Sometimes, riding the JR Yamanote Line feels like a challenge fit for an athlete. Crucial for many a city journey, this rail route transports millions of people each day, connecting them to the major transport hubs of Shinjuku, Shibuya and Ikebukuro — the three busiest train stations in the world.

Battling commuters for a seat on the Yamanote is one thing, but a more enjoyable challenge is walking the entire length of the 34.5 kilometer-long line, past all 30 of its stops.

That’s the idea behind the Tokyo Yamathon, which began in 2010. The annual event challenges groups of individuals to walk or jog the Yamanote in an effort to raise money for charity — an endeavor that typically takes around 12 hours to complete (in contrast, it only takes an hour or so to ride the entirety of the loop by rail).

After a year-long pause due to the pandemic, the International Volunteer Group Japan team behind the event is back with a new iteration for 2021 — Your Yamathon — and are ready for people to walk the line once more for a good cause.

Pounding the pavement

“We were determined to bring the Yamathon back for 2021 in a way that would be safe, but still capture the spirit of the event,” says Zain Abba, head of media for Tokyo Yamathon. “So we worked very hard to create Your Yamathon for people to be able to challenge themselves.”

In previous years, the Yamathon was a scheduled event taking place over the course of one day, with more than 1,100 participants kicking off from the same starting point. This year’s temporarily re-named iteration has been adapted to the COVID era, allowing participants to choose their own date, time and starting station.

The adjusted event also spreads the Yamathon out over the course of a three-month window between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31, and participants can either go it alone or form a team of up to four members. With the number of new COVID-19 cases hitting record lows since the pandemic began, the aim is to have fun safely and do something healthy.

“I think a lot of people are a little exhausted of virtual events, so hopefully this version of the Yamathon will appeal,” says director Mark Legard. For those who have spent many months working from home, or apart from loved ones, the day-long walk could be a much needed chance to reconnect with friends, family and colleagues — and get some exercise.

Sweat for a good cause

The challenge isn’t just about the sweet satisfaction of completing the course (although that does feel pretty good), there’s a more community-centric motivation behind the Yamathon. Past events have raised money for Oxfam Japan and the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. This year, all of the proceeds will go to the Yokohama Children’s Hospice Project, which is scheduled to open Nov. 21.

The hospice will be only the second of its kind in Japan, a much-needed facility that can provide a place for children who are affected by life-threatening or limiting diseases to receive care and respite. The facility will also offer support to those children’s families.

“The Yamathon is all about an army of good people coming together to do something extraordinary for themselves and for others,” says Joe Pournovin, Tokyo Yamathon’s founder and CEO. He adds that the hospice “will give children a magical space to connect and create bonds with other children in a similar situation.”

“It will give parents who spend every minute of their lives with their child a break,” he continues. “They’ll be able to leave their child in a wonderful environment, one that can also connect families who are going through similar circumstances.”

At its core, the Yamathon is an opportunity to put a spotlight on the importance of providing children’s palliative care. The hospice facility, which uses the slogan “Umi to sora no ouchi” (“A home of sea and sky”), has been specially designed to ensure children and their families feel supported and are able to spend meaningful time together.

“(These children) have every right to learn, to have fun and have the life and opportunities any normal child has,” Pournovin says. “We stand proud with the Yokohama Children’s Hospice Project and with these amazing families.

Shinjuku Station is the busiest stop on the JR Yamanote Line and one of the stops participants need to hit when running Your Yamathon, the 2021 version of the Tokyo Yamathon challenge.  | GETTY IMAGES
Shinjuku Station is the busiest stop on the JR Yamanote Line and one of the stops participants need to hit when running Your Yamathon, the 2021 version of the Tokyo Yamathon challenge.  | GETTY IMAGES

The inside track

With the hospice’s opening date fast approaching, and cases of COVID-19 around the country dwindling, there’s never been a better excuse to dig out your sweats and give the Yamathon a go.

Japan Times contributor Andreas Neuenkirchen wrote about his experience doing the Yamathon challenge in 2019, mentioning that some teams opt to take pit stops at cafes, temples and parks. Indeed, one of his own takeaways was that the course is a great way to see parts of Tokyo that you haven’t visited before.

“The overriding atmosphere is one of fun and happiness, along with the feeling of satisfaction you get from walking that distance at the end,” Legard says. “It’s very hard to describe, you really have to take part to appreciate it.”

While taking part is all that really counts, for those lacing up their walking shoes and hitting the urban trail, the Yamathon team has some advice to help you along the course.

“Make sure you have good shoes,” Legard cautions. “It is (also) important when putting a team together to ensure you all have the same walking pace and goals in mind to really enjoy the day.”

For Abba, the key to success is the right kind of rest.

“Take breaks, but don’t stay in one place for too long. It can be hard to build up momentum again,” he says. “Even though it is primarily a walking event, it is still physically taxing. It’s important to prepare.”

Registration closes on Dec. 10, with the window of Your Yamathon “race days” closing on Dec. 31. Participants will be sent an online map of the suggested route, but shortcuts are allowed as long as all teams visit all 30 stations along the Yamanote Line.”

Still thinking about it? “Just sign up,” Pournovin says. “If you think a full-Yamathon is too much, take the half-option. After the past 18 months, this is the perfect event for you to reconnect with the people in your life.”

For more information, visit tokyo-yamathon.com/en. A mandatory ¥14,000 donation per team is required, all of which will go to support the Yokohama Children’s Hospice Project.

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