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Saturday, Nov. 22, 2008

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

The festival of the long distance runners


Special to The Japan Times

Old Man Winter is about to blast his icy breath down our collective necks, but at least we get to ring in the season of sniffles, frostbite and influenza with a great lineup of holidays, highlighted by Christmas and New Year's, and then my personal favorite, Nail-Clipping Day, on Jan. 7.

Yet, there's one more celebration you should add to your holiday calendar, a festival as "Japanesey" as it gets and one that will happen not once but several times throughout the chilly weeks ahead — ekiden — the festival of the long distance runners.

Ekiden is the Japanese word for long-distance relay race, typically held in late fall and early winter, with the expression "the festival of the long distance runners," being coined, as far as I know, by renowned coach Takao Watanabe of Sendai's Ikuei High School, in an interview for The East magazine in 2002.

I asked him why Japanese like ekiden so much and he responded with a smile and the answer:

"Because we Japanese love festivals. And in essence that is what ekiden is — a festival, the festival of the long distance runners."

What does one do at an ekiden "festival?" Basically you stamp your frozen feet and puff on your fingers. Then when runners whisk past, you shout hoarsely, "Atta boy! Go! Go! Go!" And in a flash they are gone.

And what do the runners do? They run. In skivvies. Which motivates their speed, I'm sure.

That's it. Sounds fun, huh?

And no, there is no catch. The last runner is not some jolly fat guy in a red suit who tosses out gifts. Nor does the crowd cozy up at the end and belt out a selection of carols. Neither do those in the crowd exchange greeting cards.

They just watch the runners run. And cheer.

But the bracing air opens the eyes. Ekiden fans tend to root for everyone, not just their hometown team. Seeing young men or women come charging through the falling snow somehow melts down loyalties and fires appreciation for the nobility of human endeavor.

Some runners may be nobler than others, but there are no losers in an ekiden. Everyone is applauded forward.

People fill the streets as if viewing a parade. There are banners, there are flags, there are food and drink stands. Like all festivals, the enthusiasm is catching, no matter what the temperature. And if your heart is not warmed by the camaraderie in the cold, you will not have to look far to find liquid substitute.

Ekiden is a unique Japanese invention. It began in 1917 as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the moving of Japan's capital from Kyoto to Tokyo. The Yomiuri newspaper sponsored a 508-km relay race with two teams of 23 runners each. The number mirrored the 23 stages — akin to stations, or eki — that had once highlighted transportation from Kyoto to Edo/Tokyo.

In the Edo Period, such travel took almost three weeks by stagecoach. The 1917 runners finished in three days, with a cheering crowd of over 100,000 welcoming them at the finish line at Ueno's Shinobazu Pond.

From that festive birth, ekiden-type events spread across the land. The best known now are perhaps the national high-school championships in Kyoto in December and the two-day, nationally televised Hakone Ekiden at New Year's.

Watanabe, who recently passed on his legendary coaching reins, also likened ekiden to a drama, a drama with a changing stage — as each race may have its own number of legs — and a spur of the moment script. How each runner will fare on his/her leg is unknown. If only one stumbles, the team could fall. Or if only one exceeds expectations, the entire team can be pulled to glory.

Thus, ekiden become a series of races within races, with each leg of each famous event having its own history and record times. Ever meet a Japanese who didn't love statistics? Ekiden gives the number junkies a full fix.

Plus, the team concept matches Japan. As does the patience, discipline and endurance of the long-distance runners. No other race better fits the Japanese spirit.

Other nations also run ekiden, using the Japanese name. Might one day the festival flow from Japan into the Olympics? That would seem the natural course.

Former Olympian runner and renowned track coach Keisuke Sawaki, even nicknamed "Mr. Hakone Ekiden" by some, thinks not. Why?

"Because," he said in that same 2002 interview, "The East Africans would run our butts off."

OK. Sawaki didn't say it like that. But his point was that ekiden takes much of its beauty from the romance of Japan and the frosty turn of winter. To open it to the world would instead fire the torches of cutthroat competition.

In short, it would be a festival no more. Just a race.

Nobody wants that. Not even, I suppose, Old Man Winter.



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