Senshu International City Marathon - a report from Stephen Day

Sakai is, as the tourist brochure might read, a city of contrasts. Perhaps the most obvious contrast to Kiwis is the mix of old and new. The old is best represented by the tea ceremony. Sakai is home to the tea ceremony - where four hundred years ago the tea master Sen-no-Rikyu perfected its art. Its minimalist structure captures the qualities of peace, contemplation and zen patience. We had the opportunity to participate in a tea ceremony, kneeling on tatami mats at a tea house at Nanshuji Temple where Sen-no-Rikyu perfected his art.

Nearby outside, and on the corner of virtually every street, residential and commercial, were vending machines with bright lights offering coffee-in-a-can. If there is a ritual in Wellington that approaches the Japanese tea ceremony's hunt for zen perfection, it is long blacks at a cafe. Even I, a lifetime coffee abstainer, looked at vending machine coffee-in-a-can as an assault on culture and community.

Massive tombs to ancient emperors, equivalent, as we were often reminded, to the feats of the ancient Egyptian pyramids, remain hidden behind moats and imperial privacy, unknown to much of the world. Meanwhile garish, flashing pachinko halls scream out for visitors. This constant contrast between ancient history, on a scale barely comprehensible to pākehā Kiwis, and bustling big-city modernity hits you on nearly every corner.

It's hard to sum up a trip simply by listing events in chronological order so forgive me if I start at the very end and work my way through memories, thus omitting many of the other astonishing or impressive things we saw. Hopefully Michelle's account will fill many of the gaps that this report leaves.

I returned to New Zealand, walking through customs, catching myself instinctually bowing and proffering my thanks with ’arigato gozai masu’.

Sakai claims itself to be the Venice of Japan. I have never been to Venice so I cannot verify that claim but, unexpectedly, it reminded me ever so much of another harbour city; Rotterdam. Like Rotterdam Sakai's modern city has been rebuilt from scratch after the Second World War. And, like Dutch cities, cyclists weave through the streets, massive irrigation schemes hold back unwanted water, and canals interlace the landscape. The flat plains and the cool winter temperatures added to this sense of Dutch familiarity.

Politeness and respect drove our adventures and interactions in Sakai. We shared our week with three resident's of Sakai's other sister city, Berkeley, California. Americans, like all peoples, have their traits but absent amount those traits is the danger of leaving people wondering what they really think. They wear their heart, as the saying goes, on their sleeve. As a stereotypical rule, the Japanese people I met live at the other end of the spectrum. They placed high value on politeness and accommodating the needs of others before themselves. And that means it is often hard for an outsider to know when they are hearing what our hosts believe we want to hear and when we are hearing what our hosts they themselves need or want.

Most of my overseas adventures previous to this journey have been under my own steam and following my own nose. It is quite a different experience to hand oneself over to city officials and a generous homestay family and rely on them completely for all your basic needs - food, accommodation, transport and activity. For someone like me, who likes to be in control, this was an exercise in handing over power to others, relaxing, and enjoying the ride.

Obviously, a central part of the trip is the marathon itself. For me this was a complicated issue. All previous attendees were at pains to impress upon Michelle and I that the trip was not about the marathon and that the marathon was an experience not a race. That is true. But having conceded that point, I doubt any competitive runner trains as hard as they need to to run a respectable marathon without starting to regard it as a race.

From the moment I found out that one of the people I had beaten in the draw-a-name-out-of-a-hat selection process was one of Wellington's most accomplished and respected marathon runners, Grant McLean, I instinctively put put pressure on myself to meet his high standards. And I trained accordingly. I was in astonishingly good shape. But, and that previous sentence is inevitably followed by a ’but’, three weeks out from the marathon I tore my calf muscle. I tried to withdraw and hand my opportunity on to the next person in the draw, but it was too late for all the paperwork to occur.

People in Sakai and Wellington assured me that they did not care whether I ran or not, as the cultural exchange was more important than the race. Which was good because my physiotherapist and I were in agreement that while I could jog short distances I didn't stand a chance of racing a whole marathon.

However, my ability to run the marathon was a key reason I had won the opportunity to go to Sakai. Without that, and despite the assurances of all beforehand, I felt impotent and undeserving. Winning a free trip to Japan because I could run a marathon was a tenuous reason for accepting such random good luck, but it was a reason nonetheless. Without that reason I felt it was very hard to justify being given my opportunity.

It took me a long time to make the mental switch from being a runner who wanted to speak to my Japanese hosts through my feet and lungs to a tourist who couldn’t speak at all except in smiles and apologies (“sumimasen”).

The day of the race itself was amazing. The huge crowds of both runners and spectators dwarf anything in New Zealand except perhaps our very social fun-run style ’Round the Bays’ runs.

While we 'warmed up' in a building set aside for international guests thousands of locals gathered outside on the grass fields, keeping warm by wearing what looked like rubbish bags over the top of the most excitingly vibrant, and at times garish running apparel I have ever seen. By the time the race was ready to start we and the handful of other international guests stood at the front of a field of 6000 marathon runners, only five professional japanese runners in front of us. Despite my conviction that I should start slow and get slower, with 6000 runners standing behind me straining at a rope to charge over the top of Michelle and I and our fellow motley crew of Australians, Americans and Koreans, the start of the race was destined to be anything but slow. With the brakes fully on and people streaming past me like I was standing still I still went through the first kilometre in 3.38.

I started to feel calf pain at about 3km into the run. So, soon after that I relaxed, nihilistically, and started waving and thanking all the crowd (them chanting 'gambatte'). At about 13km I got passed by the lead woman and her TV crew, so I thought I'd just drop in behind her and be on TV. We were probably in about 50th place then. Then I hopped into a pack with a couple of guys who seemed to be from the same club and we started rolling along quite fast and passing people all over the place. About 15km of that and I was feeling relatively good (especially as my pre-race expectation had only been to make it to about 10km). But then everything started to tighten up and I could tell I was in danger of real pain. We ran through a very small culvert under a bridge and both legs told me enough was enough. So I walked home from about 31km. The last 5km into the wind, in about 3 degrees, was cold and sore.

The marathon was over and, as was obvious beforehand to everyone except myself, the result mattered not a jot to everyone except myself. Even if I had been fit and had well exceeded my best expectations I suspect I would have struggled to make the top twenty. Sakai would have gained nothing from me running well. No one in Wellington would worry one way or another how I ran, except close friends who would be supportive no matter what. It was time to move on and accept I was merely a tourist.

And yet, somewhat to my quiet embarrassment, we were feted as though we were mighty elite runners the next day at a ceremony with the respective friendship associations of Wellington and Berkeley.

The warmth and sincerity with which everyone embraced us left us without doubt that many in Japan place a high premium on cultural exchange. International exchanges in New Zealand, though tourists, trade and immigration are common enough that we probably do not appreciate their value as acutely as we could. Japan with its history of closed borders and its much less multicultural population does not have that same luxury to be blasé. Sakai, as one of the few ports open to trade during Japan's period of closed borders, has a particular history of valuing international exchange, both culturally and commercially. That was evident at the Mikunigaoka Kindergarten we visited, where the teachers were keen that their students be exposed to international influences, including visiting marathon runners!

The debt we owe for the incredible opportunity to travel to Japan, and share meals, accommodation and adventures with friendly generous Japanese families cannot be paid back financially. I would like to think that though it might be, in part, written off through this cultural exchange in the currency of friendship.