The first person to turn up at the meeting spot for the jogging-kon (jogging matchmaking party) — other than myself — is a 24-year-old male still dressed in his business suit.
“I’m a bit early but is this where I should check in for the jogging party?” he asks, bearing a slight resemblance to soccer player Atsuto Uchida.
It’s 6:25 p.m. on a Wednesday night. The event doesn’t even kick off until 7 p.m.
After changing into his jogging gear, the man I’ll call “Uchida” begins to stretch beside me. I decided to get straight to the point. “Is this the first time you have attended a jogging party?” I ask. “Do you run on a regular basis?”
“This is my first time,” Uchida replies. “A colleague of mine recommended it to me. I run almost every day, maybe about 10 km.”
He confesses that he hasn’t had a girlfriend for about six months. In any case, Uchida says with a wry smile, his female co-workers are mostly in their 40s and 50s.
There are a variety of jogging parties, but the one I am taking part in is conducted in a relatively simple format. Participants are asked to form a line according to gender and jog around the 5-km course around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, taking turns to chat with a potential partner at the same time. Each pair has eight minutes to talk to each other before they are required to move on to someone else. There are eight men and six women participating on this night.
The 14 participants gather in a circle and began stretching at 7:10 p.m. The organizers then deliver a brief set of instructions.
“We’ll run the 5 km in about an hour, so it won’t be that tough,” one of the organizers says. “Then we will return here and enjoy some free time before announcing if any matches have been made.”
Standing beside me is a female participant wearing pink adidas shoes.
“Hey, how you doin’?” I ask. “Is this your first time?”
“Yes, this is my first jogging party,” she replies, before asking me how old I was.
“I’m 35,” I reply, but quickly wonder if I should have gone with 33 or maybe even 30. “How about you?”
“I’m 23,” she says, and then giggles. “Just kidding! Ha! I’m 32.”
Her generous smile creates a dimple on her left cheek.
We set off at 7:20 p.m. The pace is extraordinarily slow, and I’m beginning to wonder whether the event is actually a clear example of false advertising. Hard-core runners stare menacingly at our leisurely group as they pass, but the jogging-kon participants are far too lost in conversation to notice.
There are only three or four topics that come up between most of the couples during their eight-minute exchange. The top two questions for the night are “How often do you run?” and “Is this your first time around the Imperial Palace?”
Then they would generally ask about their partner’s job or which area in Tokyo they are from. By the end of those questions, the pace-setter running at the front will have instructed runners to change partners.
“I like jogging, but I also go scuba diving,” one 27-year-old female tells me.
“This is fun. It’s more natural than going to an omiai meeting,” she says, referring to a formal traditional custom in which unattached individuals are introduced to each other to consider the possibility of marriage.
The 14 participants return to the meeting spot near the palace at 8:30 p.m., with each one looking livelier and much more relaxed. After a few minutes of stretching, however, the organizers pass out a pen and piece of paper. A ripple of tension suddenly spreads throughout the group.
The participants start sizing up the other members of the group, hopeful that this could be the night of that life-changing encounter. Further conversations take place. A woman speaks about her recent trip to Okinawa. A man talks about his experience running a full marathon. And all the while, the evaluation continues. The participants are then told to write down the names of three people they met over the evening that they liked. The ballots are then turned in.
The event ends at 9 p.m. sharp, with an announcement from the organizers that there were five matches. Uchida and the girl with dimples are one of them. The successful couples leave side by side and disappear into the streets of Tokyo, exchanging some last-minute details as they head for their respective homes.
The end result leaves me happy for the rest of the evening, safe in the knowledge that there are plenty of folk out there still trying to find someone special despite their overloaded work schedules. Three men and a woman walk away from the event alone but, judging from their demeanor, I am certain they will live to fight another day. If nothing else, at least they managed to squeeze some excercise in.