Saturday, February 28, 2015

Day 9: Celebrity status?

Woke up this morning, from the strangest dream.  I was in the biggest army the world had ever seen..... No.  Wait a moment.  That's the Hunters and Collectors. (Um...if you don't know, they were a band, and those are the lyrics of one of their songs...)  Seriously, though, I really did wake up this morning from the strangest dream.  Whether it had anything to do with the army or not, I don't recall.  I attribute it to nerves. Today I go to Otsu in preparation for the Lake Biwa Marathon tomorrow.

This morning was a wonderfully lazy morning.  I woke up when Mindy went out to run, then slept another hour or so in the back bedroom at Mike and Marcella's where we've been calling home the past few days. Finally getting out of bed around 8ish - it was another 9 hour night of sleep. (If only that was a regular occurrence!)  Top it off with a quick Skype call with my niece and nephew - very quick, as the internet reception was poor and the call kept dropping - that makes for a good start to a day of forced relaxation.

Mike and Marcella accompanied us to Otsu.  They are structuring their week-end around coming to watch the race and support me; what great people to call friends! (I mean, beside the fact that they let us stay at their place for two nights, and have opened the invitation for any time we want to return.) By the time we were on the train to Otsu, I'll admit I wasn't the best company.  Oh, nerves! These were reinforced when we got to the Otsu Prince Hotel where the race is putting me (and Mindy) up for the night.  What a nice hotel! Does that make for any expectations?

The "Athletes' Village" was in the hotel conference rooms.  I wasn't sure what to expect out of a race with ~400 participants. (Out of interest, I am the only Canadian, one of about 6 white guys, and probably the tallest guy in the race.) Talk about feeling like a rock star! I met with Yoko Nagase, the race representative with whom I have been in touch over email the past few months, who sat down with me and Mindy at a table and personally walked us through what I needed to know for the race.  Well done on the organizing, Lake Biwa Marathon!

Feeling like a rock star who is about to perform his first big event, my stomach was all jumpy as I watched the video of last year's race, where ~50 guys went through 5km in 15 minutes flat! Egad!  This is going to be a fast race.... (This year's race is doubling as the qualifying race for Japan's World Championship team, so I don't expect it will be any slower.) I've just got to stay ahead of the medical van, and I won't get pulled. They expect attrition, so the 15km cut-off is at 2:26 marathon pace! (That isn't exactly helping the butterflies in my stomach.) This race is a big enough deal in Japan that the entire race is televised commercial free.

A couple "small world" moments came out of the Athletes' Village, Marcella bumped into one of her colleagues who was playing emcee for the welcome reception this evening, and I met Tristan, another Skechers athlete who is here to race.

We had an hour from the check-in to the mandatory foreign athlete orientation, so Mindy and I went for a shake-out run along the lake path.  With snow-capped mountains in the background, and the waves lapping at the shore only a few feet away, this would make for a stunning long run, if I wasn't facing a marathon tomorrow.

The orientation was entertaining.  A lot of detail...that wasn't really much different from any other race.  However, that's where I learned I could set up my own special drink bottles, and where Tristan and I got our pre-race hero shot (our "Go Run" shot, as he termed it), and where I got my race kit.

Yoko arranged for Marcella and Mike to get passes into the reception this evening as well as the stadium tomorrow (the race starts and finishes with 600m around a track), so the four of us got ready for a free dinner and mingling.  What I didn't expect was A LOT of long speeches, and an interminable toast.  (In fairness, there probably weren't that many speeches, and they probably weren't that long, but they were in Japanese, and I was hangry, and the food was right there, waiting for the speeches to end so we could dig in...)

When we finally got to it, the food was a fun mix of Japanese and Western style.  I hope Andrea's sushi magic kicks in for me, because that was part of my meal.  In case the veg. sushi doesn't cut it, though, I also had spaghetti and Japanese-sauteed vegetables.  A bit of a random pre-race meal, but the race doesn't start until 12:30 tomorrow afternoon, so I can afford a bit of experimentation.

After dinner, the four of us took in the view from the 38th floor, and then Mike and Marcella left us for a quiet evening.

I think I'm as ready as I'm going to be for tomorrow...

If things go poorly....I've already told myself to follow the same advice a friend of mine gave me as I felt sorry for myself after Rotterdam.  I promise I will still enjoy the trip, and I will take the Biwa experience for what it is.  Wouldn't it be nice if things went well, though?

Friday, February 27, 2015

Day 8: Young Minds of the Future

There's one problem with fitting a race in the middle of a vacation.  The way I like to travel is tiring, and that's not exactly the best preparation for a race!  Mike and Marcella, friends of Mindy's (I suppose I can now say friends of mine) who live in Japan and have opened their home to us for a couple of days, are helping to solve that problem.  I slept 9 hours last night - minus a minor interruption when Mindy and Marcella went out to run at 5am - and have very little on my agenda today.  No run for me; trying to be as rested as possible for Sunday, and appreciating that some minor foot pain is fading away as the week of non-running progresses.

The one thing I have on my agenda today is pretty neat; a rather unusual tourist experience.  Marcella and Mike both teach at the Osaka International School - an English-language middle school largely catering to ex-pats in Osaka.  Every Friday, the school dedicates ~20 minutes for a presentation, sometimes from invited guests, and sometimes led by one of the classes at the school.  It's unstructured and open-ended, providing new and different learning opportunities each week.  Today, I am that invited guest.

It was originally supposed to be both Mindy and me speaking about running in our respective lives, including my path to the Lake Biwa Marathon. Mindy pointed out that with such a short time for our talk, and this whole trip largely inspired by the Lake Biwa Marathon, it would make sense to focus exclusively on me and my running.  I'm ok with that, I don't mind being the centre of attention!

Marcella introduced me to the student audience, but first asked: "Who here knows how far a marathon is?" Several hands shot up, and the one boy who was called upon responded: "42.195km" Well done! Two things to note about this: 1) that same boy had just been presented an award for a perfect score on a school-wide academic competition the previous week, and 2) that boy's father is a runner, an excellent runner, as Marcella told us, who organizes a running club out of the school.  At this last point, Mindy's ears perked up.  Yes, she had run 10km with Marcella that morning, but could she join the run club for another 10km with this esteemed runner?

My talk went well, if I may say so, myself.  At least, the kids seemed to be paying attention, and the staff who were in the audience seemed pleased.  The principal of Osaka International School (OIS) is also a runner, and so we chatted briefly afterward.

The OIS cafeteria serves pretty decent Japanese food, but we just sat with Mike and Marcella while they ate.  We were looking forward to a return to the Indian restaurant where we ate last night.  Besides, I have been eating pretty light this week, and want some hearty meals today - best served at the Indian place.

When we returned to the school for Mindy's afternoon run, I was prepared to be in awe of this fabulous Japanese runner /teacher.  When he learned that I am taking part in the Lake Biwa Marathon this week-end, he was the one who was impressed.  As Mindy ran with the teacher (he seemed excited to have quick company, and they were continuously dropping the students who were rounding out the group of runners), she learned that his 10km PB is 36 minutes, and his marathon best is 3:17.  Those are respectable times, but I guess I kind of was the impressive one!

With Biwa just a day and a half away, and my nerves starting to gnaw away at me, Mindy declined Mike and Marcella's invitation to join them for a night of drinking and karaoke, and joined me for a quiet evening in.  I took advantage of a kitchen at my disposal, sorted through labels at the grocery store as best I could, and made my own version of Japanese stir-fry with udon noodles. Pretty tasty! Another hearty meal to fuel myself for Sunday, and another early night to bed.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Day 7: Monkeying Around

By any normal standard, waking up in Kyoto, Japan, on vacation, is a good start to a day.  I get spoiled so easily, though, and now that I’ve been here the better part of a week, I can’t help but feel a little underwhelmed that on this particular morning (on vacation, in Kyoto, Japan), we woke up to a steady rain. Not the most conducive to a day of sightseeing.

Given that the Biwa marathon is now just a few days away, at least I have a good excuse not to run in the rain.  Not so for Mindy:

A workout today, too! That’s dedication! Meanwhile, I wandered along the Biwa River (this would be entirely forgettable if not for my enthusiasm that it feeds into Lake Biwa)

and into yet another incredible gate and temple compound.

The real treat today involves trekking to the outskirts of the city, where mountainous (ok, “very hilly”) forests host hundreds of monkeys! Rain or not, we are onward to Arashiyama Monkey Park in Iwatayama!

Leveraging our rail passes once again, we took the train to a little “city” nestled against the river and mountains of Iwatayama. Upon arrival at the station, signs and maps direct you to Arashiyama in one direction, or a temple compound and bamboo forest in the other.  If only it weren’t raining….perhaps both?  We made our way through the town – mostly ignoring the myriad restaurants and shops along the way, to the river.  

The rain makes it feel like we’re venturing into a desolate and forbidding forest.  On the topic of forbidding, is the park even open in the rain?

As we paid admission, we were assured that the monkeys were, indeed, out in the weather (I don’t suppose they have many options where else they would go other than “out”), and so we began the climb to the top.  We climbed, and climbed, and climbed. 160 metres up from the river where we started, up rugged stone stairs and dirt paths through the forest.

Finally, we saw what we came for!

And then we saw more.  Many, many more!!

The monkeys are encouraged to congregate here through feeding, so it’s not exactly a “natural” setting, but these are WILD Japanese macaques!  On a nicer day, one might get a stunning view of the city below from up here, too.

You could use the binoculars for a close up of the monkeys…

As it rained harder, and we got colder, we retreated into the hut where a woodstove burned warmly. No monkeys are allowed in the hut, but that doesn’t mean the view is any worse

Eventually, even playful Japanese macaques can begin to be “normal”, and we got chatting with some of the other folks sharing the hut with us. Small world – Vince and his buddy are from Toronto! Vince ran the Tokyo marathon last week-end, and has been touring through Japan since. (I’m not sure what’s the smarter plan – climbing to the top of this mount a few days before a marathon and tiring one’s legs out, or facing it after a marathon, with potentially sore and swollen quads and calves…)

Sometimes, when you feel most isolated and in another world, reality comes crashing back in. Although I had no cell signal, there was wireless at the top of Iwatayama, and messages related to work started coming in.  Picture this: I’m in a hut in rural Japan feeding wild monkeys, and yet I am on the phone with a colleague back in Toronto, trying to sort through the latest issue at OntarioMD.  


Thanks to Skype, at least this won’t be cost prohibitive.  On the bright side, Mindy got more uninterrupted time with the macaques, and chatted away with our new friends.

Finally off the phone, I joined in the swapping of stories with Vince about where we had been and where we were going (thanks to Vince for the tip on Nara – another city worth seeing).  Time was wearing on, and we were aiming to get to Mike and Marcella’s before too late.

Matt: Alright Mindy, I think it’s time to get going.
Mindy: What do you mean?  I live here now. I live with the monkeys.
Matt: But…don’t you want to go see Mike and Marcella?  I’m going to Mike and Marcella’s.
Mindy: But I love the monkeys more than I love………..going to see Mike and Marcella…

Good catch, Mindy. I noticed you change what you were going to say!

With a last look around at Arashiyama Monkey Park, we began the descent. We were cold, soaked, and happy.

While being cold and sopping wet at a monkey park is still fun and exciting, being chilled to the bone and dripping wet walking to a train station quickly becomes unpleasant. I bet there’s a reason why the Japanese diet includes so many (delicious) hot soups!

A steaming bowl of miso soup does wonders for a cold body, and fresh, light tempura is a perennial treat. We were quickly refreshed and warm enough to tackle the trek back to the train station and the city of Kyoto proper.

Kyoto is a sprawling city.  Even though, by definition, Iwatayama is in Kyoto, and our hotel was in Kyoto, and Mike and Marcella’s was in Kyoto, it took a train, a subway, and another train, and a bus to get from one to the other, picking up our luggage at the hotel along the way.

Another adventure, and another example of “excessive” Japanese kindness. We missed our stop (that happens in Japan if you don’t know the train system well, as some trains only stop at certain stations), and so were the better part of an hour late to meet Mike at the train station.  He had kindly offered to guide us through the bus and the walk to their apartment.

However, we found ourselves at the wrong stop, and in trying to find our way back to meet Mike, a local Japanese fellow offered to show us the way.  We arrived – thanks to his help – where we were supposed to, with no idea whether Mike would still be there. This kind Japanese gentleman offered to call Mike on his cell phone. (I had tried reaching Mike on mine, but calling him from a Canadian cell phone in Japan wasn’t working out.  I didn’t know whether to dial the country code or even what the country code was supposed to be!) So we called Mike on a borrowed cell phone, and just as Mike and I were trying to sort out where he was and where we were, our new friend took the phone from me, told us he would find Mike, and walked away.  But he doesn’t know who Mike is.  How would he find him??!!!

A few minutes later, the Japanese guy came back and told us Mike wasn’t anywhere to be found.  Um…? We convinced him to call Mike again, and Mike (who was still at the train station) figured out where we were.  At which point the Japanese fellow left without saying a word.  Thanks…? So kind to go out of his way, yet…..weird.

Mike guided us to the right bus, and we made our way to Mike and Marcella’s.  When we arrived, exhausted, we were shown to our room, and I ducked away to log back into work and try to sort out some of those earlier issues.  Good thing I wasn’t rushing to bed – Mindy and Marcella hadn’t seen each other in months, and they had some catching up to do!

Finally, after a long and tiring day, we settled into our home away from home for the next couple of nights, and fell asleep.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Day 6: Silver and Gold

Sometimes things that seemed rather depressing and oppressing at the end of a long day look brighter and easier to take in the light of morning, after a good sleep.  And, sometimes, you just want to get out of the disgusting hovel where you spent the night. This was one of those mornings.

Everything has a bright side, however, and Tani House did afford us opportunities that simply wouldn’t have been so accessible otherwise.  Take, for instance, a morning run along the river; once again this path was marked every half-kilometre. I have no idea how far the path went – we started at the 14km mark and turned around within a couple of kms. The health-conscious Japanese also installed all kinds of recreational facilities along the path – tennis courts, lawn-bowling yards, and gymnastic equipment.

Or, the fact that I helped myself to a broken down bicycle to ride with Mindy while she continued her run through a bamboo forest and a temple complex, where we saw monks going about their morning routines. (The bikes are, technically, for rent, but the landlady was nowhere to be found, and I couldn’t be bothered waiting.)

(Yes, Mindy is on a bike.  We rode by after the run for the photo.)

Of course, running from Tani House meant we had to shower at Tani House.  Just the thought of that still makes my skin crawl.  Thankfully I had brought shower sandals!

Cleaned up and packed up, we made one final concession for the benefit of tourism: we left our baggage at the Tani House and biked (this time we did rent them properly) to the nearby temples – two of the most highly recommended attractions in Kyoto.

The Gold Pavillion, or Kinkakuji is a three story building reflecting three different styles of Japanese architecture. The upper two levels are totally covered in gold leaf, and the whole setting is designed for enjoyment of beauty (and for beautiful photos).

Of course, thanks to multiple fires, this structure is also a reproduction, built in 1955. The original Kinkakuji was built in 1397.  During a massive civil way in the mid-fifteenth century, the buildings were burned to the ground, and later restored.  Then, in 1950, a novice monk at Kinkakuji accidentally burned the place down. How much gold leaf was lost in those fires?!

At the other end of the city, nestled into the bordering hills, lies the Silver Pavilion: Ginkakuji. This building is the real deal – built in 1492! In contrast to the Gold Pavilion, the Silver Pavilion is not silver.  Not at all.  It was so named to contrast it with its golden counterpart, and as a result of how it looks when bathed in moonlight. It is a beautiful building, and the introspective forest walk provided views of the temple complex and Kyoto beyond.

There are some funny things about Buddhism.  Like sand gardens.

This famous sand garden stands in front of the Silver Pavilion.  Apparently it is one of a kind, and a quick look at the towering, perfectly symmetrical cone gives an idea about how much work goes into creating and maintaining it….but why?

This turned me off seeking out the most famous Buddhist rock garden, also in Kyoto.  I saw a photo online, and it is sand with a few rocks. There are more impressive things for me to see and do in Japan.

We had to return to Tani House one last time to pick up our things, and then we were – thankfully! – off to another hotel for the evening.  With the help of Google maps, we had figured out what bus to take, when to get off, how to get to the hotel from the bus stop…all the usual things.  What I didn’t expect was a rather unusual tour of Kyoto’s city bus system.

We boarded the “correct” bus, and then I conferred with the driver to confirm that his route did, indeed, stop where we needed it to. (Given the driver’s limited English and my non-existent Japanese, this was largely done with the help of the kanji that show up in the Google maps.) The driver told us to get off his bus and take the next bus – a different route – because it would be faster.  We disembarked, and waited for the new “correct” bus.  And we waited.  And waited. It was 15 minutes later that our bus came into view.  Not that 15 minute intervals is bad for city buses, but how much faster can this one possibly be on a 45-minute ride?

We got on the bus, and got off a few minutes later.  The bus had pulled into a station and was going out of service. Everyone had to wait for the next but on that route. So we waited again. Finally, an in-service version of our bus showed up and we all piled on.  We got to a stop with almost the same name, and the helpful folks around me assured me (based on the kanji on my phone, again) that said stop was where we wanted to be.  We departed the bus again and tried to orient ourselves according to the map; but it didn’t make sense.  A helpful shopkeeper pulled up an active version of Google maps on his computer (I only had static screen shots on my phone), and showed us where we had to go – another 10 minute walk.  That would explain why the stop name wasn’t quite right – it wasn’t the right stop!  I know the original bus driver was trying to be helpful, but I REALLY wish he had just let us stay on his bus.  Ugh!

Ga-Jyun Guest House turned out to be a massive step up from Tani House, and we found another delightful Japanese restaurant just down the street.  This time, I ordered the “Chef’s selection”, which turned out to involve 8 or 9 courses of soups, tofu, beans, tempura, and on and on.  For my last drink before the race, I had some warm sake.  When in Rome…