Japan and the Tokyo Marathon

We signed up for the 2020 Tokyo Marathon – and we know how spring 2020 turned out for the world. After several cancelled events and deferrals, we finally planned our trip for the 2024 race.

We arrived on Friday 23rd February, Emperor Naruhito’s birthday – a public holiday – into Ueno Statuon. Cold and pouring rain, the narrow streets around the station packed with people out for dinner, we felt the Bladerunner vibes. Our hotel was a short walk away and we checked in and then went out to grab something quick to eat. Our first Seven Eleven snack buying!

Day 1

We walked from the hotel to Senso-ji Buddhist temple – it was a beautiful cold morning – we enjoyed walking through the Thunder Gate along the Nakamise-dori with its small open air shops mostly selling interesting snacks (yatai). Following looking around the temple complex we sampled a lot of snacks – daigaku imo (candied sweet potatoes), ningo yaki (bite-sized cakes made from batter filled with sweet bean paste in a cast iron mould that give the cakes intricate patterns and shapes, cooked over a gas burner), Agemanju (deep fried mochi with various fillings, we had chestnut and matcha), and rice crackers.

We strolled along the Kamo River and back to the hotel. For lunch we headed into Ueno station to the T’s TanTan vegan Ramen Shop – good ramen with gyoza on the side.

Andy had a short run in Ueno Park – but it was packed with people enjoying the sun and going to Ueno Zoo. We took the subway over to the Manouchi area to the Edo Castle / Imperial Palace. On a beautiful afternoon there was an endless stream of runners completing the famous 5 km loop. We walked the loop and ended with a fabulous dinner at Revive Three Kitchen – a modern Japanese vegan restaurant.

Day 2

We got up and went for a run in Ueno Park and had another good breakfast. We made our way to Tokyo Station to take the Shinkansen ‘bullet train’ to Kyoto. The station was packed especially around the ekiben boxed lunch store and the other food gift sellers. We couldn’t find a veggie ekiben so we bought sushi and some snacks from a convenience store. We figured out the entrance to the Shinkansen – scan your ticket then tap your IC card out of the Tokyo station.

The train ride was great – smooth and fast as expected. We arrived in Kyoto and took a couple of local trains very close to our Ryokan for the next two days. Siekoro Ryokan was built in 1831 – a wonderful place with its shared wooden baths. We took tea and a cake, changed into our ukara (Japanese clothing for inside the hotel), and then took a bath. We dined in our room – they can cater to non-meat eaters – and the meal was amazing. Lots of fish – too much and mostly too raw for Gill.

After dinner, our room attendant made up our futon bed for the evening.

Day 3

We began with a nice breakfast in our room and then walked to Kiyomizu-dera temple, which was already getting busy at 9 am. The Kiyomizu-dera Hondo (Main Hall) is impressive – built on massive wooden stilts. We walked back through the Kiyomizu-dera Niomon Gate and down Sannenzaka Path and Ninen Zaka Path to Maruyama Park. Unfortunately we’re too early for cherry blossoms, but we enjoyed looking at Yasaka Shrine and then walked up to Chion-in Temple.

This was the highlight of the day, with the area so peace and quiet in comparison with earlier. The impressive Chion-in Mieido (Founder’s Hall) is newly restored and a ceremony for ancestors was underway. We walked around to the Hojo Teien (Garden of Abbot’s Quarters) and up to the mausoleum (graveyard). We had this entire area to ourselves. We dropped down to the Yuzen-en Garden, and then exited via the impressive Samnon Gate.

Lunchtime approaching and we decided to try the vegan ramen at Gion Soy Milk Ramen Uno Yokiko. This was excellent – beautifully presented and delicious.

We walked to the Daimaru Department Store and scoped out the amazing food court. We walked back through the covered Nishiki Market – so many good looking snacks.

We took the train down to Fushimi Inari station and then walked to the based of the famous Fushimi Inari Taisha Shinto Shrine. It was packed at the bottom area, and a bit of a slow walk up the steps through the thousands of vermilion torii gates. As we climbed higher it became much quieter and more pleasant – we easily made it to the top of Mount Inari.

We returned to the bottom and rewarded ourselves with a delicious Daifukumochi with fresh strawberry then headed back to the ryokan for bath time. We ate at the ryokan again, this time opting for the vegetarian option (though they still use dashi), which was a lot less demanding for Gill though Andy was a bit disappointed not to be challenged by the food.

Day 4

It was snowing when we woke up – definitely colder than expected. After a fine breakfast we took the train to Arashiyama to visit the Tenryu-ji Buddhist temple and gardens. The temple and garden are impressive, the latter even in late February. The few cherry blossoms coming out were already causing a photography frenzy. It was lightly snowing/raining with snow on the trees on the hills above the temple. Unfortunately the temple’s vegetarian restaurant was fully booked.

The so-called bamboo forest is a waste of time – basically a small bamboo plantation. We left the crowds and headed to the station – stumbling across a vegan ramen place – very good!

Following picking up our bags we headed on the train to Osaka – unfortunately choosing the semi-express. We arrived at our hotel on the edge of Dotonburi. We need get a jog in so we did a few loops of the canal pathway in the late afternoon.

Afterwards we went to the Michelin Guide-rated Okonomiyaki Mizuno for an Okonomiyaki pancake – a teppanyaki, savory pancake. They do a good vegetarian option with cabbage and mushrooms. We took a walk around the neighborhood and the headed to Amerika Mura to Bar Nayuta – a well-reputed but hidden cocktail bar. We found it up on the 5th floor of a small building, and entered by ducking through the tiny door. We each chose a signature cocktail – inspired by a gimlet and an old fashioned.

After a little more strolling, the cool windy evening and marathon week got the better of us, and we came back for another early sleep.

Day 5

It was a beautiful day so we headed north on the Metro to do a pre-marathon workout along the Yodo River. It’s a huge wide pathway built in the river flood spillway channel – a great place to run.

Afterwards we wanted a drink and bite to eat. We wandered into the local neighborhood between the river and railway line and went into a very cute cafe called Yutte. The owner spoke good English and when some local women came in we sat chatting about their trips to Canada. Andy had to jog to an ATM to get cash to pay, and then we were on our way – grabbing a coffee from a hip local roasters too.

After showering we went to Osaka Castle to walk around the park and the complex. Impressive castle and a nice plum orchard – unfortunately too early for the blossom.

We head down to the Osaka Aquarium area, thinking there would be good waterfront views down there. Unfortunately the small park and mall was not great. You might get a view from inside the Aquarium, but we were there a little late in the day. We went back to Dotonbori and had another Okonomiyaki pancake and an early night.

Day 6

We headed south on the Metro for an easy run in Nagai Park – which has a great 2.5 km loop. Lots of morning runners. Afterwards we had a nice brunch (huge scrambled egg sandwiches!) in Cafe Org.

For the remainder of the day we mooched around some different areas – Orange Street shopping and Shinsaibashi. We ate lunch in the food court of the Daimaru Department store.

It was a very wet evening, but we walked for dinner through the underground Namba Walk and then out to Vegan Mercy Kitchen. It has a strange and small menu, but we enjoyed the gimbap and the curry – nice to have something different.

Day 7

We headed back to Tokyo on the train to get ready for the marathon. We went to the expo in the afternoon and were really surprised to be given our finisher medals from the 2020 race that was cancelled! The expo has sold out of almost all merchandise by the time we got here – it was all gone by Thursday afternoon apparently! We trekked over to the hotel and said hi to our Forerunners friends – they went out to a Tracksmith event (also nothing left by the time they got there!) while we got vegan ramen at a place nearby and then had another early night.

Day 8

We had a leisurely breakfast with our friends before we went over to take a look round the site of the 1964 Olympic village. There isn’t much left as they turned the site into a large tree-filled park but they have a plaque and a few small buildings by the warmup track, as well as two Gymnasiums, one of which was built as the aquatic centre for the Olympics (excellent examples of 1960s architecture with their sweeping curves and roofs). Then it was back to the hotel to laze around and rest ready for race day.

Day 9

Race day!! It was a chilly start but it soon warmed up. The course was really fun, through the city. Some people say they don’t like all the looping back where you’re seeing other parts of the race on the other side of the road but we quite enjoyed the people watching. Although the final loop from 33-41k was psychologically difficult! Gill saw the elite men and women (she was at 16k when they were at 31k!), plus Andy and various Forerunners people. Andy just missed having to stop and wait when they briefly closed the course to let a fire engine across! After the race, we travelled back to the hotel separately after we’d finished, but both of us had to get off the metro halfway because we felt sick because it was too hot and crowded.

We had a bit of time back at the hotel before we went out to Beer Bomb for drinks and some food. Another beer in another Shinjuku pub and it was time to go to sleep!

Day 10

We travelled from Tokyo to Hiroshima on the Shinkansen. A beautiful day and we had great views of the snowcapped Mount Fuji. We arrived in Hiroshima and took a streetcar to our hotel – the 1970s vintage MyStays at the Peace Park. We headed out for dinner and drinks, settling on Vietnamese (good veggie options), which we followed by heading to the excellent speakeasy Bar Alegre for a cocktail. Great cocktails (e.g. matcha whisky sour) and chatting to the friendly owner. He gave us some advice for Miyajima Island and also that we could visit the local gin and whisky distillery – Sakarau.

Day 11

As forecasted, it was a wet day. We went early to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and it was already getting busy. It’s a very thoughtful and impactful museum – providing the essential facts of what happened on 6 August 1945 alongside many personal stories of the victims and survivors. Families searching for loved ones and retrieving only small objects such as lunch box or watch. After the first part of the exhibit, you across a walkway and look out at the Victims Memorial Cenotaph with the Atomic Bomb Dome (the remains of the Industrial Promotion Hall destroyed by the bomb) in the background. Following this is information on the rebuilding of Hiroshima, the nuclear arms race, the non-proliferation movement, and treaties. Despite ended on a positive note with the START Treaty, we know recent events mean that the danger of nuclear conflict is real.

We walked through the Peace Park and then headed for a great lunch at Taiko Udon Nakamachi Shop – we had the soy milk dan dan udon noodles. Given the weather we decided to take the train out to the Sakurao distillery. We were too late for the tour but we had a great tasting of two of the gins and three of the whiskies. We picked up two bottles, one gin and one whiskey.

The rain had eased so we went to the excellent Shukkeien Garden, which was almost completely destroyed by the atomic bomb, but since restored. It’s a wonderful oasis in the city.

After a break back at the hotel, we met the Forerunners gang, who had just arrived in Hiroshima, for Okonomiyaki pancakes and beer. Afterwards we went to the cool Real Beer Style Golden Garden for a decent local Hiroshima Neighbourly Brewing beer.

Day 12

We took the train from Hiroshima to the JR ferry for Miyajima. It’s so efficient – smooth train ride, short walk to the ferry terminal, tap pasmo through the gates and onto one of the three ferries that come every 10 mins for the 15 minute ride. At the other end we stored our bags and walked to Daishoin temple first. Impressive temple in a beautiful setting. Another highlight is the small Hexagon cafe that is vegan – excellent udon soup and lemon cake – we made it onto their instagram page!

After lunch we climbed the Daishoin trail to the observatory at the summit of Mount Misen (530 m asl). Very nice trail through the forest – lots of stone steps. We descended down the ropeway trail. The mountain was not too busy, likely because the ropeway was closed for maintenance.

At the bottom of the trail we had a small beer at the Miyajima Brewery and a few snacks. We realized all the cafes and restaurants were closing (at 16:30!) and thought we’d end up needing to get dinner snacks from the convenience store. But upon checking into the excellent Miyajima Guest House Mikuniya, the host let us know that they make a big pot of vegan curry and rice because there’s nowhere open in town. We booked the private onsen before dinner, got clean and warm, and enjoyed a relaxing evening in the communal lounge. We made up our traditional futon beds and slept well.

Day 13

We enjoyed a simple breakfast (also provided by the guesthouse) and then a nice morning walk around Miyajima town in peace and quiet before the day trippers arrived. As we left we saw the Forerunners gang boarding the ferry.

We caught an earlier Shinkansen to Tokyo (so easy to change trains at no cost) and enjoyed a smooth ride with plenty of snacks and a bento box.

Tokyo was colder and we entered the fray of Shibuya from the station and eventually found our way through the chaos to Shibuya Stream. We checked out the famous scramble crossing and went for some vegan food – the izakaya place in the Parco mall that we planned to go to was full but almost next door was a good vegan ramen joint. We had a couple of drinks – a yuzu gin and a tiny 5 seat bar and then a few drinks at a cool record bar (Record Bar 45?). The owner was very friendly and we had a great chat about Japanese gin brands while we tried them.

Day 14

It was a bit of a slow start after all the gin sampling the previous night but our first stop was Origami Kaikan, an origami museum and paper supply shop. We’d only intended to stop in to buy a gift for a friend but the owner was there (4th generation of the 170 year old paper company) and he gave us an amazing demonstration of origami (roses, maple leaves, laughing faces, the sun rising over Mount Fuji) plus we bought some paper and a print for ourselves. We then headed over to the Nezu Museum in Harajuku – a small but very impressive museum with a famous collection of Chinese and Japanese bronzes and ceramics. It also has a very good Japanese Garden. Afterwards we went to get some lunch in the Harajuku, and we had not realized how trendy it was with a mix of major luxury brands and independent stores and cafes. We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering this part of town, sampling some Sakura and sake ice cream. We walked back to Shibuya and had a beer at PDX brewing but as they specialise in beer from Portland we didn’t stay long. Instead we went to Mikkeller Tokyo to try some Japanese beer instead. After another ramen dinner in the basement of the Parco mall we called it a night

Day 15

Our last day in Tokyo! We started out with visit to the Tokyo Government building observation deck, which is free and coincidentally right next to the marathon start line! It’s free and it was a clear day so we could see Mount Fuji in the distance as well as various landmarks across the city.

We headed over to the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden after that. It’s more of a large parkland area than a formal Japanese garden though it does have a very nice tropical glasshouse (a modern one – the original 29th century one used to grow plants for the Imperial family was replaced). We had lunch in a cafe nearby and then went for a walk around Daikan Yama neighborhood. Part of this area is high end stores and embassies but across the railway into Ebisu it’s a little more “real” and we stopped for beer in the Yona Yona Brew Pub. The beer was great although not brewed on that site.

For dinner we decided to do the classic conveyor sushi at Mawashizushi Katsu on the top floor of the Seibu department store in Shibuya. It’s an old school place with a giant sushi conveyor but also a mini-train that delivers special orders that you make electronically from your table. Very fun! And also very inexpensive- it’s not fancy sushi but is more cheap and cheerful though the quality was certainly enough for us.

Day 16

We got up early for a run – heading across a very quiet scramble crossing and taking the obligatory photo with the hachiko dog statue – before heading up to Yoyogi Park. A beautiful morning and lots of runners in the park. After breakfast we went over to Ueno Park for a walk before meeting a professional connection of Andy’s for ramen lunch. Then it was time for the train to the airport.

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