I like meeting people. I also like sitting inside eating biscuits. Sadly I have yet to discover a way to do both. Sometimes creature comforts have to be sacrificed. On Sunday I sacrificed warmth and a fried breakfast to take part in the Hitachi Omiya ekiden relay.
A small town amongst the rice fields and foothills of north Ibaraki, Hitachi Omiya is 3 hours from Tokyo. To get up early enough to join the run, I had to stay overnight. Another Tom from Devon who lives near the course kindly provided me with floorspace, a futon and critical doses of caffeine.
At 8:30am our group assembled outside the baseball stadium on the edge of town. We had three teams of 7 runners: two male and one female. Then it got complicated.
I like running because it`s simple: you just run. My brain enjoys the rest, it has nothing to think about. Tactics or gear are not important. But running an ekiden in midwinter is different: you need tactics and gear.
I was the leg 6 runner. Leg 6 started at the fertiliser shed around 11am. A bus to the fertiliser shed left the stadium at 9:50. OK fine, I just take all my gear to the fertiliser shed. No, I can`t do that. It`s freezing cold, I will need clothing when I finish. OK, I will give my gear to the Leg 7 runner to take. But I cannot give him all my clothing, I will need some to keep me warm at the fertiliser shed.
I decide to give him half. But what gear shall I include in the half? Will I need to change underpants at any point? If so, what colour will I want? I am ready to cry when our group leader comes over and for a final bag inspection: “Tom, you will not need your toothbrush.” Brain juice was leaking out of my ears when I finally got on the 9:50 bus. I still did not know if I had the right gear.
Two other runners from our group, Kasumi and Karube, also boarded the bus. I did not know either of them. Boisterous Junior High school students in cheap tracksuits filled the seats, all were competing as part of their after school clubs: table tennis, basketball, volleyball, tennis and more.
The bus journey was a good time to meet people: this is what I had given up biscuits on the sofa for. Kasumi sat across the aisle from me. Looking in my direction, she smiled and nodded her head. I nodded back, a wordless transaction and a promising start.
The first nod is a serious step: once you start nodding salutations to someone it is hard to stop, it becomes a permanent obligation every time you see them. Frequent nodding can be dangerous. You end up looking down so much you lose track of where you are walking.
Once nodding terms were established, after getting off the bus, Kasumi was easy to talk to. We agreed to warm up together, setting off on a jog along our 1.7km road course.
Excited at meeting a new human being, I began interrogating her. This was her second ekiden; she was nervous about it; she thinks jogging in the middle of the road is dangerous; she works with disabled people in Ishioka; she used to be a student at the Mito High school I taught at; she did not want to run any further with me. Before I could ask her star sign and favourite colour, she had turned back. Apparently 400 metres is warm-up enough.
I carried on jogging alone along the pavement. The brown bare rice fields on either side of the two lane road looked grim. Crossing a long bridge over the bamboo tree-lined Kuji river, I could see the handover point to the Leg 7 runner. I turned back. Coming the other way, stern-faced Karube ran passed me. Forgetting I was in Japan, I raised a hand and waved to him. He curtly nodded back and carried on, probably thinking: what a turnip.
The race was uneventful and perfect; even though I wheezed all the way and ran like an arthritic goat. The 5th leg runner handed me the tasuki (sash) in 3rd place. When I gave the tasuki to the 7th leg runner we were still in 3rd place. The gap between our team and 4th may have narrowed from 5 minutes to 10 seconds during this time, but only you and I know this.
After our run had finished, Karube was a different man. The aloofness had disappeared, the tension was gone from his shoulders. He seemed to have forgiven me for my naive wave. He suggested we walk to the finish line together, he knew a short cut through a bamboo grove.
With nobody else around, he spoke freely, I had no need to interrogate. Born locally, he lives near the Tokaimura nuclear plant. Apparently the tsunami last March nearly caused a similar disaster there to what happened at Fukushima. A terrifying thought, I expect his running training began shortly after.
When we rejoined the others back at outside the baseball stadium, everybody was smiling and cheerfully nodding to each other. The frostiness of earlier had gone. We were along way from hugging and kissing, but we had moved a step in that direction. Probably one step is enough for now.