It may feel like lunacy to go for an outdoor run during the height of summer in Japan. But maybe the sight of athletes striving for gold will inspire you to put on a pair of running shoes.
There are plenty of health benefits to entice you. Research shows that along with weight loss, running improves cardiovascular and respiratory health, slows the effects of aging and helps manage depression.
The problem is Tokyo’s labyrinthine streets and streams of traffic make finding a good running route difficult.
So what’s important in a good running route? According to Bob Poulsen, head of the 230-member-strong running club Namban Rengo, the winning combination has a limited number of street crossings, minimal bicycle and pedestrian traffic, a little greenery, a few hills to work the legs and is a convenient distance from your home.
Safety is also a consideration. Thankfully, the three “mitsu” — enclosed spaces, crowded places and close contact — can all be avoided when running. COVID-19 guidelines vary depending on the park or location, but most advise wearing a mask when running and keeping at least 2 meters apart from others.
Another difficulty is the summer heat. High temperatures will hamper even the most dedicated runners’ efforts.
“Drink some water before you start and, ideally, run on a course that has some water fountains, stopping to take about 10 gulps of water at each one. If not, carry your own water,” Poulsen says, adding that you shouldn’t worry about your pace. “Going slower than usual is fine. Using the walk/run method is also fine. If you start to feel sick or dizzy, stop immediately! Wear a hat and use sunscreen.”
With that in mind, here are some of the best places to head out on a mid-week marathon (or 5K) of your own in Tokyo.
Komazawa Olympic Park
As a former venue for the 1964 Summer Olympics, Komazawa Olympic Park is a popular place for sports of all kinds.
Running here is made simple by a track that loops around the perimeter of the park for 2.14 kilometers, with distance markers every 100 meters.
From the starting point, the counterclockwise route runs straight along an avenue of zelkova trees (which thankfully offer some shade), weaving into the main square — impressively dominated by the Olympic Stadium — then crosses over a road bridge, heads downhill, continuing past children’s play parks, before a long but gradual incline.
Additional benefits of running in the park include facilities such as toilets and vending machines.
Komazawa Koen 1-1, Setagaya-ku 154-0013; bit.ly/komazawakoen
Another of Tokyo’s well-known running groups, Mikkeller Running Club Tokyo — organized by the Tokyo branch of the Danish brewery — describes this central green space as its “classic route.” Beginning at Outback Steakhouse in Shibuya, Mikkeller enters the park at Yoyogi-Hachiman Station.
“Then (we) cruise around the park on the trail that runs along the fence line. You get to escape the middle-of-Tokyo feeling a little bit,” says Hamilton Shields, manager of Mikkeller Tokyo. “After that lap, cruise back to Mikkeller Tokyo for a beer, or push yourself for another lap or two!”
It’s also where Namban Rengo meets up every Wednesday at 7:15 p.m.
“Anyone is welcome to run with us at no cost. We do a hard workout, but there’s no requirement to do the whole thing,” Poulsen says. “It’s a great way to meet new people, both foreigners and Japanese. In fact, over the years, we’ve had lots of weddings!”
Yoyogikamizonocho 2-1, Shibuya-ku 151-0052; bit.ly/yoyogipark-info
The royal residence in Chiyoda Ward is the much-loved centerpiece of Tokyo’s running circuits, and is a must-try for runners of all levels. Easily accessible from multiple subway lines (including Otemachi, Sakuradamon and Hibiya stations), the 5-kilometer route follows a paved path alongside the palace walls. On one side you have the modern cityscape, on the other, historic bridges, a moat and sights such as the impressive Sakuradamon Gate.
Chiyoda 1-1, Chiyoda-ku 100-8111 (various entry points on loop)
“I’m fortunate to live very close to Koganei Park,” says Poulsen, who enjoys running around Tokyo’s fifth-largest park.
“It’s a 5-kilometer loop inside the park, and then onto a bicycle path (Tama-ko Jitenshado), which starts at the junction of Itsukaichi-kaido and Inokashira-dori and goes up to Lake Tama (10.7 kilometers) and then all the way around the lake (13.5 kilometers).
“I like it because it has only a few large crossroads, and has quite a bit of greenery and cherry trees. Also it’s marked every 100 meters, so it’s easy to run out and back any distance I want to.”
Sekinocho 1-13-1, Koganei, Tokyo 184-0001; bit.ly/koganeipark
The Tamagawa river divides Tokyo and Kanagawa prefectures and is edged by pathways and green spaces along the banks. This may be the edge of the city, but the train from Shibuya to Futako-Tamagawa Station takes only 15 minutes. A flat, sometimes gravely path runs both sides of the river and never gets too crowded — you might even catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji on a clear day.
For running almost uninterrupted long distances, a great option is alongside the Arakawa river. There is a paved trail with distance markers that runs for just under 40 kilometers through downtown Tokyo: Simply work out where along the route is easiest for you to access and run as far as you want.
For more information on Namban Rengo, visit namban.org. Runs are weekly and free to join. Mikkeller Running Club meets on the first Saturday of the month. Runs are free to join. For more information, visit mikkeller.jp/run.
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