Issues | THE FOREIGN ELEMENT

I walked the line: Getting reacquainted with Tokyo on the Yamathon

by Andreas Neuenkirchen

Contributing Writer

Like everyone else, I got into marathons as part of a midlife crisis. Now that I’ve transitioned comfortably into the routines of middle-age as I approach 50, however, family fun usually wins out over running.

I do miss it, though. Occasionally, I will fantasize a way to be a marathon runner without having to actually run a marathon. Half-marathons don’t count; once you’ve done a full marathon its hard to find the glamour in something with “half” attached to the front. No, I need to go all the way.

Cue the Tokyo Yamathon, an annual charity challenge organized by the International Volunteer Group that’s now in its ninth year. The objective is to walk the entire loop of the 34.5-kilometer Yamanote Line, Tokyo’s busiest commuter train line. Shinjuku, Shibuya and Ikebukuro stations are the busiest in the world, and the Yamathon’s one rule is that you must take a picture there and at each of the other 26 stations along the route.

Depending on your chosen path (detours and shortcuts are allowed), the entire distance roughly resembles that of a marathon. Running, however, is not encouraged, since participants will have to use regular city streets and sidewalks, alongside anyone else who happens to be out that day. For further security reasons, participants must walk in teams of threes or fours.

My own challenge in attempting this year’s Yamathon started with finding a team. Try as I might, I could convince neither friends nor colleagues of this splendid idea on how to spend the better part of a possibly beautiful spring Saturday (teams can be on the course for up to 12 hours). After much searching and pleading, I found an existing, experienced team that had an empty slot.

“We are very casual,” the team captain told me beforehand. “We usually stop for sightseeing and have one-hour lunch breaks.”

OK, I thought, I’ll have to tell my family I won’t be home for dinner after all.

Where are the characters?

Before the start of the event, on the morning of May 11, one thing seemed odd at the gathering point at the Tokia Building near Tokyo Station: Everybody looked so normal. Where were the “characters”?

At the regular Tokyo Marathon, which takes place early in the year, I ran beside a Jesus carrying a cross; multiple Darth Vaders (breathing heavily, of course); a police officer and a convict, handcuffed to each other; and a guy playing a giant tuba while he ran. At the Yamathon, the best I could find was a group of comely Englishmen dressed as German beer tent girls. For a moment I rejoiced: Was that the next cultural appropriation scandal waiting to be exposed? Was this my moment to shine as a reporter? No, I realized, I’m not about to deny anybody the joy of expressing their true selves. You go, girls!

After finally being let loose and escaping the “Make some noise!” motivational rituals at the Tokia Building (isn’t there enough noise in the world already?), walking the line counter-clockwise I was eager to see when we would come across the first station that I had never paid any mind to as a train traveler. It arrived quickly: Okachimachi. “How come I have never been here?” I thought. “They have a cinema and nice-smelling food.” Soon I realized: “Oh, it’s Ueno, just from the other side.”

The first rule of Ueno seems to be: You don’t go to Ueno unless you live in Ueno. Sure, the park is nice and the food is tasty, but the rest of Tokyo doesn’t exactly lack for parks and restaurants, so most likely those cravings can be satisfied closer to home. Ironically, with great public transport comes great laziness. Or maybe that’s just middle-age talking. Or maybe it’s just me.

Finding the characters

Not much later, it became clear why almost every Yamathoner looked so normal: Everybody who was inclined to dress up had other obligations in Ikebukuro. Passing an enormous cosplay gathering at a park, we couldn’t help but stop and stare at all the young, colorfully dressed people.

“So far, I recognize only one character,” one of my teammates said.

“So far, I recognize none,” I admitted. I do know that Ikebukuro is considered the “female Akihabara,” the place where women go to “geek out,” and I had always enjoyed it more than the actual Akihabara, yet I hadn’t gone in a while. From a certain age, it feels creepy to show too much interest in what is considered girls’ culture, so we moved on before it got weird. But it was good being back even if just for a short time.

First doubts

We were greeted by enthusiastic volunteers at idyllic Mejiro Station, the official halfway point of the Yamathon. There were rumors, however, that Mejiro was just the numerical middle point of the 29 stations, while the actual halfway point, distance-wise, would be Shinjuku Station.

The trek to Shinjuku seemed endless. There were first voices of discord, mixed with a hint of conspiracy-theory anxiety: “Surely Mejiro was the actual halfway point, don’t you think? They wouldn’t lie to us, would they?”

Jokes about “just taking the train” became less jokey. At Yoyogi Station, I reflexively pulled out my Pasmo. I quickly put it back before anybody noticed.

Two kinds of bad

Urban walkers: Shibuya Station is one of the 29 stops along the Yamanote Line and, as part of the Yamathon, participants must take their picture in front of every one of the stations on the line. | GETTY IMAGES
Urban walkers: Shibuya Station is one of the 29 stops along the Yamanote Line and, as part of the Yamathon, participants must take their picture in front of every one of the stations on the line. | GETTY IMAGES

What is the worst part of walking the Yamathon? I figured out there are two kinds of “bad.” First, there are the places that are bad to begin with, especially on the weekend. Navigating hordes of shoppers and tourists is maddening enough when you are yourself a shopper or a tourist. It’s worse when you are walking with a purpose. Snapping the obligatory photo at Shibuya Station, I wondered: “Does this place really need one more group posing with a selfie stick?”

The other “bad” is everything beyond Osaki Station. Experienced Yamathoners will tell you that the distance between stops gets longer from there. They’re right.

Between Osaki and Shinagawa, one member of our group said: “We’re doing great! Last year we had stopped talking at this point.”

A few minutes later, we stopped talking.

People online have been making fun of Takanawa Gateway, the new station about to open between Shinagawa and Tamachi. But I say, bring it on! There is definitely too much station-less space on that particular stretch of the Yamanote.

Eventually, we walked past Tokyo Tower, beautifully lit in the clear night. Nobody took a picture. You know things are bad when nobody takes a picture of Tokyo Tower. It’s like not taking a picture of the cherry blossoms.

Spirits were up again when we closed in on Yurakucho, the final stop. We were even able to pretend-run over the finish line. In the end, we hadn’t done too much sightseeing and had only allowed ourselves short breaks for convenience store sandwiches, sweets and ice cream (very unlike my prior marathon experiences), so we made the whole distance in a very respectable 11 hours and 17 minutes. We were proud of our achievement, happy to have raised some money for the Yokohama Children’s Hospice Project — and disappointed the free massage service had already ended.

Snack time: The team gathers to refuel during the more than 11-hour Yamathon trek that took place on May 11. The walking course follows Tokyo's central Yamanote railway line. | AYA ITO
Snack time: The team gathers to refuel during the more than 11-hour Yamathon trek that took place on May 11. The walking course follows Tokyo’s central Yamanote railway line. | AYA ITO

Shrinking Tokyo

I had two reasons for participating in this year’s Yamathon. Firstly, I wanted to casually dip my toe into this whole marathon thing again, just to see if I could still go the distance, even at a less-than-leisurely pace. Secondly, I wanted to refresh the bigger picture I have of my adopted hometown. The city seems to shrink once your daily routes are dictated by professional obligations and family needs. When friends from out of town visit and tell me about the cool places they’ve seen here, my reply often is something like: “Sure, I’ve been there. In 2003, I think.”

Concerning my sporty ambitions, the jury is still out. On the one hand, my feet and legs hurt worse than after any of my actual marathon experiences. Surely, there is no way I can ever think of running that distance again. On the other hand: For every real marathon I prepared vigorously for months. My only preparation for the Yamathon had been going to bed slightly earlier the night before.

Maybe it isn’t entirely hopeless, however, this is not the time to commit to anything more than a summer jog (as I write this, my feet are still covered in Band-Aids).

I had more measurable success in reconnecting with Tokyo as a city, one that stretches beyond the confines of my own neighborhood. While I can’t say that I discovered anywhere completely new, we came across so many things I had (almost) forgotten about, be it the geeky energy of Ikebukuro; the dark, narrow alleys of big, bright Shinjuku (still not sure they were shortcuts, but that may be beside the point); the calm of Mejiro’s tree-lined streets; or the mouth-watering ocean smell of Ueno’s food vendors. I was especially happy to find two murals dedicated to the works of Osamu Tezuka in Takadanobaba, the home turf of Astro Boy, one of the manga master’s most famous creations. Tezuka is the subject of one of my more ambitious current writing projects, and this surprise encounter gave me a good boost — to walk and to work.

I don’t know if I will repeat the Yamathon, and I’m not sure I will ever run again, at least not more than a sorry couple of kilometers along my neighborhood stretch of Meguro River. But I am certain I will revisit some of the places I got briefly reacquainted with while walking the line. Maybe even Ueno, only next time I will take the train.

For more information on the Yamathon, visit www.tokyo-yamathon.com. Andreas Neuenkirchen is a German novelist and essayist based in Tokyo.

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