Saturday, March 2, 2013

Running the Tokyo Marathon through old and new Japan

It was when I found myself locked in a public restroom with a toilet I couldn't figure out how to flush that I realized I was in the New Japan.

Japan is a country of both ancient history and the latest in technology.

During my visit to Tokyo to run the marathon in February 2013, I discovered I had both my feet (I  mean that in the literal sense, you will see why in a minute) in both Japans. In the new Japan, I experienced the technology and city life and a 21st century world class marathon. As for the old Japan, while I did get to experience some of the ancient culture,  there was something that eluded me throughout my visit.   Minutes before I left to fly home, the secret was revealed.

 I had my first encounter with the new Japan at the Expo for the Tokyo Marathon.  I was in Tokyo to complete the 6th and final of the World Marathon Majors.  My friends and I decided to use the restroom (how hard could that be?) before joining checking out the running convention. 

The was a long line for each restroom, and I tried to hurry my visit in the stall. I had never seen a toilet like this, a toilet on steroids. There were buttons on it, that activated noise and played music and sprayed water and many other functions that I was afraid to activate, but try as hard as I could, I couldn't figure out how to flush the toilet. Not to sound like a rube, but in MY country, there is only one button on the toilet, and, well, you know what that button does...

  So I tried to open the door to the stall to see if my friends were still there, but they had left the room, obviously with such superior tech skills that they had not only figured out the toilet/computer but how to open the door to the stall. Which I also couldn't figure out. 

After some low tech movements involving throwing all my weight into the door handle, I finally flung open the door, and looked at the long line of Japanese women waiting to use my stall. I was embarrassed to just leave, since I didn't flush the toilet, and this is a very polite country and I didn't want to be the Ugly American, so I kind of pantomimed to the woman "how do you flush the toilet?" and tried to bring her into the stall with me. Now, in ANY culture, it is not a good idea to invite a complete stranger into your restroom stall. She opened her eyes wide and started backing up, looking as if she had just seen one of the those monsters in a Japanese movie, but I kept frantically pantomiming the "how do you flush the toilet" thing, and she relaxed, joined me in the stall, and pointed to a black (computer like) screen on the wall, waved her hand next to it, and the toilet flushed. I thanked her and quickly left the scene, thankful that I was a runner and could hightail it out of there.

As for my first encounter with the old Japan, that also involves another bathroom story. Before the start of the marathon,

I loooked around for a  restroom. Here, there was a long line of outhouses, and just one that had the sign "Western Style" on it. My heart sunk as I realized the sole "Western Style" outhouse was the only one I would recognize, and the hundreds of others, stretching as far as the eye could see, were basically a hole in the floor, where you put your feet on each side.  No more description is necessary, but to an American woman wearing running tights only familiar with Western Style, this was Not A Good Option.

The Western Style outhouse's door remained closed for what seemed like hours,while the "Asian Style" outhouses had doors wildly swinging open and closed, runners quickly entering and leaving. Precious minutes ticked away while where the woman inside the Western Style door was in there so long I figured she was reading War and Peace on her cell phone.
The corrals were about to close for runners, and I needed to get to the corral before the gates were locked and I would be barred from the marathon. So, thinking "when in Rome," I utilized the old style outhouse, then quickly ran to the start corral and made it with just a few minutes before the start of the marathon. Never did see the War and Peace reader make it out of the Western Style stall. Must be a more compelling book then I remember from high school...

As I later told the other runners from our tour group my story, one of the other women said she, too, used the old style outhouse for the first time. "I couldn't figure out how to stand and, you know, so I just sat down." The rest of us just stared in horror. She looked back at us quizzically, then I could see the awareness of what she had done sink in. "That floor," she said, "oh no..." The rest of us just shook our heads in sympathy.

 I actually got to see a bit more of Japan than just restrooms with our Marathon Tours and Travel group.  And I was lucky to make two close friends. 

Sheri, my running twin from Michigan, had emailed me before we left home, telling me her friend had sent her an article that appeared in our local Florida Today newspaper about me finishing the World Marathon Majors with Tokyo.  "Me too!" she wrote, "I am also a 53 year old woman doing the exact same thing!"  Turns out last April we ran London together in 4:18, and we both have a marathon PR of 3:59.  Even if I hated this woman I was going to fake like her since we had so much in common, but I instantly liked Sheri.

Sheri's roommate Abi, a New Yorker whose parents were born in Nigeria ("why couldn't they have been born in Kenya," she said, "then I would run so much faster!") was an instant friend as well.  Abi was running Tokyo as her fourth World Marathon Major (in April she will run Boston then London - 6 days apart! - to complete the Majors).  Sheri, Abi, and I hung out together the entire time in Tokyo. 

After a whirlwind tour of Tokyo, visiting everything from the Fish Market - first to visit the shrine,

then to look at the colorful arrays of fish for sale

 where we were offered tea by a vendor, tried it, decided, and I am writing this delicately, that we would rather not have any more, so we put the tea cups back where the vendor motioned, on his tray, then we watched him offer others our half filled tea.  "Look, other people are drinking what we just drank!"  I said to Sheri and Abi. Then my heart sank.  "That means - we were drinking other people's tea!"  We all laughed, when in Rome, I thought...

 to the top of the Tokyo Tower, looking out over the whole city,


 I was also fortunate to have my niece Lauren fly in from Korea, where she teaches English to schoolkids, to visit me and watch the marathon.


  I was excited to take her, an art major, to one of Tokyo's very cool art museums, Musee Sieji Togo.  We not only saw a Japanese art exhibit, featuring emerging artists' paintings of both old and new Japan, but as a bonus, saw Impressionist art (my favorite!) from the artists Cezanne, Renoir, Van Gogh (the very famous "Sunflowers" painting), as well as Grandma Moses' art (another favorite of mine!)

And the food - we ate traditional meals at Japanese restaurants, where no one but else spoke English and we just pointed to pictures of what we wanted to eat on the colorful menus,

 and also had a traditional non Japanese style pasta dinner with our tour group the night before the marathon.

 As for shopping, I bought everything from old fashioned chopsticks and Samurai headbands to a Hello Kitty purse for my daughter and a Japanese style Mickey Mouse doll. 

The whole marathon experience was a runner's dream.  This was the first year the Tokyo Marathon was a World Major, and the organizers did everything to make this flat course, all throughout the city of Tokyo, a first class marathon.  As a treat, part of the course was loops, so that when we in the 4 hour corral were running up one loop, the elites, including invited African runners, were running the other side of the street.  This was the first time I had ever seen the elites running in a marathon.

 Just the day before, I had seen them eating breakfast in our hotel, which was the closest I had ever gotten to an elite runner! Truly a Breakfast of Champions!

Lauren, posing with the elites                                                   

This would be like a regular person (non runner) seeing both Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie - maybe even some of their kids - eating at their hotel restaurant.  And also at the hotel restaurant, I got to meet Gordon, the guy who invented the running chip that we wear on our running shoes, that records our start and finish times.  Sheri and spoke to him for about 30 minutes at breakfast, thank you Lauren for putting up with us.

 And Sheri and Abi got to meet the race directors and representatives from all six of the Majors at the friendship fun the day before the marathon.  Again, for runners it doesn't get much better than this.

The marathon itself was a blend of the foreign and the familiar.  The spectators I saw were all Japanese (except for Lauren, who got some cool pictures!) and were cheering and holding up signs in Japanese.  Odd food was handed out throughout the marathon, including traditional foods such as sushi, rice balls, and other food I couldn't identify and was not going to try (adhering to the rule, don't try anything for the first time during a marathon!).  And there was the high tech experience.  In our corral, when the marathon started, a Japanese man next to proudly showed us his cell phone, which had an antenna on it, and was showing the TV channel which was broadcasting the start of the marathon.  We all gathered around him, Japanese and foreigners, and cheered as first the hand cycle athletes, then the elites, took off in front of our corral. 

As soon as I started running, nothing felt foreign anymore.  I was back in my world, running with others towards that finish line at mile 26.2.  The coolest part for me of the marathon was how the Japanese spectators would cheer for me "USA!  USA!" and high five me at the water stops.  I was wearing a USA shirt and was so proud to have people on the other side of the world cheer for me and my country. 

The Japanese people have a very strong work ethic, they work hard - but when they play, they play hard.  The costumes I saw at the marathon were funny and inspiring and helped keep me going.  There was a huge dragon, with many people underneath, snaking alongside the marathon course. 
Runners wore costumes as varied as video game and Disney characters, businessman and schoolgirl,(complete with a backpack and a cello case on her back), doctor, Darth Vader, and one guy even dressed as Jesus Christ, wearing only a loin cloth, barefoot, carrying a huge cross, wearing a crown of thorns.  This was on a windy day with temperatures in the 40's. We were all humbled by his devotion to his religion.

We ran by old Japan, the Imperial Palace, and new Japan, the Tokyo Tower, and just about everything in between.  And for a former high school band clarinet player, it was wonderful to run by so many bands, from traditional Japanese drummers to American style jazz bands.  And the recorded music - of course the theme song from the movie "Rocky", and, well, until you've done those hand motions to the Village People's "YMCA" through the streets of Tokyo with runners from all over the world, you have not experienced the fun of the sixth World Marathon Major.

Until the last morning, I was a bit disappointed that I didn't get to see Mt. Fuji, since it was always too cloudy.  Mt. Fuji is Japan's holy mountain, something almost unobtainable, something that is very difficult to fully experience, a symbol of  both old and new Japan.

 But the morning I was to leave, Sheri and Lauren came into my room, and there, outside the window, was the beautiful snow capped mountain.  The old saying goes, "Everyone should climb Mt. Fuji once, but only a fool climbs it twice."

I hope I continue to climb my own mountains, whatever they may be, in my life.  And someday perhaps I will come back to old and new Japan again, and be like the everyone in the national saying.