Voices | FOREIGN AGENDA

On the run: Taking up the world's new hobby

Japan's stay-at-home requests don't mean you can't stay healthy, as long as you do so responsibly

by Andreas Neuenkirchen

Contributing writer

The other day I got the consolidated results from my last three annual health checks in the mail. Before I could destroy the evidence, my wife found it and, somewhat reproachfully, pointed out the column documenting my weight. Yes, all three numbers were above my ideal average, but there was also a bright side, I thought.

“See, even though I hardly worked out, I actually lost a bit of weight every year,” I said, only to be corrected by my wife: “No, you have to read the numbers in the other direction.”

So, I picked up running again, which I had been somewhat serious about years ago. After my final Tokyo Marathon (so far) in 2015, however, I took a break that lasted much longer than intended. It wasn’t uneventful, however: I became a father, I transitioned from receiving regular corporate paychecks and benefits to being a freelance writer (fantastic timing, I know), and my family settled in Japan for good. Any minute not spent writing, parenting, or learning the language seemed a waste of time.

On your marks

I couldn’t have picked a better time for my comeback. My work may not be dramatically impacted by the current circumstances (if people don’t have time to read now, then they never will!), but certain types of assignments and social distractions have undeniably slowed down. An excellent opportunity to work on literary passion projects of questionable monetary merit — like that epic, experimental Bruce Lee novel my agent and several well-meaning publishers have tried to talk me out of — and get my physique back into shape. It turned out to be a great combination. Contrary to my expectations, I am not too exhausted to work after running. I am only too exhausted to get up every five minutes and do something completely unrelated to work that springs suddenly to mind, like climbing up the loft to look for that one CD that I haven’t listened to since the 1990s or making sure we have enough cockroach traps for summer.

The rules of the road

Japan’s “lockdown” is an odd beast. While I stay home in Tokyo as much as possible, I can hear people outside continuing life as normal. I’ve surmised from this that the responsibility of a lockdown is on each individual for now, which also means I’m able to sneak out, thankfully, if there’s a good reason for it.

Fortunately, keeping healthy in a pandemic is generally considered one of those good reasons and will not lead to public shaming. Of course, you’ll have to obey the rules of social distancing, which are now global standards (that’s 2 meters apart). Most importantly: Don’t run in groups. But why would you want to? To me, running has always been a celebration of solitude, a break from the friendly chatter of our family home or the not-always-so-friendly chatter of the office environment.

If you spot other people on the street: Run! OK, you’re running already. So: Run faster! This is the time to be unapologetic about being antisocial and break a few personal records. If you can, wear a mask. If that’s too much of a bother while exercising (I can empathize), try working with a scarf or generously proportioned collar. At least keep your mouth shut when you dash by others.

Don’t say ‘spread’

Tokyo offers several popular running trails, spread all over the greater metropolitan area. In a time when the word “spread” on its own sounds rather dangerous, you should obviously choose a location for your run that can be reached from your neighborhood without relying on public transport.

Lucky are those river folks. The Meguro River, my own neighborhood stream, stretches through no less than three wards (Setagaya, Meguro and Shinagawa). During cherry blossom season in any other year, its promenades are overrun with snap-happy outside visitors. In all other seasons, it’s a place where runners, cyclists and dog-owners of all ages can peacefully coexist.

The many malls of Futako-Tamagawa in Setagaya Ward may be closed for business for the time being, but the shores of the Tama River in that area still offer a superb running trail of 40 to 50 kilometers (depending on who you ask). It’s also one of the least likely places to run into lots of innocent bystanders. In Komazawa Olympic Park, also in Setagaya Ward, you will find designated lanes for runners and cyclists. That may seem overly restrictive, but right now separation is the name of the game. Several spots in Odaiba, as well as the mother of all Tokyo running courses, the 5-kilometer trail around the Imperial Palace, offer facilities along the way to change, shower and sample the latest energy snacks. However, those places are momentarily closed until at least May 6.

If you can’t comfortably reach these or similar destinations (how about a bike ride, while you’re at it?), just explore your neighborhood. There are definitely fewer people on the streets now. It’s a great chance to look into all those little alleys that you have always passed by yet never entered. It’s also a great way to get terribly lost, but modern mobile mapping technology should prevent the worst.

When I say, “you” should wander the back alleys, I mean people other than myself. While my daughter’s pre-school still keeps its doors open despite government requests not to, I have wised up to the risks out there and taken her out voluntarily, becoming a full-time parent again. She does grant me a couple of moments a day for myself, but I have to choose between running and working. Once again, I’m afraid I have to listen to reason. But I’m cautiously optimistic that this new break from running won’t last another five years.

Andreas Neuenkirchen is a German novelist and essayist based in Tokyo.

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