared three ways: sashimi, karaage, and shabu shabu. Additionally, we enjoyed some assorted sushi- both seafood and beef (tataki and niku), fried eggplant with miso (nasu nisyokudengaku), seasoned mackerel with sesame (goma saba), roast beef (rosuto beefu steiki), and five kinds of assorted sashimi (tsukuri mori Gosyumori).  The whole meal was quite filling... and good thing - I didn't die from the fugu!  In fact, it was very tasty!  We all walked over Dotonbori after our meal for Febry and I to get photos with our finisher medals in front of the Glico sign, and then I headed home to pack and get some much needed sleep.  The next morning, I was leaving Japan to fly off to Korea for two days!

Osaka was such a fun trip - and it's only a small part of Japanese culture.  I was so glad to be able to experience so much in the few days I was there, and also enjoy the incredible cuisine in Japan's food capital.

Victory Headstand #2!

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