Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tokyo Five Foot Runner :: Race Day

I did it! The girl who very rarely follows through saw this whole running a half-marathon thing to the very end. To be completely honest, race day really snuck up on me. The weather was perfect, even a little warm for a January morning.  For anyone interested in running a race in Japan, I highly recommend the Tanigawa Mari Half Marathon. It is very well organized and has a great atmosphere. There were over 7,000 runners for the half-marathon alone plus a unicycle half marathon. Apparently, unicycling was very popular in Japan in the '80s. Boys, girls, men and women - it doesn't matter. It looked AWFUL!

No race day drama for me this time around. Blammo was an incredible stage dad from start to finish, making sure I was well hydrated, properly warmed up and stylishly dressed. I also got a wonderful surprise with a mile left and no gas left in my tank -- my 1 Japanese friend remembered that I was running that day and tracked me down to cheer me on. It was such a shock that I ran right past her attempts to flag me down. It was exactly what I needed with just a mile left to go. I even started to get a little misty eyed. That is until I came to the homestretch and realized that I'd be ending these 8 tough weeks of running to Whitney Houston's "Saving All My Love For You" blasting over the loud speakers. I was pretty confused by the music choice but it was a good distraction from my heavy legs and swelling feet.

On the matter of race day music, here's some good advice. If it's a good karaoke song, it's a good running song too. I'm pretty ADD when it comes to running music. If the first 3 seconds of the song don't catch me, I'm hitting the shuffle button. But I got really lucky on race day because it was hit after hit after hit. If I recall, around mile 6, I was treated to this little gem:

Erasure's "A Little Respect"
Journey's "Don't Stop Believing"
Weezer "Buddy Holly"
Red Hot Chili Pepper's "Can't Stop"
Rihanna "Rude Boy"
Beach Boys "California Girls"

At around mile 3, I stumbled upon "Look Down" from the Les Miserables soundtrack, but it was too early for that kind of revolutionary passion. It's a great workout song though. "Look down, and see, the beggars at your feet!"

I'm signed up for another half-marathon in Yokohama in April and plan to shave 10 minutes off my time. I'd love to be able to complete a half-marathon in under 2 hours, but that's a tall order for a short legged gal like me. But I'm up for a challenge and this might be the perfect goal for that daruma I picked up during o-shogatsu.  

Friday, January 7, 2011

The True Test of Love :: Climbing Mt. Takao

Mt. Takao is located just 52 minutes from Tokyo on the Keio line. If you're in Tokyo and want to work off some of those ramen, katsu curry and cream puff calories, spend a day at Takao-san. I used to think that the -san added to the end of mountains in Japan was a cute way of showing respect to nature. "Mr. Fuji looks beautiful today!" Doesn't that just seem like a very Japanese thing to do? Well, I was wrong. It is actually the on-yomi, or Chinese reading, of the character for mountain 山. (The kun-yomi, or Japanese reading of that character is yama.

There are 7 trails to choose from and a cable car that will drop you off halfway up the mountain. On this particular day, we took the Inariyama Trail up and followed Trail #3 down. They were challenging but not impossible and served as a nice cross training day for me. There's a good combination of man-made and mother nature made steps. If you can muster up the leg muscle and are a little lucky, you'll be rewarded with a clear view of snow topped Fuji-san in the distance. In the first photo, all the way to the right, you can sort of see it/him/her. 

There are a lot of snack shacks at the peak selling food to help you refuel for your descent. One of the signature dishes in the winter time is とろろそば (tororo soba). Soba, as you probably know, are Japanese buckwheat noodles served either in hot broth or with a cold dipping sauce. The white goo on top of my soup is raw grated nagaimo yam. Japanese people love slimy food. Have you ever heard of natto, or fermented soy beans? Slimy. Super slimy okra? They love it! Well, leave it to the Japanese to find the food that most resembles mucus and turn it into a delicacy. It doesn't taste like much but was fun to eat. However, it did make the noodles extra slippery and kept falling through my chopsticks. They really make you earn it at Takao. 

There's lots to see and do on the mountain. Since the longest trail is only about a 90 minute hike, spend some time taking in the sites and attractions. There's a buddhist temple, monkey park, waterfalls, creeks and a beer garden just to name a few activities. Along your hike, you'll also come across little statues begging to be photographed. such as these little dudes in red caps and bibs and that angry fox. 

This was actually my second time climbing Takao-san. I tackled Takao-san alone the first week I arrived in Japan. Blammo was on a business trip and had also hiked it solo before I got to town. If it seems weird that we did it separately, it's not. Apparently, there's a superstition that if you climb Takao-san as a couple, you will break up. YIKES! Some people swear by it and discouraged us from doing it. Other Japanese friends had never even heard of this so-called love curse. 

Perhaps it's our New Year fortunes, but so far, Blammo and I have not parted ways and do not currently have plans to do so. (To my knowledge.) You're apparently not supposed to eat together at the McDonald's in Kichijoji either. I think we may need to test that one out now that our love has stumped good 'ol Mt. Takao. 

Monday, January 3, 2011

O-Shogatsu :: Eat, Pray, Clap

Happy New Year! Last year, Blammo and I searched for a traditional countdown party-like atmosphere with disappointing results. This year, Blammo's family was in town, so we did what all the other people in Japan do - we went to a shrine. 

The New Year's holiday is arguably the most important and busy holidays of the year in Japan just like Lunar New Year in China and Tết in Vietnam. O-shogatsu follows a lot of the same traditions, but is celebrated during the Gregorian New Year. Offices close around December 29th until around January 3rd so that everyone can return home to their respective towns and celebrate the new year festivities with their family. Depending on how you look at it, it's a great time to visit Tokyo. It's very peaceful but on the other hand, most shops are closed.

We went to Hie Jinja Shrine near our apartment after a delicious sushi dinner. We arrived around 11pm but the shrine was still setting up. Hatsumode is the most important aspect of o-shogatsu and it refers to the first prayer of the year. Many people visit the shrines around midnight on December 31st because being one of the first to pray brings good luck. Since we got there so early, we were in the front of the line to ring in the new year. 

Around 11:30pm, the line was pretty long. There were police officers manning the scene to lay down the law (don't push, go slowly and exit to the right). There was a lot of bumping and pushing but it was all harmless and probably due to drunkeness. It may be taboo to show up drunk to midnight mass, but it's almost expected that you show up tipsy to a shrine on New Year's. In fact, the shrines sell beer and sake on sight. It's a great time to try warm sweet milky sake called amazake.
 When the clock struck midnight, everyone clapped and yelled "akemashite omedetou!" which literally means, congratulations on the opening. Pro tip - in English, we say "Happy New Year" both before and after December 31st. Not so in Japanese. You say "yoi otoshi o" before the New Year and "akemashite omedetou gozaimasu" after. I've confused a lot of people by mixing them up and am grateful that someone finally corrected me.

The gates opened at midnight to let everyone in to pray. At shinto shrines, you clap twice, bow, throw money into a wooden box, pray and ring a bell. The order is still a little fuzzy to me, but that's the gist of it. On New Year's, monks strike a large gong 108 times so that was going down in the background. I have to say, it was a pretty deep experience and I preferred this spiritual celebration much more than your typical get wasted party/fight for a taxi home.

This being Japan, there was plenty of good fortune to be purchased from pretty young shrine maidens. The most popular on New Years is a hamaya which means "demon breaking arrow".  

When placed in your home, the arrow will ward of evil spirits for the year. A whole year's worth of protection for $16, plus cute bells and a picture of a rabbit? Done.

An interesting fact that will either make you look smart or like a jerk depending on how you present it: In the Vietnamese Zodiac calendar, the year of the rabbit is actually the year of the cat. The word for "rabbit" in Chinese sounds a lot like the word for "cat" in Vietnamese, thus the mistranslation. So this year is both the year of the cat and rabbit, depending on where you are. 

 You can also buy your year's fortune, おみくじ (omikuji). These are pretty complicated and if you can't read Japanese, a waste of a dollar. There are 12 fortunes ranging from a great blessing (daikichi 大吉) to a great curse(daikyou 大凶). I visited another shrine with my Japanese friend a few days after the new year and my fortune this year was right in the middle - kichi 吉. Phew!

Your omikuji also goes into length about travel, romance, lost items, law suits, examinations, business and health. According to my fortune, my lost items will be returned and I will win a law suit this year. It also said that I if I consult others about my problems, I will have a good year.

You can also buy a daruma, the red doll shown above. These are little dream catchers. You set a goal and fill in the right eye and when you accomplish your goal, you fill in the left eye. 

 And of course, there's incredible food during o-shogatsu! Typically, families eat very special bentos (osechi ryori) on New Years. They're very symbolic but according to my friend, not that tasty. She was a little late to pick me up from the train station because she had to buy some bread - they were tired of eating Japanese food! We visited one of her local shrines, Hikawa Jinja in Omiya. It is the largest shrine in Saitama and also the 8th most popular during the new year. (Meiji-jingu in Harajuku is #1) It was indeed very crowded, but the food was INSANE! I was wearing a very expensive kimono that didn't belong to me, so I couldn't really get down on it, but it looked great. Lots of fried and grilled meats covered in butter, eggs, mayonaise and salt. If your new year's resolution is to eat better, this is not the place to visit.

Monjayaki on a stick with a fried egg on top. It's not clear to me how you eat this, but I definitely would have ruined my friend's mom's kimono had I tried to figure it out. 

Grilled fish on a stick.

Mini okonomiyaki

 Takoyaki with a whole mini-octopus inside. 

 Grilled potatoes with butter

The 7 spices that make up shichimi. Chili pepper, mikan peel, white sesame, black sesame, hemp powder, ginger and seaweed. 

 Our big souvenir of the day was a personalized blend of shichimi. I like to put shichimi on everything. Plain rice, chicken meatballs, soup, noodles etc. At this stand, you tell the spice guy what you like and he makes a special blend just for you. Blammo likes spicy so he asked for a very spicy Blammo blend and the man did not disappoint. As much fun as all the talismen and fortunes are, this is a nice practical souvenir to remember our first traditional oshogatsu.