Japan’s a reasonably good place to head out for a little exercise, assuming you’re into that sort of thing. I personally enjoy indulging in “the fitness” myself, as I’ve found that it burns off potato chips while simultaneously making beer taste all that much better afterwards. So that’s a win-win. At the same time, I feel it’s my civic duty, as President of Japan, to point out some real dangers associated with running here.
Sorry, I meant to type “a resident.” I really gotta get that backspace key fixed. Anyway, I recently hopped on the shinkansen for a quick trip to Kyoto, where I booked a room in a quaint little minshuku. A minshuku is what you’d call a Japanese bed-and-breakfast, if your idea of a bed was the floor and your idea of breakfast was rice. Anyway, it’s cheaper than a hotel, so that’s good. The proprietress was a kindly, aged lady of approximately a thousand years old who walked with a limp and spoke in a shaky voice.
“Thiiiiis issss yoooouurrr rooooom,” she quaked.
“Thaaaanks,” I replied in kind, because I’m all about empathy with old ladies.
“Dooo youuu neeeed annnnyyyythinnngg elsssse?” she quivered.
“Nooooo, juuuussttt theeeee keeeeey,” I said.
“Theeeeere isssss nooooo keeeeeyyy,” she laughed, and I laughed too, because of my empathy, and plus it was way too weird and I was half expecting her to vanish in a puff of black smoke. But instead she just stood there and looked at me. So that was a bit uncomfortable.
“Seriously?” I said. “No key?”
“Nope,” she said, and walked briskly away. Well, miracle cure apparently. Whatever, I decided to put on my shorts and go for a run.
I guess it’s a Japanese thing, you know, staying in a place with unlocked rooms. And it sounds all groovy and peaceful because you’d like to believe that every Japanese person is inherently trustworthy, except that half the people in the minshuku were from other countries, so I was basically relying on random people from around the globe not to enter my room and run off with my camera and suitcase full of yen. I don’t pack a lot of clothes, you know, since that’s just more work when I’m trying to go on vacation. It’s easier to take cash and simply buy new underwear and socks at the 100-yen shop on an as-needed basis. Plus, freshness.
“Keep an eye on my room, please,” I said to the proprietress as I headed out the door.
“Cuuuuuute shoooortsss,” she called after me. Jeez, way to objectify me, lady. Although I guess I did look pretty good, considering my muscular thighs.
Running in Kyoto
Outside, it was just slightly cool, and I jogged through a maze of small streets until I reached the Kamo river, then turned towards the mountains lit warm with the sunset glow. What a perfect evening. I found a small trail behind Nanzenji temple, and wound uphill into a thick forest. I felt alive. Ah, Ken Seeroi—-I thought—-you sir, are a dude who lives for adventure. I ran a bit faster.
The trail got smaller and fainter until it became little more than a deer path. The sun was setting fast and I felt a wee bit disoriented, but since Ken Seeroi is also a dude who hates retracing his steps, I kept going along the ridge line, deeper into the woods. Finally it got quite dark and I began to think I might have to take a brief overnight siesta in the forest, but at last the trail turned downward, and I eventually found myself back in the city, near the Gion quarter.
It was now fully dark. The orange glow had turned pitch black, the cool evening had become ass cracking cold, and I had absolutely no idea where that little minshuku was. And for some reason, I also couldn’t remember the name, probably because it was in damn Japanese. I kept running. Wasn’t it Hi-something? Higashi? Hiniku? Hijyouguchi? Ni-something? Nimono? Nikibi? Ken Seeroi—-I realized—-you are so screwed.
I also had no money, so just running until I reached the Osaka airport and flying the hell back to America was out of the question. Have you ever been freezing cold, like in a blizzard, and you’re sure you’re going to die? I know I’m not the only one this happens to on a regular basis. Anyway, now picture you’re about twice that cold and sweaty and lost in the middle of Japan wearing only tiny shorts and a t-shirt. My advice is, next time take a Gore-Tex suit; that, and maybe a dogsled, and a flare gun.
The thing about Japan is, it really is a very different place from day to night. I promise I’m not making this up as an excuse for being lost. At sunset, all the cute cafes and vegetable marts pull faceless steel shutters down over their lively storefronts and disappear. At the same time, the businesses that were closed during the day suddenly raise their blank gray shutters and emerge as bright neon-lit restaurants and hostess clubs. So none of the streets look the same after dark. Really. It’s like that minute before your parents pull into the driveway, when the stereo gets unplugged, all the kegs are rolled into the hedges, rugs are pulled over broken glass, and the girl passed out in their bed is wrapped in a towel and hidden in a closet. When they walk in, you’re all like, Oh, hello, have a ginger ale? Join us in a game of whist?
I won’t bore you with the long and freezing tale of my wandering hopelessly through half of Kyoto battling wolverines and asking terrified strangers if they knew of a shaky old lady who ran a low-budget minshuku. Suffice to say that, with Roald Amundsen-like tenacity, I fought through the polar bears and hypothermia to survive. Several hours later, submerged up to my neck in a hot bath and accompanied by several carbohydrate-replenishing cans of malt liquor, I had time to reflect upon my four new rules for running in Japan.
Japan Running Checklist
1. Before crossing any street, look wildly both left and right like a rabid squirrel. If you’re from a country where they drive on the right side of the road, you stand an excellent chance of being flattened by a truck full of tofu. You’ve basically spent your entire life practicing looking a certain direction before stepping off the curb, and in Japan, that’s the wrong direction. In my first six months here, I personally stepped in front of cars while looking the wrong way on two occasions. You simply can’t unlearn that habit overnight. Thank God nobody in this country drives a Dodge Ramcharger.
2. Carry at least $50 worth of yen. The chances someone mugging you while you’re out running are astronomically small compared to the odds of becoming lost, hungry, thirsty, or needing to take a taxi or train home. Money fixes a world of problems, so just safety-pin a 5,000 yen note to the inside of your shorts and be done with it.
3. Carry a copy of your passport or (if you live here) your foreign residence card. I’m pretty sure that legally, you have to carry the real thing at all times, but since you probably won’t be stopped by the cops while running (unless you’re carrying a TV), you might be able to get away with just a copy. Anyway it’s better than nothing, and you really ought to have something that identifies you after you become road pizza from that tofu truck.
4. Carry the name and address of wherever you’re staying. In fact, carry every bit of information about it you can—phone number, closest station, pictures, everything, written in both English and Japanese, if possible. I know this is kind of common sense, but apparently some of us are deficient in that respect.
Some people run with a smartphone, which is good too, assuming you don’t trip and land on the thing or drop it in a pond or something. Personally, I don’t like running with a phone, but I will concede that the GPS capability could help prevent freezing to death while sleeping in the children’s play park wrapped in newspapers. Either way, I don’t think you can go wrong with the above list. Overall, running in Japan is a good way to stay in shape, since it’s inexpensive, requires little equipment, and gives you something to do until the bars open. Just be prepared, and remember, Safety first. It’s a wilderness out there.