Trail Running Japan

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About 70 percent of Japan is mountainous and thousands of trails can be found crisscrossing elevated areas nationwide. Since ancient times, these trails (tozandō) were used as a means of travel between locations before roads or cars existed. Trails such as the Kumano Kodo, a series of pilgrimage routes that cover the Kii Peninsula, are a good example of this. Mountains were also a place where people believed the gods lived, and many of the trails were constructed to assist pilgrims in their ascent of the peak where invariably there was a shrine dedicated to the gods. Many of these shrines still exist to this day.

Mountain climbing as a recreational activity first developed in Europe during the 18th century and was introduced to Japan in the late 19th century.

Interest in recreational hiking (tozan) grew after World War II, particularly in the 1950s and ’60s, as more and more people flocked to a mountain — not for the purpose of religion or trade but, as legendary climber George Mallory once famously put it, simply because it’s there. Running through the mountains as a recreational sport was introduced to Japan almost 30 years ago, but was referred to by names such as “mountain run” (sangaku ran) and “maranic” (maranikku, which is a portmanteau of the words “marathon” and “picnic”) and was a very low-key, grass-roots movement.

The phrase “trail running” only really took hold in Japan 15 years or so ago when two trail running pioneers, Hiroki Ishikawa and Tsuyoshi Kaburaki, turned professional and worked closely with the media to promote the sport. Trail running was introduced in outdoor sports and running magazines and gradually started to be picked up by national media organizations.