Mt Kongo Climbing Challenge Trail Race, near Osaka, Kansai - April

Mt Kongo, south of Osaka - seen from Katsuragi-san

35km, 2,000m of climb and descent on fast runnable paths (22 miles / 6,000ft) 2012 winning times: men 3.14.45 (439 finishers), women: 4.44.18 (83 finishers), veteran men over 45: 3.59.12 (307 finishers). Total finishers: 829 (1016 starters).

I seem to be making a habit of ending up in the last group to start in 'wave start' races - an especially bad idea when there is a walking event tagged on to the race. 35km of trail filled with walkers and runners adds up to an awful lot of overtaking and apologising (around 2,000 times!), so if you know the route, get there really early and go in the first group off - I tell myself....again! Most of the front runners were in the early starts, though I'm impressed to see that some fast times were done from the back, so it can be done.

One of the last groups of 50 to start
Kongo-san is the name used for a well known and often walked group of mountains on the south east edge of Osaka. The ridge is not particularly interesting or dramatic, and the paths are fast and runnable, with most slopes covered in pesky steps. No doubt some of paths on the flanks are more testing and attractive. The race, the 38th Kongo Climbing Challenge, started at the small park 1km NW of Nijojinja station, went over the saddle just south of Nijo-san, then joined the main ridge over to Mt Katsuragi, Kongo-san, and the ridge heading south then south-west from there, before descending into the valley to the north and following the road to finish at Anami station.

Full of people on race day - keep to the sides
I jogged the course slowly the week before (and took the following photos) - and was passed by a whip of a runner steaming along at race pace - I guessed he would be in the first few come the day. He wasn't for chatting and flew past which emphasised the bad day I was on - cheers mate. It was good to know where I was going and how quickly to start, though I still had to ask at one confusing junction. Before answering the two young women I asked cried out 'Sugoi! Samui desu ka?' (Fanatastic - aren't you cold?), which is compulsory when faced with a foreigner in shorts and a vest when most are still wrapped up.

Mt Katsuragi 968.9m - good views from the top but not much to look at

Having checked the course makes it seem to pass more quickly in the race. It also taught me that on the uphill stepped sections it was often quicker and easier to find trods through the trees to one side. One way or another I was passing people all the way, and feeling good in the fresh sunny conditions.

A concrete and dirt road leads up this valley towards Mt Kongo, 1,125m
Although the course has 2,000m of climbing a lot of it is in undulations, the main climbs being up onto the ridge, up Kasuragi-san, and up Kongo-san. After Kongo-san there is very little climbing and the path gets more attractive as this section is less walked.

Steep stone steps around half-way - tricky when full of nervous joggers and walkers
There isn't any technical terrain, and the only steep rough section with stone steps was so full of people it was hard to let rip, and a marshal was there warning us to be careful (aw, sweet). I gave it a go, though, as is my wont, and put the wind up a few nervous souls. If they ever organise a championship series in Japan they would have to select race only events - walkers really cramp your descending style.

Gentle joggle checking the second half of the course, with bear bamboo
After Kongo -san I had worked through the field and thankfully it got a bit quieter, with mainly just runners to pass on the increasingly pleasant and less engineered paths, sometimes on springy leaf litter with dappled sunlight. OK, time to get going.

Run me, run me...
I was feeling good now, having paced myself correctly, and enjoyed pressing on, using each group I came up behind as a target. I caught up with a guy I had chatted to on the train on the way there whose start time was half an hour earlier. "Let's run together - two people are faster than one!" he said. That's sometimes true, but I was on a roll and sadly he was soon out of the back. Sorry mate. I concentrated on working hard uphill on the small undulations along the last ridge, knowing that the descent and road run-in would be OK whatever state I was in.

The final ridge SW from Mt Kongo
I was looking out for the turn sharp right off the ridge, and found that fortunately it was the one I had reccied the week before. Jumping down huge steps fit for giants made for painful thighs, but once on the valley road it was just a few kilometres blast to the finish. Everyone was lounging around in the sunshine, and I bumped into the guy I had run part of the Mt Rokko race with 3 weeks before. He turned out to be a hard-working fireman. A couple changed from their immaculate running gear into their immaculate going home gear, carefully brushing their already clean shoes before walking to the station.

Most of the course seen from the East
I waited for my friend Richard to finish his first ever race, which he duly did in good form. He was excellent entertainment value on the way home, as he experience his first ever leg cramps. Unfortunately for him this happened on a train carriage full of unsmiling and formal looking people. He suddenly arched his back with a shocked look on his face and lurched to his feet, proceeding for the next 10 minutes to execute what looked like an experimental modern dance exploring the tragedy of the human condition, whilst asking "What is it? What's happening to me?" through gritted teeth. He was bustin' some serious moves. I know how excruciating cramp can be, but his simultaneous attempts to look normal in the rigidly conformist context of the Japanese train, not cry out and explain to the stony faced passengers in polite Japanese that he wasn't ill, he had just done a mountain race (which I think they took as proof that he was indeed mentally ill), made keeping a straight face difficult. My normal way of helping someone with cramp, which would be to throw them on their backs, grab their heels and shake, followed by massage, would probably not have helped the situation. The cloistered sanctity of the railway carriage must not be disturbed. Apparently.

Later the results and an unusually tasteful race shirt arrived (no sponsor's logos, hooray!). I finished in 4.31.18 for 13th in the V45 race from 371 starters (7th V50 if they had that category), which overall was 60th from 912 men starters.

The Mt Kongo Climbing Challenge Race takes place in early April - enter in advance through Sportsentry. For race organiser's website click here (Japanese)


Ist Mt Rokko Juso Race report

Trail race 45km/3,000m (28 miles/10,000ft) Kobe, Kansai, Japan
Red Lights in the mist

Well that was very interesting, to say the least. So many things I have never seen before in a long mountain race - some entertaining, like the woman who finished in still pristine make-up, wearing what appeared to be immaculate full 1980's disco gear including a skirt, tights and shocking pink leg-warmers, all topped off with a plastic mac. She did a decent time, too. Hats off to you madam, I always end up with panda eyes and sparkly tights round my muddy ankles when I go for glam in trail races. One or two novelties I'd be happy not to see again too soon, like queueing for a checkpoint stamp, amongst other things not involving actual running. My legs hurt and I have that 'day after a long race' feeling - hungry and thick headed with scary forehead veins and screaming skull eyes, but deeply satisfied - so something must have gone right.

The finish of the Mt Rokko 45km race in Arima Onsen - that's the time of day, not the elapsed time

Perversely, I was delighted to see the weather forecast was bad, and the first third was in heavy rain and wind, the 'real feel' at about 10c. Just a normal day at the office for an English fell runner, but not much to the liking of the average Japanese person. Not that trail runners are average - racing 45km with 3,000m of climb and descent (28 miles/10,000ft) is something of a specialised taste, but everyone was pretty wrapped up. Quite a few were wearing full length disposable plastic coats over their gear, as if in a last minute panic at the 'extreme' conditions - the first of the day's firsts. I decided that getting dehydrated was worse than being chilly and gambled on it getting warmer, raising a few eyebrows by setting off in shorts, thermal and pertex top, which proved to be right for me as I never felt cold, although there was a bit of ice around above 800m and it got a bit blowy. They will all have the last laugh when it gets hotter though. They will all be trotting along with nerry a bead of sweat in the summer, while I lie down, a crumpled and soggy mess of crimson heat stroke.

As predicted, the wave start was frustrating and even dangerous, as setting off last meant that the first  30% of the course was choked with runners, which provided a strange combination of being slowed down and frustration-induced adrenaline. I'm not sure if it made me push too hard or kept me to a sensible pace, but it felt weird. Not as weird as the controlled sections though - having to walk off the first hill on steps with no overtaking allowed, knowing that the first few through would have been running, was galling, followed by walking through a shopping street. Stewards were watching to disqualify anyone not complying. The most dramatic section of the course is the steep crag coming of Yokoo-san. There was a queue for this walking/no overtaking section, and again people starting in the first group would be quicker. I would usually look to pass a lot of people on this kind of terrain - not today! The second climb is a big flight of concrete steps, and threading past all the people strung up it took a lot of apologetic 'sumimasen' s.

The finishing tape for every runner was a nice touch

Releasing some frustration by blasting down the next descent felt good - until I got to the first of four sets of traffic lights on the route. Red. The wait of several aeons and a millennium gave all the people I'd passed time to catch up. Bugger. On the plus side, the next mountain had time to be eroded by 5cm.

The great thing about having run a course check beforehand is that on the day it all seems to fly by much more quickly, and the next few hills, mainly on one kind of step or another, didn't seem so bad. The field was thinning out now, and I had caught up the people going at my pace. Two more red crossing lights ("This is getting silly, is my race IC chip switching them from green?") and we were on to the long drag up Mt Maya, we had broken the back of that 10,000ft of climbing, and we were into the mist.

Running alone for long stretches now, more concentration on route-finding was needed despite the organiser's extra signs, but having seen the route before helped in reversing a potentially disastrous mistake - there are endless path junctions. I called back runners who were heading the wrong way several times. I buddied up with a young guy in orange that I kept seeing who was stronger on the climbs and slower on the descents and we ran the fast road section to checkpoint four together, time for one last red light, and off along the caged paths through the golf courses, until a sore leg slowed him down. I was slowing down too, loosing concentration after five hours running, keeping a dodgy stomach at bay and getting passed by a couple of guys who had paced themselves more evenly and knew where the finish was. After a few undulations and more steps threading the road Rokko-san top itself seems to come quicker than expected, and I felt I could have emptied the tank a bit more. Time to do just that.

The finishing descent is fun -  fast, then getting rougher. I passed two runners who had stopped to refuel at the last checkpoint - thanks lads! Then another, and a tall young guy I'd chatted to earlier while queuing for one of the walking sessions earlier, who seemed to be ambling along looking at the trees. Well they were nice trees. "It's only 2km to the finish you know! Let's go!" I called, in case he didn't know. "Oh, be careful!" he replied. Erm...I don't think so, sir, more than enough control for one day methinks. This came out as a shouted "No!" A well-meaning marshal on the way down also told me to be careful before the rough section down a small steep-sided valley. The tank was well and truly emptied now, and the small climb near the end made sure I left it all on the course.

The finish was well organised, with a gantry, big clock, a tape for every finisher, and even, comically, someone holding up a card saying "You are looking good!" I think not. I needed a few minutes sitting down before I could face getting changed, which took a while - if you have done a mountain ultra you will know the feeling. Feeling half-human again I collected the certificate with time (5.46.08) and position (18th from 485) though I don't yet know how I'd done in the 45+ group. The winner took 4 hours 53 minutes. Hell, with my medical history and age (53), I'll take that. Still, we all have to take our times with a pinch of salt what with the lottery of queuing, red lights and all.

Hello, is there anyone there?

All that was missing was a bit of post-race banter and socialising. Like most of the races I've done in Japan it was just finish, get changed, and well....go home. Nobody talks much. English fell running is such a great social scene book-ending the races, starting with protesting about how unfit, untrained and unwell you are, and usually ending up with talking crap and swapping war stories in the pub afterwards. There is a shared history and everyone knows everyone else. So it felt a bit lonely, phoning my entirely underwhelmed family to say I'd survived and then wandering off to catch the bus. Still, that's what blogs are for isn't it, you know exactly why I feel so satisfied, don't you? There, I knew I could count on you.

Having found my way over 45km of mountain, I couldn't find the bus, until a sprightly gentleman of seventy seven, as he proudly told me, said he was going to the bus himself and showed me the way, and quite a way it was too, I would never have found it. He said that now he was retired he likes to take children walking on the mountain. When we got to the bus, he didn't get on, and I realised he had come right out of his way just to help me. So I wasn't the only one to have gone the extra mile.

My number, after it had been through the wash by mistake - makes you want to run, doesn't it?

The Mt Rokko Longitudinal Race (45km / 3,000m climb) takes place in mid March. See my previous posts:
Rokko course pt 1
Rokko course pt 2
Rokko race rules
It is organised by Actrep.


Rules rule?

An example of rules in Japanese trail races: Mt Rokko Longitudinal Race 

Fell running. The freedom of the trails, the one area of life where yo are free to let rip, to rediscover your animal self on the mountains beyond the narrow nit-picking bounds of modern life, right? Well, not quite.

A nice fat white envelope arrived from Actrep, the organisers of the Rokko Longitudinal Course race (45km/28 miles with 3,000m/10,000ft climb). An essential part of trail and mountain racing in Japan is making sure you understand the exact format and multiple rules for a particular race, as there are no agreed standards . I retired with a translator friend to the chain restaurant, queasily coloured an intestinal orange that makes you feel as if you are being digested as you eat. It has all the effortless charm of a motorway service station, but it is cheap and there are no locally run alternatives. Oh for the Red Lion in Littleborough. So, what is on the race menu for a week on Saturday? Let's work through the race information. Take a deep breath.

'Wave' starts
Firstly, as number 561 of 600, even though I entered very early, I am leaving in a 'wave start' at 9am. 50 people at a time start every 3 minutes from 8.30. This means someone in my group running well might have to overtake 10 people every 1km, or one every 100 metres (450 people over 45km). If it slows you down by at least 1 second to overtake someone - if you are lucky - that means you are giving a minimum of around 6 minutes to a rival starting in the first group. Not good. I'd prefer a mass start, asking people to be sensible about their position, with a loop to string people out to start. Route finding shouldn't be a problem though with that many people to follow...

Improvised and official signposts, map reading, or just follow people?
Special sections.
There are designated sections where....you might want to sit down to prepare yourself for this one.....you have to walk. Yes. There are sections where you cannot overtake. I nearly had a seizure in my first Japanese race when I saw that overtaking was not allowed on the only steep rough downhill section! I got permission from the organiser to overtake as long as I politely requested to do so from my fellow competitors. I mean, descending is the only thing I can still do!

For this race, it goes like this:
  • Section 1 - downhill steps: you can run but there is no overtaking. Someone will walk, so basically you are screwed. The leader of the first group to start will gain 5 minutes.
  • Section 2 - urban pedestrian walkway: you have to walk, but overtaking is OK. Do the hip-shake thing: practice race-walking now.
  • Section 3 - mountain crag with some exposure: you have to walk and there is no overtaking. Nullifies the skills of rough stuff specialists.
  • All urban sections: 'jogging only.' All traffic signs have to be obeyed as usual, meaning if a pedestrian crossing is on red you have to wait, even if the road is empty. This can work for and against you. Maybe if I time it right I can recoup that 6 minutes. For most runners jogging won't be a problem on a race of this length - and what is it anyway? I don't fancy trying to keep up with Paula Radcliffe's jog.
Perhaps these rules are in response to police, local government and insurer requests, with a touch of organiser wariness thrown in. Anyway, it only covers 2 or 3km out of 45. We'll live.

No rules! That's right, no minimum clothing, kit or food requirements. Feeding and navigation is the competitors' responsibility. You get a nicely printed map free - but if you want to orienteer by compass you will need to draw your own grid lines on as there aren't any and north is somewhere up in the top right corner. This is a well used route near to roads and civilisation, but I will be carrying at least a waterproof top and bottoms, and I would always say full body cover must be carried. Mountains are mountains and one wrong turn and a broken ankle could see you in trouble. Viva FRA rules! There are drinks machines, shops and cafés on the way - lighter than carrying liquid.

Checkpoints, end points, and another kind
OK, this straightforward. There are three kinds of points on the routes: 5 end points in case you need to drop out, 3 checkpoints that you need to get your card stamped at, and another kind which we don't yet understand. Some checkpoints are also end points, but not all end points are checkpoints. Endpoint 4 could be checkpoint 2. Then there is the other kind which we don't understand yet. Got that? Good. Now can you explain it to me?

There is a card that must be taken to sign in with, then we will be issued with a card which must be stamped at the three checkpoints (fun if it's wet) and handed in at the end, and another card which we don't understand yet.

It's all very interesting. There is a high tolerance for rules and administrative detail in Japan, so local runners won't bat an eyelid at all this. Being used to the UK fell running scene I'd prefer to see minimum rules and runners treated as responsible adults. I would, I would, I would! (Sound of toys being thrown out of the pram). In 30 years I have never seen a runner endanger either another runner or a someone out walking their dog. Mountain people look after each other, right?

Safety has to come first though. And, having organised races myself, I am well aware of the hard work that goes into it and all the different pressures that end up giving the race its particular character. As a runner I really appreciate the chance to see what will happen when I push myself alongside others. It's all good. Let the slightly constrained fun begin!


Mt Hiei and the marathon monks, Kyoto

Mt Hiei just north east of Kyoto in late December
I didn't know until we were on the mountain that I would be coming into close contact with one of the world's great historical mountain endurance traditions. I had read about Mt Hiei's 'marathon monks' but never thought I would see the place - especially by accident.  In a gloriously incongruous transplanted cultural tradition I had been invited for a Christmas Day meal, sleep-over and long Boxing Day run by David, who I had only met once before - oh the joys of spontaneous sociability! Ohara was snowy and beautiful, and it felt like being at home back in Fukushima's mountainous Okuaizu villages.

Ohara morning - only 10km north of Kyoto

Run preparations were of Olympic standard. Well stuffed with the a western-style meal, refreshed with long conversations in English and slightly pummelled by David's great kids acting out their favourite animé scenarios, Boxing Day dawned with more snow. Let's get at it.

David heading up the first climb in Northern Irish  hard man style  - gear is for wussses

It was only now as we climbed gradually up the first hill in pristine shallow snow that I understood where we were going - over a couple of tops to Hiei-san. We would be running in the footsteps of the 'marathon monks.' Wow, I'm not worthy. Nah, not really, I'm too much of an egotistical sceptic to feel that. But it would be very interesting. We made the top of Yokotaka-san and made our way along the undulating ridge, ribbons of ice coating every twig, and a stiff breeze cutting over the hill. "It'll harden ye," said David with a wry smile. In a homage to Michael Jackson he had managed to come out with only one glove, and he explained that "It'll harden ye" is a stock response to any hardship in Northern Ireland, where they have known a few.

Ice decorations and David in his element on Mt Yokotaka
We were the only souls out - it is a normal working day in Japan, so we had the new-made world to ourselves, slithering, leaping and whooping down steep slopes. As we approached Mt Hiei David told me what  he knew of the place, that the Buddhist temple and it's army (yes, Buddhist mercenaries/soldiers, but if you think that is weird, check out the Yakuza scandal, links below), had got ideas above it's station and interfered once too often in the affairs of the capital in Kyoto, with the result that a large imperial force was sent in 1571. It encircled the mountain and neighbouring towns and then moved upwards, killing everyone (an estimated 20,000) and burning everything until it reached the top. Problem solved after a fashion. The temple was re-established, and the tradition of a gruelling discipline of mountain endurance and prayer resumed.

Part of the monks' prayer and endurance route
After exhaustive research spanning several minutes in the dusty tomes and darkened recesses of the internet, I have gathered the following. I'd take the details with a pinch of salt if I were you, as most sources say something slightly different and seem to be feeding off each other without looking at primary materials - and I'm doing the same.

They are sometimes called 'running monks' but this seems to be inaccurate. "Jogyozanmai" is translated on an information board I saw as "walking meditation" rather than running, and the films (links below) show fast walking  - so no, it is not that kind of jog! However, anyone who understands mountains knows that one person's fast walk is not the same as another's. The walking is incidental in that it is primarily there to gain access to the numerous prayer sites across the mountain. The difficulty of the Jogyozanmai lies not in its speed, but in its relentless succession of hard days in sets of one or two hundred, over seven years, amounting to an estimated 28,400 miles, set in the context of prayer and meditation, sometimes with limited food and sleep, no modern comforts, and all done in grass sandals through any weather and illness, come what may. Very few have completed it, though some have done it twice, and good runners are reputed to have given up after a week.

I have a feeling that English running greats Joss Naylor and Billy Bland would not have had a problem with it, mind you. Clearly, it is very different as even hardened mountain runners used to long distances have flexibility and fit their running around the pleasures of ordinary life, resting when they need to, and choosing when to suffer. It seems to be the unforgiving rigidity and emotional isolation - the intentionally soul destroying boredom even - of the Mt Hiei discipline that makes it particularly difficult - one day of serious illness and the whole thing is in jeopardy.

Jogyo-Do temple on the left, Hokke-do on the right, for walking, and walking and sitting training respectively. I'm looking for the cake eating temple
There is a wide continuum of human experiences that connect up with recreational mountain running and mountain asceticism. Both can span meditative thought, a quasi-spirtitual (in the sense of awe and wonder) relationship with the land and existence. Is there a point where both touch on the dysfunctional self (present company excepted of course) escaping the difficulties of ordinary life, or even a need for the kind of intensity that borders on self-harm? In case you think that is an exaggeration, the monks carry a rope and blade as in previous centuries they were supposed to top themselves if they failed, and the route is said to be dotted with the graves of those who have. Generally speaking when I fail to finish a run I have a little moan to my friends then go home and have some nice beans on toast - but then again, I am not enlightened. The long ordeal finishes with a 7 (or 9?) day sleepless fast where death, slash, enlightenment is hopefully approached. It used to be 10 days, but most people died so they shortened it, the softies. Imagine getting to the of it all end and feeling, well, no different? I know the Mt Hiei experience would not be for me unless all else had failed....erm...where do I sign? As David would say, "It'll harden ye."

Excuse me, is this the café?

Information on the marathon monks and Mt Hiei on the internet is patchy and often slightly contradictory: the truth is out there somewhere....
20 minute Australian video on the marathon monks
English documnetary (older film, different monk):Pt 1
Pt 2
A slightly wacky page on the marathon monks
USA today article 
The masacre on Mt Hiei
"The Marathon monks of Mt Hiei" is a book by John Stevens
Wikipedia page
Enryaku-ji temple and the yakuza scandal 
Warrior monks


Mount Rokko Longitudinal Course pt 2

The spurs and flanks leading up to the Rokko ridge are much better than the ruined ridge itself

Rokko-san above Kobe is a mountain ruined by development. In the absence of planning protection it may be inevitable for a mountain so near a city, but the ridge itself is ruined for long stretches by roads, strings of very ugly buildings and attempts at tourist business. Many of these were probably built in the bubble economy period and never had any chance of making money - and with no thought of dismantling them or rehabilitating the site afterwards. I will spare you the photos as I couldn't bring myself to take any. Fortunately the sides are too steep and rough to do anything with, and there are some great paths on the off-lying tops, spurs and side valleys  that are well worth exploring.

I wanted to check out the second half of the 45km race I am doing on March 17th, which follows the 56km route from Sumaurakoen station on  the Sanyo Dentetsu line to Takarazuka station to the north east, with about 3,000m (10,000ft) of climb and descent over 16 peaks. See here for part 1. The race misses the last 10km section and from Rokko-san itself drops left, down to a park in Arima Onsen.

Cage running: a mountain running first
The 650m (2,100ft) climb up a ridge from Rokko station on the Hankyu line was wild and great until we hit the first concrete monstrosity NE of Mayabatou-san. The next 10km or so to the top of Rokko were easy but not a pretty site - though the roads are good for families with young children and older people to get access to somewhere high for an easy walk. Running through one is as near as I ever want to get to a golf course, but at least there was no chance of getting brained by a well driven ball as the path is enclosed with a netting cage - a curiously zoo-like experience.

WTF? There is a place for ugly monumental sculpture. This isn't it.

The wire netting theme was continued by the enormous.....I'm struggling for a category here.....let's be charitable and call it a thing, seemingly a lighthouse in a chicken coop on a Wagnerian scale, perched proudly on the ridge. [update: a reader has kindly pointed out that it is a wind sculpture consisting of hundreds of flutes that sound beautiful in the breeze] At least when you are mountain running you can get past such aberrations quickly, and in fact this whole section to Rokko-san was easy, in contrast to the repeatedly stiff climbs in the first half of the full 56km course.

Top of Mount Rokko 931m
I checked out the race finish with an hour's quick blast down to Arima Onsen and back up. This confirmed that the side paths and valleys in this area are great. My companion Keisuke-san very sensibly read the paper over a bowl of udon in the cafe just below the top of Rokko-san instead. We then began what proved to be the very nice end section of the main route. We quickly left the dross behind and began the long fast path that contours along a very quiet undulating ridge towards Takarazuka. Ahhh - no roads or paved paths, what a relief!

What a relief - lovely views in places, and not a vending machine in sight
It was a surprise to find this section so pleasant, but be warned - unlike the rest of the Rokko Juso, there is nothing along this last 7km section but trees, so if you need liquid or food stock up at Rokko-san. Also, the small green signs go AWOL when just when you are looking for the entrance to the ridge path from the road, so take care. 800m from the Rokko car park the path seems to go up a small rise to a shrine, but you need the path that heads NE from a loop of road below - so keep left on the road. If you have done the whole route it would not be a good time for a detour down the wrong ridge.

Lovely easy running towards Takarzuka
If you are feeling good this must be a nice path to really let rip on. Whoever laid it out knew what they were doing as it contours beautifully, with the odd rise as it gradually descends - it felt longer than it actually is though, just because it is so quiet - on this cold February day anyway. Or was it the several hours with a full rucksack that did it? A steepening descent brought us out above Takarazuka. On my map it is all a lovely green, leading me to expect something rural. But no, it is part of the urban sprawl of Kobe which laps all around the skirts of the mountains, and pug ugly. Grey would represent it better. Running into the first tall blocks of flats hemming in the roads was a slap in the mug after the woods - and dammit - no change of clothes or towel, so we had to give the onsen (hot spring bath) by the concrete rimmed river a miss.

The towers of Osaka from above Takarazuka
So in summary, now that I've seen the whole course, I would say the Rokko Mountain Longitudinal Course is worth doing if you live nearby and take it for what it is. The first half is hard,containing most of the 3,000m (10,000ft) of climbing, and the second easy but you need a map and to take care all the way - don't rely on the signs. The sides of the ridges provide some paths on challenging and beautiful terrain with epic cityscapes behind, but the main section of ridge from 10km SW of Rokko-san to the top is best avoided unless as part of the whole course, but after that it improves again.


Running the Yata hills, Yamatokoriyama, Nara

Japanese Cyclocross Champion 2012 Yu Takenouchi pretending to be tired, with Masaki and his boss

The Yata hills are small and easy but very pleasant for a gentle jog or some speedwork. I was introduced to them last October by Masaki-san, a trail runner and mountain biker whose local running patch they are (he has asked me to point out that they are often too crowded for MTB riding to be safe). He kindly arranged a run and family picnic and invited some friends along. As well as his boss, there was Yu Takenouchi, whose puppyish demeanour belied world-class racing ambitions on the European Pro Cyclocross and road scene. Since then he has won the Japanese national cyclocross championships in January 2012 and finished 33rd in a cyclocross world cup race - no mean feat. As I write he is preparing for the World Championships in Belgium this weekend. The boy is only 23 and he is going places. Fortunately he had come 3rd in a national MTB bike race the day before, and had never been trail running before, so me and Masaki were able to whup his ass! Probably the last time that will happen. Ever.

Yu and me (see what I did there?) and bossman. Yes I was hot.
The hills run from north to south for about 10km and there are a network of good fast running trails all over them. Seen in the photo above, a wide 'maintenance road' runs over the spine, with smaller tracks running off, and it is probably possible to string together a route with more climbing in it by using paths up the sides.

View from the Yata hills east across Nara city

A run in the Yata hills can be nicely combined with a family or group day out, as there is a pleasant park area with a big grassy area for picnics and for the children to play in - marked on some maps as the Yata Prefectural Park, but by signs on the hills as the Children's Forest Play Park. There is also Hiyoru-ji temple at the southern end, a world heritage site, and Yamatokoriyama castle on the eastern flank, which has some impressive stone walls and moats. there are small stations all round, so access is easy. (see map below).

A run followed by a nice homemade picnic - now yer talkin'
I really appreciated Masaki-san organising this, as we had recently self-evacuated from Fukushima prefecture, and it was the first time I felt able to relax or run for a long time. It was great to see children and not worry so much about them. I wish them a long and healthy life. Masaki lead us on a pleasant hour's route, waiting every now and then for the other to catch up, and then we all had a good trough in the shade of a tree. I was just feeling all mellow and had changed back into my cycling gear for the ride home, when he announced another run. Blimey, with my belly full and my under-used legs twinging and tendons pinging I wasn't so sure. But who can say no this smile?

OK, OK, another run, OK....
Masaki-san is a busy man with work and family, and doesn't get enough time to run and ride his MTB, so I guess he needs to make the most of it when he can. This time we took a few less used paths and had fun on the downhills - Yu was interested towitness the glory that is UK downhill technique on the rough stuff and said "I will beat you downhill next time!" Bring it on baby.

Looking south to Ni-jo yama and the Kongo-san range from the Yata hills
It was interesting to hear about Yu's experience on the Belgian semi-pro scene, and how a few of the other riders tried to wind up with racist jokes. I explained to him about black 'humour', and how sometimes it is used as a weapon to make you angry and weak, and sometimes it is a sign of friendship - very confusing. I told him some of the strategies that had helped my daughter survive the other girls in her English school playground, and if you can survive that, the peloton should be a doddle...

Yu Takenouchi texting his coach about why he had just risked his season on the turn of an ankle

Click for map of Yata hills

Mount Rokko Longitudinal Course - part 1

View  to the south west from Kikuisui-yama, looking back along the first 40% of the Rokko trail

The Mount Rokko Longitudinal Course is a 56km trail from Sumaurakoen station on  the Sanyo Dentetsu line to Takarazuka station to the north east, with about 3,000m (10,000ft) of climb and descent over 16 peaks. It is incredibly varied, from neat park-like paths, to road, to very rough rock and root-strewn sections, and even ladders and exposed crags. But more than anything, it has steps, steps and more steps.

I have entered the race in March, so I wanted to have a look, and I am glad I did. Route-finding wasn't easy, even with map and compass and signs on the way, especially in the urban sections, as the signs sometimes go AWOL when you most need them. There are worse ways of loosing your way. On the way to begin on an early commuter train a young guy in a suit was keeled over asleep next to me - or was he dead? I began to think so at the end of the line when vigorous shaking didn't wake him, and called for help. He finally stood up and staggered onto the platform where he sat down on the first bench and went immediately to sleep again, clutching his briefcase. I don't think he was drunk, just exhausted to his very bones, perhaps on his way to 'karoshi', or death by overwork - the dark side of Japanese economic success. I felt very sorry for him and wished him a better life and stronger unions. Hard work in the context of the freedom of mountain running could not be more different, and the first few hours of my run were coloured by this encounter. I felt very lucky.

The freedom of running. Osaka bay from the park steps up Hachibuseyama
The views over the sea make for a sublime start, but on a slightly earthier note there are toilets in the station and the park, but no paper, which is surprisingly common - note to self: add a pack of tissues to kit list. The first of many, many flights of steps lead up to the cable station on the first top, Hachibuseyama. Paper! As with most of the tops on the first half of the Rokko-san Longitudinal trail the low height in metres is deceptive as you climb more or less from sea level each time, and those steps - ouch!

Looking from the steps down the 1st descent to Yokoo-san, the second objective
Each mountain is strung in a line heading towards Rokko-san like islands of forest, with suburbia lapping and nibbling at the edges. The streets are more confusing than the mountains, as always, but both required careful navigation and sometimes asking people to make sure. Presented with 5 different paths and a map without much detail it took a lot of time. I don't want to waste too much time on race day. A lot of the paths are over-engineered, being so close to towns. I don't know about you, but I find staircases harder than rough trail. I couldn't believe it when I found this was the second climb of the day....

You have got to be kidding me. Killer steps up Yokoo-san.
Ah the love affair with concrete and the taming of nature (as if that can be done). Actually, practising and training on steps would be a good idea for trail racing in Japan, they are very common on any well used mountains and require their own brand of pacing on the way up, and a particular style of descending. I don't want to fall down these babies. The view back from the top was good though...

Looking back to Tekkaizan and Hachibuse-yama, the big bridge and beyond
Who would think from those regimented steps and the innocuous first part of Yokoo-san that it is such a dramatic mountain. After the first top there is an easy short ridge that comes up to a second top. There is a short path straight on, but it doesn't go through, it just gives this glimpse of what is ahead...

Glimpse of the craggy col section on Yokoo-san, with Takatoriyama, the next top, behind

Don't go straight on here! It seems strange when the route veers down to the left. Here is why...

The precipitous crags on Yokoosan - note the walker bottom right for scale
The north east end of Rokoosan is a crumbling mess of jagged gravelly crags, and there is a bit of exposure to drops in a couple of places. Ladders have been added, and there would be some 'bad steps' without them. It is as if someone has attacked it with an axe. I took a lot of care here, no show-boating!

Looking back to Yokoosan (312m) from the NE.
For the last 5km or so I had been to-ing and fro-ing with a very fit man who looked to be in his late seventies at least. I kept passing him, but every time I stopped to check the way he came past, and he ran down every descent, his cagoule pulled off his shoulders and slung round his arms. From behind, with his neck of thick corded muscle and his easy movements, he looked 30 years younger. I was very impressed -  he looked like he could go all day like that, but he waved away my compliments and was off before I could get my camera out....

All in a day's jog for this septuagenarian: Takatoriyama (328m) from Yokoosan
The next confusing crossing of suburbia over, there is a stiff pull with more steps up to Takatoriyama (328m), which sports an enormous telecoms array, like many mountains near cities. This time there was a family with small children near the top, stopping me from feeling like running up hills was anything special - well, ok, puffing and panting up them at fast walk, then, what are you, psychic? I love to see that, too - kids having a good time on the hills, in this case in the company of their dad and grand-dad. Maybe in 70 years time one of them will still be enjoying it, like the elder on the last hill.

Young boy reaching the first of Takatoriyama's two tops (328m) with Osaka in the distance
The hill has a long top mainly taken up with shrines and paved footpaths, but affording this view across Kobe and Osaka bay...

Across Kobe and Osaka Bay to the Nara and Wakayama mountains beyond
The way off Takatoriyama was particularly hard to find and not well marked with the Rokko Longitudinal Course signs. This set the tone for a scrappy route through the next bit of town, where the signs suddenly gave out and I went wrong - or perhaps it was my concentration that gave out. I used map and compass to go in the right general direction and met up at a railway station with some walkers I had left ten minutes before, where we milled around a bit looking confused until I plunged off down the path I had convinced myself was the right way. Fortunately I was right for once, and a few kilometres of track and road brought me past some reservoirs and beneath a big dam to the big climb up to Kikusuiyama (458.8m). Here's the view again....

View back over the route on the way up Kikusuiyama
Next comes another big climb to a 486.2m top...are you getting the picture? They aren't so big, but those climbs just keep on coming. The navigation needed care again on this next section by Futatabi-yama over to what should be checkpoint 3 in the race, with paths heading off all over the place and not many course signs, so I wasted a lot of time trying to match up Kanji symbols on the signs with those on the map, without much success. Fortunately I asked a walker, who put me back on track. No shame, me, I always ask when needed. I was too tired by then to deal with unnecessary diversions.

A long drag took me up to Maya-san at 698.6m, and by this time my legs were telling me those spot heights were surely not nearly high enough - but apparently most of that 3,000m/10,000ft height gain has been done by this point, and it gets a little easier. Maya-san is home to Tenjo-ji temple, which was founded in 646 but burned down in an arson attack in 1975. Fire, whether arson or accident, seems to figure in the history of most Japanese places.

Shinto shrine on the top of Mayabetou-san 717m
On this day at the end of a week in which I had already done two long runs and a long bike ride, it was beginning to look as if discovering the last part over Rokko-san itself would have to wait for another day. The afternoon was growing gloomy, the January wind was blowing sharp, and snow laden clouds were coming in. I went on to what should be checkpoint 4 out of 5 on race day and decided to call it quits - the roads and tourist developments on this section did not inspire acts of heroism, and being on my own in the dark was not appealing 6 and a half hours into the run with a full rucksac and very tired. I found a steep and rugged but direct line down towards the nearest station to the south east. After more steps - a lot more steps - I bumbled out into suburbia just before dark, and treated myself to a nice hot bowl Kitsune Udon. Rush hour was beginning as I travelled on packed trains back through Osaka. I was tired and probably over-trained, but it was just my own silly fault. I wondered what time my exhausted friend from the morning would get home, or if he would at all?

The whole 56km route over 16 tops can, according to Jean-Yves Terrault in Kansei Scene, be done by elite runners in under 6 hours, by regular runners in 10 or 11 hours, or by walkers usually over two days. The cut-off time for the 45km race which finishes in Arima-onsen is 8 hours. See my post on 2nd half of the route here. My race report from 2012 is here. Another runner has some blog posts on the Rokko trail here


Slight bear spray accident

Two wild boar on a small wooded mountain, somewhere in Japan.
"Here kohai, did you see that the other day?"
"What's that then, senpei?"
"Bloody hilarious. There's these two humans farting about trying to get who knows where on the ridge up there."
"No, no guns, no. At first I thought they were bears, they were thrashing about in the bushes that much..."
"Oh, don't talk to me about bears, think they own the place, crapping in the woods - it's a well known fact. What tipped you off they were humans? The smell?"
"Stink more like, they smelled too bad to be bears, I'd be doing bears an injustice, I really would."
"Nothing worse than humans senpai, that horrible 'out of the forest' stench, all hairless and nasty little teeth. Turn my stomach."
"Yes, well don't let them catch you my boy, or they'll turn it inside out. Literally."
"The story kohei, the story?"
"Yes, well, there they were, what they call 'running' even though a one-legged piglet with the shits could move faster on a bad day. The bald one at the front, he's wearing this thing on his back..."
"What's that for then, senpai?"
"Oh don't ask me kohei, probably to make his bony back look more nice and round and boar-shaped. Anyway, he's bending down crawling through the sticks, acting like he's one of us, when suddenly there's this loud PSSHHHTTT!!!"
"No, it was definitley a psshhht, or maybe a fhhhtt, and this orange spitty stuff shot out in a cloud."
"What, like sensei when he sneezes?"
"Worse. Then the bald one's going 'Aaaarghhh, my eye, my eye!"' and the big one's going 'What the hell was that?' then he's going 'Aargh' as well."
"No argh, and stop interupting. So there they are rolling about in the bushes, and there I am rolling about on the floor - I nearly snapped me tusks laughing I can tell you, made my day. Even the birds had a little chuckle I can tell you, and they are usually miserable buggers, except for the ducks and crows o'course, they laugh at nothing, can't shut 'em up, drives you..."
"The story, senpei?"
"Well that's it really."
"They just went argh a bit more, then went off doing boary snorts and mumbling something about twigs and safety catches and 'Unbelievable,' and some stuff I couldn't follow."
"No change there then senpei."
"Nothing, nothing. No punchline then?"
"Not as such, no."
"Anyway, I've got no time to waste on you. Places to go, things to do."
"Nice muddy wallow, senpei?
"Don't mind if I do."
* * *

A painful reminder that pepper sprays are serious kit  and need to be handled with great care
The safety was flipped off by a twig and the trigger depressed by another - ouch!

I've carried this spray in the mountains for a couple of years without problems, either fixed to a rucksac strap on my chest, or in a mesh pocket at the side - checking that it was quick to get out. In principle I knew it was a serious weapon - now I know in practice. It only went off for half a second and most of it went on my back, but the edge of the cloud hit my eye. There was a strong chemical smell from the propellant, then the burning hit. This was only a half-second spray, but it didn't stop hurting until after I'd had a shower. As the run went on my eye improved but as it continued it began to irritate anywhere clothing was rubbing on sweat (use your imagination). Even my friend, who wasn't directly sprayed had trouble from running behind me afterwards, and in the end his eyes reacted so badly he couldn't see very well. It seems to have got everywhere and something else would suddenly start hurting.

I have learned several things from this:
  1. If I have to use it on wildlife it may well work, as your body reacts immediately and wants to get away from it
  2. Spraying a lot of it it will likely also be very uncomfortable for the user
  3. The American occupy protesters in the notorious video where they are sprayed long and hard right in the face, and yet kept still, have my respect.