21st Senshu International Marathon and cultural exchanges 2014

Report by Grant McLean

The arrival

Japan welcomed me with the heaviest snowfall to hit Tokyo since the Second World War. This, combined with my late departure from Auckland meant travel plans needed to be hastily re-arranged. I was guided by phone from the moment I left the plane by a very helpful Minoru from Sakai City on my unscheduled train journey to Osaka. A kindly businessman directed me through the maze that is Tokyo central station to locate the Shinkansen (the ‘Bullet Train’). I was excited at the prospect of my first trip on the famed train. Alas it was only able to crawl along due to the heavy snow. It was surreal looking out at the snow-covered houses, cars and countryside. I arrived at Osaka station early in the morning, and was warmly welcomed in person by my phone guide Minoru and Mr Arazumi.

Sakai and Osaka – where the future and the past meet 

Sakai and Osaka – where the future and the past meet 

Early dawn and the view from high up in the hotel reminded me of the opening scene of my favourite movie Bladerunner, as a vast cityscape of twinkling lights and high-rises is gradually replaced by a hazy orange sunrise. After 24 hours with no sleep, I was grateful for the opportunity to catch-up on some much needed sleep and then enjoyed meeting my Sakai Sister City buddy from Berkeley Michael Dragovich, a fire paramedic. We had a beautiful lunch with our new Sakai City friends, then on to meet and exchange gifts with the jovial and enthusiastic Mayor Takayama, and we were also introduced to our home stay families.

Pre-race day

The Saturday evening we attended the Welcome Reception. I was impressed with the scale of the event, which was held in the very grand ballroom of the hotel and was full of 500 formally attired guests. The evening proceeded with introductions to the various dignitaries, including the Mayors of the cities along the route of the marathon. I had prepared a short speech to cover the Wellington-Sakai relationship, however just before going on stage I was advised that I was speaking on behalf of all the invited runners (40-odd), so I made some quick mental adjustments and spoke on a more global scale with the help of my Kiwi translator Felix. It seemed to be reasonably well received – thanks Felix.

Pre-race day

The Saturday evening we attended the Welcome Reception. I was impressed with the scale of the event, which was held in the very grand ballroom of the hotel and was full of 500 formally attired guests. The evening proceeded with introductions to the various dignitaries, including the Mayors of the cities along the route of the marathon. I had prepared a short speech to cover the Wellington-Sakai relationship, however just before going on stage I was advised that I was speaking on behalf of all the invited runners (40-odd), so I made some quick mental adjustments and spoke on a more global scale with the help of my Kiwi translator Felix. It seemed to be reasonably well received – thanks Felix.

“We pledge to do our best for you”

“We pledge to do our best for you”

Something I soon realised through the various speeches from Mayors and the elite runners is both the importance of the marathon to the prefecture, connecting its peoples and international guests and the broader special respect that is accorded the marathon in Japan. The elites pledged “we will do our best for you”. This elemental concept and reverence for the marathon really gelled with me, the notion that the distance is not to be taken lightly, that you take on the marathon journey with a determination to do your best, not only for yourself but your family, your sponsors, your supporters, the spectators, your city – from that moment I doubly-resolved to do my very best too.

Marathon morning

The welcome 

The welcome 

The morning of the marathon I felt good (despite being short on sleep), and was getting excited about the race as we boarded the bus for the start. I hadn’t been this excited about a marathon for many years, how epic the whole experience can feel. It was wonderful having a special preparation area for invited athletes. What a buzz that was. I was also so grateful to my Sakai Government friends. They were ever-constant companions and guardians. We were a team, Team McLean-Drakovich-Sakai, it was awesome. Again I felt I was running for much more than myself, my friends, and family, my city and Sakai itself. We were then ushered to the start-line and were greeted by our friends and host families from the Sakai Association.

The race

Mayor Takayama fired the start gun, there was a roar from the large crowd and we were off. It really felt like a big international marathon with a large crowd cheering us off, television cameras, and a helicopter hovering above. While I had the privilege of starting at the front I was quickly swamped by keen Japanese runners and was in 60th place at 10K. I was feeling good though and enjoying the 25K of straight road and a gentle tailwind. I was also enjoying the enthusiastic spectator support all along the route. I wanted to reach out and connect with everybody. By halfway I was starting to reel in runners and was into the top 50. It was very handy to have numbers on the runners’ backs, as I was able to close in on runners and note their age listed on the number, which help me track the number of Masters (over 40) runners, as I had a private goal of trying to make the top 3 Masters. Although continuing to feel good, I deliberately held myself back to have something for the key part of a marathon, the final 10K. I had been burnt many a time by going out to hard too early on. I remembered the sage advice from my friend and Masters running legend Roger Robinson; “be cautious”. Heading into the last 10K I was mentally preparing myself for the large bridges I needed to cross twice, and braced myself for the strong headwind. I started running hard at the first bridge and began running down a number of tiring runners. Someone called out that I was in the top 20 now, and many spectators called out “go Americano”. Entering the park for the final kilometre I saw the finish clock up ahead and was ecstatic to realise I was going to break 2:38 (a good time for an ageing runner).

My quiet personal goals were to break 2:38, make the top 20, and top 3 Masters. I later found out that I was 2nd Master overall and was officially placed 13th, out of nearly 5000 runners, I couldn’t believe it! This placing was the highest by a New Zealand male runner since New Zealand marathon record-holder Paul Ballinger had placed third in the inaugural event in 1994 (2:28). Finally an international marathon had gone well for me, and how wonderful for it to be Senshu when I had been invited to represent Wellington city. I waited with Minoru for Michael to come in (a respectable 3:30), and the other invited athletes from Australia and the U.S. Something I noticed at the finish line were the number of Japanese runners who would cross and then bow to the finish line. This was a perfect exclamation mark for the earlier pledge to respect the marathon and do their best, wonderful.

Made it! 

Made it! 

That afternoon I had that rare tired, yet contented, feeling of a marathon that went well. With the marathon, there are so many variables, so much training required, constant risk of injuries and illness, especially as you get older, so you soak up the good ones.

The marathon evening our Sakai City friends took us out for a wonderful dinner. There was beer, delicious okonomi-yaki, and lots of laughs. We shared photos of our families and so it was nice to feel we were getting to know our hosts even better.

The Sakai City cultural exchanges

The next day we met our hosts and headed to the Sakai City Traditional Crafts Museum. We were very privileged to have a one-on-one tutorial with the master sweet maker who had received an honour from the Emperor himself for the quality of his art. After that we explored the knife museum and it was fascinating to see the generations of craftsmanship and art that goes into the production of these everyday implements.

Later we attended the formal Welcome Party hosted by the Sakai and Berkeley Sister City Associations. This was a truly humbling experience and again the importance of cultural exchange was underlined to me. The Japanese genuinely extend the hand of friendship and show interest in our culture in a way I think New Zealand can really learn from. While we are our very well-travelled people, I wonder how often we really engage with the people we meet on our journeys (and look at the world and ourselves from their perspective). The highlight was a hearty rendition of Pokarekareana led by Mr Hirota. I met so many people that night, and yet felt I didn’t get to everybody to thank them for their support.

Pokarekareana 

Pokarekareana 

The second cultural exchange day got off to a great start with a visit to Mikunigaoka Kindergarten. The teachers had gone to so much trouble for the visit to introduce us and our respective countries to the enthusiastic young children. Yaeko Hirota (Michael’s homestay host) led the visit, and she masterfully entertained, informed and managed the children all at the same time. We had a raucous question and answer session, they sung us songs, and we played games in the courtyard. The visit concluded with some children serving us traditional green tea. They were adorable kids.

I am a bit of a history buff, so was fascinated by the guided tour of the Nanshuji temple, to hear of the dramatic life of Sen-no-Rikyu, the key figure in the Japanese ‘Way of Tea’. The temple complex is beautiful and serene. For a brief time we felt transported back to 16th century Osaka.

After another beautiful lunch, we were off to the Sakai museum, and then the enormous, yet natural-looking and peaceful Nintoku Tumulus. Given I work for government agency Sport New Zealand and my hosts have an eye on the country hosting the upcoming 2020 Rugby World Cup, I was shown around ‘Jays Green’, a stunning new sports facility with several artificial rugby and football fields, running tracks, a stadium and in-house accommodation for almost 300. Possibly the All Blacks would be interested in Sakai as a training base?

Host family time

I was really pleased to finally stay with my host family Nanako and Hideaki Asakura, and one-year old Hinagi. I found out that little Hinagi and I share the same birthdate (19 January), which I took as a positive omen for the trip. Another nice connection is that Nanako and Hide and I all shared an interest in running. They had both run marathons, Nanako having run Senshu twice, so she had given me some excellent advice on the course. Nanako was also very knowledgeable about Japan’s great marathon tradition, and so we were able to marvel at the exploits of the country’s many great marathoners. Nanako was an English teacher, so I got off rather lightly in trying out my language skills.

Hideaki, Hinagi and Nanako at the startline

Hideaki, Hinagi and Nanako at the startline

The Asakura’s had a beautiful modern home, quite close to the Nintoku tumulus, which I used to run to in the mornings. I got a glimpse into Japanese family life, the routines and rituals, and the demands of work with Hide leaving at 5:50am in the morning to return after 8:30pm, and he also worked on Saturday’s.

It was also special to be there in the lead-up to Hinamatsuri (Dolls’ Day/Girl’s Day), where families with young daughter’s wish for happiness and healthy growth of girls – displaying beautifully costumed dolls in their homes. This was added too by having Nanako’s mother come to visit, and we had fun together as we tried to converse. Nanako’s neighbours also dropped in with their young family, they were also a delight to meet. Nanako kindly offered me English and Japanese food, and of course I opted for Japanese. I have never eaten so healthily following a marathon.

Little Hinagi and I got on well. She spent the first day observing me (and the Buzzy Bee I gave her) carefully, but she started waving at me constantly and finally gave me the hint of a smile by the end of my stay. Nanko told me later Hinagi cried on the way home after I had been dropped off for the trip home.

We had a lovely free day when the family took me to Osaka to see the Osaka Fortress, which was very impressive. It was good to just hang out together for the day, to eat and talk. I was sorry to leave.

The Japanese Way

I am very fond of the Japanese aesthetic and how it is played out in so many parts of daily life and reflected in the environment. Everything is meticulously designed and thought out - from city parks, to transport systems, to everyday appliances, to the food that is served, the latter an art-form in itself to be appreciated with the eyes before the palate.

While Sakai, Osaka prefecture more generally are vast and vertical in scale, the urban design also creates smaller more intimate community spaces at street level. I love this contrast between the large often futuristic structures in the city centres, punctuated by beautiful traditional street-corner shrines, and small lanes, meticulously laid-out and cared for. Similarly, the residential suburban streets are remarkably clean and the houses are beautifully presented with miniature bonsai gardens - again the attention to detail and design.

Peaceful spaces in the metropolis 

Peaceful spaces in the metropolis 

The other revelation was the cycling infra-structure. Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland don’t need to look to Europe, but Japan for inspiration. The damage sustained in the Second World War created urban planning opportunities and coupled with later investment in cycling initiatives has created an excellent integrated cycling system across Sakai. It was so heartening to see rows and rows of bikes, and steady streams of cyclists (from fashionistas to business people) ambling around the city at a leisurely pace. This helps create a sense of civic calm (quite different to the lycra-clad and urgent cycling of Wellington), slowing the pulse of the city environment (the kind of cycling you would imagine in a more rural scene) – we could learn from the cycling behavior here as well as the infra-structure.

Sakai and Osaka, cycling Mecca

Sakai and Osaka, cycling Mecca

Back home, looking back and forward

“It’s not about the marathon” is what I have often been told about the Sakai visit, and I certainly appreciate that the visit is much more than the marathon, and I am very grateful for the special opportunities I was able to experience in Sakai. I hope readers won’t feel aggrieved though when I say it was about the actual marathon too for me, as it is one I am always going to cherish. From the moment I finally got selected to represent Wellington – a city I am so proud to be a citizen of – I decided I was going to train hard and as the Japanese say “do my best” for the marathon, the event, supporters and the cities. This special respect for the marathon which I noted during the trip amplified the whole experience for me and is something special that Sakai and Japan has given me - I will now (at least in my mind) bow each time I finish the marathon.

Finally, and most importantly, is a thank you to the Japanese people. Our hosts - the Sakai City team and our homestay families tendered to our every need. I was looked after literally from the moment I stepped off the plane in Tokyo to almost the moment I stepped back on one at Kansai airport.

Te Tangata, Te Tangata, Te Tangata - The People, The People, The People 

Te Tangata, Te Tangata, Te Tangata - The People, The People, The People 

The high value placed by the Japanese on hospitality, respect, ritual, politeness, and harmony was demonstrated by virtually everyone we met, from the sister-city association members, to the running store owner I conversed with about New Zealand, right through to the friendly businessman who pointed me in the right direction right at the start. My two hopes are that I can host some of my new Japanese friends in Wellington soon, and that I can get back there with my family for an extended stay in the not too distant future.

Thank you Sakai and Japan!