Sunday, September 30, 2007

Running in Tokyo

Recently I’ve been taking a run in the morning. I know that technically walking around this huge city should be enough exercise, but it’s not organized, my heart-rate isn?t up enough even though my legs are worked out, and my brain is focused on the destination, not on the exercise. Through the grace of Sandy, my fabulous neighbor in Virginia, and her cohorts, Genie and Jennifer, I’ve become quite the promoter of exercise as a mind-clearing event. About three times a week the four of us would walk/run for about 3 miles at 6am. We’ve been doing it together for over two years - through the heat, the cold and everything in between. We draw the line at hard rain and snow, though - we want to be healthy, but safe.

So now I’m on my own here in Tokyo and I want to continue these wonderful traditions because not only does my body feel better with the running, so does my brain. About two weeks ago I devised a route that took me about 50 minutes to complete and ran it a few times at 6am. This past Thursday, since I didn’t have to get up for the kids school or work - it was Rosh Hashanah (separate message on that) I decided to run at 6:45am.

Before we go any further, I am a morning person. I am at my best in the morning and I always have been. Ask my dad about my adventures as a teenager - he never had to worry about me coming in after midnight - I couldn’t stay awake that long! I’m up early and I go to bed semi-early. It’s been my habit since childhood.

What I discovered is that I love being out at 6am, and if I start at 6:45, the city is already a different place.

First of all, by 6:45, there are significantly more people on the road than there are at 6am. There’s an increase in both pedestrian traffic and vehicle traffic. I had to run around people on the sidewalk and stop for oncoming cars at traffic lights. At 6, I can run through most intersections, regardless of the signal light, since there aren’t any cars. Most people commute into the center of Tokyo from the suburbs -Tokyo is urban sprawl like Los Angeles - and the day starts at all varying times. But my house is near, if not in the center of Tokyo, so people are commuting TO here. That is why the hour makes a big difference.

One of my favorite spots on the morning run has always (even last time we were in Japan) been the walking bridge over Tengenjibashi, near Hiroo. It’s a big square OVER the city streets accessible to pedestrians only by steps at each of the four corners of the crossing. These days I can run up the steps and around the entire bridge. It must be funny to see me though - I run up and down the same set of steps when most people use the bridge to cross the street and go across one way. I go all the way around. From the bridge I can see all four directions. At 6:15 or so, I see the last bit of pink waning in the sky from the sunrise, which is not visible at 7. The street in one direction has cars driving toward the intersection lazily, slowly, at 6:15, while the traffic races to the light at 7. People spill out from every which way at 7, whereas it’s so quiet at 6:15 - quiet enough to hear the wind ripple through the few misplaced trees nearby, even though I-m above them.

When I start my run at 6am, I see mama-sans outside of their little shops sweeping the sidewalk preparing for the day. Some are even watering the sidewalk to clean it more fully. Each shopkeeper is responsible for the stretch of sidewalk in front of his or her shop. By 6:45, most are done for the morning, so there is not even a lingering ”Ohio Gozaiemas” (Good morning) to resonate as I run. I must say, a major problem of running on my route is the two fantastic bakeries that I pass. The smells wafting from them border on insane as the bakers inside prepare for the morning rush of people who stop in for a sweet bread and a coffee before work. Starting my run at 6am means that I see the windows with the shades drawn tightly and can only imagine the soft, chewy treats inside. If I start at 6:45, I can actually see the treats in the window and the bakery preparing to open for the day. It is an excellent thing that I wasn’t carrying any money with me!

Just as a note, I pass many bars on my route, along with shops, office buildings and two hotels. My favorite bar is called the Hang-o bar. Yep, the slogan on the sign is something like “Hang-O bar - be ready for a hang over!” My second favorite is a bar called Tangent. The sign outside says “open from sunset to sunrise.” I have yet to go into these establishments, but one day perhaps I might!

The main difference between 6am and 6:45 is that at 6, the city is just waking up, putting on its best “bib and tucker” and preparing for its day. And that’s what I’m doing: taking time for me to clear my head and mentally prepare for the challenges that are sure to greet me during the day. At 6:45 and later, the city has already woken up and I feel that I’ve missed something in the preparations and perhaps in my own readying for the day ahead. I do love this city. There are a thousand challenges to it -the main one right now being the ungodly and unending heat - but I love it. My commitment to 6am runs proves it.

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