Leeds Run For All 2008

Last Sunday, the rain mercifully waited just long enough for most of the racers to get over the finish line with only their accumulated sweat and the contents of a few thousand drinks bottles to drench them.

This post is a big thankyou to everyone who has sponsored me for this event. So far, the amount raised by everyone is £153, which will be heading to Macmillan Cancer Support soon. If you wanted to sponsor me but forgot or never got the chance, you still can - please visit my donation site, which will remain open for sponsorship until 22 September.

It was a pretty damn good day. The atmosphere at the start was electric and the whole buzz had a life affirming feel, seeing so many people trying to acheive goals and raise cash together. It got a little lairy as a few thousand people tried to wave their arms and legs about in an attempt to follow the warm-up guy without killing the person next to them but it was great fun. The only slight let-down was that almost twice the amount of people (12,000 ish) took part this year over last years totals, and it was a bit of a crush at the start and the half-way point. The first half mile was not much more than walking pace and the 'hairpin bend' at the 5.5km mark almost brought the pack to a standstill.

I will use these excuses and more to explain my 1:04:30 time, which is about 30 seconds off last year, where I pushed myself too hard off the start and ended up paying for it in the final two-thirds. This year, once the pack had opened out, I was keeping a steady pace all the way around, and at the end it was less of a case of crawling back to the car, as walking sedately.

Seriously considering the Pudsey and Harewood House runs later on this year..

Japan 9 : Mothballs

Early morning in Nagano brought a choice: I was there for that day and then the next, and then it was off to Nagoya for a day. Do I spend all of the middle day in the former 1998 Winter Olympics city, or move along to the next place on the schedule. While deciding, I unstuck my various bits of clothing from each other and sent a laundry bag off - the first one since arriving in Japan - and went to an Internet Cafe.
Where Chuo-dori ends and Zenko-Ji starts
The internet sites I'd glanced at were not kind to Nagoya, referring to it as a place you could safely leave off the list. However, my trusty book did list a few spots you might want to go to if there, so I was undecided.

The tourist office was closed, and wouldnt open for a couple of hours. Since that would waste precious hours, I decided to go for the attractions first. Nagano has two main attractions, one new and one old. The first, Zenko-ji Temple, is at the north end of the city at the far end of Chuo-dori, the long road I'd been up the evening before. It's one of Japans' most famous Buddhist temples, reported to contain one of the first golden Bhuddist statues brought to Japan, and a major pilgrimage site. At the south of the city lies the other main attraction: the M-Wave Arena, a huge indoor stadium that hosted the speed-skating part of the Winter Olympics 10 years previous, and now doubles as a museum to comemmorate the event.
A western-style building on Chuo-doriOn a coin toss, I decided to head north first. Zenko-ji temple was a 15-minute walk up the road, which became increasingly traditional-looking as it went up the hill. Either side, the buildings turned from flashy commercial glass houses with neon signs (with the odd shrine located on the back streets) to a mixture of older pre-war western-style buildings and Edo-period (or Edo-style) houses. Even the roads and pavements changed to a cobbled surface to let you know you were getting close.

Niōmon GateZenko-ji temple is guarded by twin gates. The first one, Niōmon, is at the end of the final section of Chuo-dori, where the main slew of traffic is diverted to the left, and the road becomes a quarter mile of paving flanked by some of the most well-kept and poshest residential buildings I had seen in the country. Approaching Niōmon itself, the first thing you see after the hugeness of it is the recesses on either side, each of which contain a large sculpture of a Deva guardian, whose purpose is to scare off non-believers and enemies of Buddhism. After quickly heading left and praying to the shrine of Totoro and assorted soft toys, my Buddhist credentials were in place and I went through.
Get your tourist tat here!
Sanmon GateOn the intermediate road between Niōmon and the next gate, is the equivalent of Blackpool front. Shop after shop of trinkets and souvineers, each filled and surrounded by dozens of tourists, fingering the plastic necklaces, dried fish and miniature cats-with-bells-on-them. Resisting the urge to indulge for the moment I pressed on to the second gate, Sanmon, which was even larger and more impressive than the first. A huge twin-roofed structure, you could easily mistake it for a building in itself. It had just recently gone through a 5-year facelift and looked pretty damn good for it.

Some of the smaller ones!
A big sword statueOnce inside the inner area, it opens out to a square, with an area to the left containing several smaller temples, including the Kyōzō shrine, containing a giant octagonal stand which you can revolve to show all the different sutras, Buddhist scriptures said to be records of the teachings of the guy himself. Surrounding the area are a number of smaller temples, more Buddhist statues, shrines and a couple of sympathetically-designed souvineer shops, all kept absolutely pristine as if they had just been made. A guy was outside at the time gently filling in a crack in the road with cement it seemed barely a second after it appeared. It was clear that I was in a very highly-respected place. The surroundings of the shrine were suitably palatial - a moat containing koi and some stone turtles, immaculately carved statues and beautiful architecture. Some of the internal decor was gorgeous.

Some of the smaller ones!
As I approached, the centre of the main square became increasingly smoky. This was due to a giant pot of insense burning away constantly, watched over by a row of Buddhist statues known as the Rokujizō. Resisting the urge to hack my guts up, I did as many others were doing; walking up to it, stroking it and rubbing the smoke over themselves in the hope of good health and fortune for the day. The high-priestess occasionally came out to perform ceremonies in front of the burner, but unfortunately way too early in the morning for me to catch. Maybe next time.

Zenko-ji Temple - no cameras allowed
The main temple itself was another shoes-off affair. As you went in, smiling but stern temple minders pointed politely at the no-camera signs, and it was clear from looking inside why they wanted to keep it unphotographed. The centre of the temple housed the dwellings of a god amongst men; more huge golden sutra stands suspended from the ceiling joined with hundreds of other ornaments both on the ceiling and floor, some gold, others laquered wood or polished stone. All this was housed within an area covered with cushioned tatami flooring which you could stand around, but not on. Behind this area was the site of a strange ritual, taken on by almost all visitors. After paying at an out-of-place electronic ticket machine, I was allowed to descend a set of stairs that led to a low, narrow tunnel underneath the palatial area, which twisted and turned at right-angles in complete darkness. The idea was that somewhere within the tunnel hung a key, and if you were to find it and touch it, eternal riches would be yours. Eventually, after a lot of bumping around into wooden posts and other people (but no keys), I emerged at the stairs of the exit which put me back at the start, and since my feet were now freezing cold, I passed on the opportunity to go around again.

Since I'd been through most of the temple buildings by this point, I had gotten a bout of temple overload, and almost craved the prospect of scrabbling through a few hundred trinkets of various shapes and sizes in the far more familiar consumerist society that I am used to. Flitting back and forth across the street between places selling as many necklaces as you could imagine, and then more than that, I finally alighted on a nice one for a certain Ms. Plants, plus a nice hefty 4GB SD card from a nearby camera shop. Since it was heading towards mid-afternoon, it was time to head back southwards again.
Post office
On the way, I decided to try my hand at using the ATMs once again. So far, I had seen very few card machines around Japan, and those few that I had tried were not very appreciative of my foreign status, spitting the card back out again and telling me where I should put it. However, passing a faux-Edo period Post Office building and remembering hearing that post offices had special machines, I thought I would have one more go, not least because the coffers were getting a little low. I wasn't quite prepared for what they had; pushed away in a corner of the entrance were two leviathans that resembled some sort of textile loom more than a cash machine. Thankfully, the little touch-sensitive screen had a big button marked 'English' and upon pressing, it literally talked me through it. I was briefly disheartened when it failed to display my current balance, but it did allow withdrawls, and soon the yen were being enthusiastically spit out at me.

Cash Tips

So theres a tip I should share: if in Japan, always make sure you know where the post offices are. Some businesses will accept your (visa) card, but only if it has been enabled for foreign use, (which mine sort of had, though it was a bit of a stickler the first time I needed to use it). Japan, despite its status as a thoroughly modern country, still favours good old-fashioned folding rather than cards.

A little peckish, and not wanting another curry, I stopped off at the first place that looked like it served authentic Japanese cuisine. Fujikan looked pretty good, and after reading up on various Soba-based foodstuffs I decided that it would be the thing to try. Unfortunately, I got mixed up with the contents of the menu cross-referenced with the contents of my phrase book, and ended up with.. Beef Curry.

A big sword statueAfter finishing my meal, I headed back down the hill in the light of the afternoon sun, popped into the all-encompasing internet cafe once more, and finally got accommodation for Nagoya and Kyoto after about an hour of waiting at the packed tourist office. Both places were a bit on the pricy side compared to what I was used to at this point (6-7000 yen per night, or about 30-35 quid), but they were in the middle of each city and at such short notice I couldn't be anything more than grateful.
On the bus - the drivers a bit camera shy..
Now came the daunting part: Getting to the M-Wave Arena. By bus. This was the first time I was going by Japanese bus, and I was not understanding of the etiquette. Finding the stand took long enough, and once again I was reliant on the kindness of strangers; this time a young mother with two hyperactive children to take care of. Once on the bus, I was given a few hand signals by fellow passengers about what to do, which eventually I got the hang of after several such trips.

Bus Tips

For those who may have to ride a Japanese bus (or tram), here is the way it works: When you get on (at the rear) you get a ticket with a number on it. That corresponds to one of the numbers on a big board at the front of the bus, where each number has a little LCD readout under it. As the bus goes between stops, the values under each number increase, and the price you pay is the amount under your number when you get off. To pay, you put your coins into a funnel atop a machine next to the driver. The machine also provides change for 500yen coins using the slot on the top. If in doubt, the driver will usually lend a hand at the stop.
The curved roof - but no entrance
After several nervous scans, I eventually arrived at the stop listed on my little piece of paper (fortunately like the train stations, bus stops usually have english translations on them too) and got off. I was in the south of Nagano, and it couldn't have been more different. Reflecting the type of attraction I was heading towards, this was a much more modern environment; wide roads, car lots, and american-style sidewalk shops and cafes. My goal was over the road and hard to miss, but looking at the time it was 4.45 and getting pretty late. Rushing over and scanning the area, it was not apparent how you actually got in; the side of the building showed off the impressive curved roof, and the front sloped down in a '1970s Bond Villan hideout' set of angular concrete pillars and shapes. Looking round for the entrance, and now a little panicked I may be too late or out of season, I took a stab at one of the Goldeneye-styled passageways through the concrete lair. The passageway acted like a wind tunnel and searingly cold air was blowing through, unheated by the lack of sun getting in. It took a little while for me to realise that the walls of the passage were made up of thousands of little tiles, each of them naming an athelete taking part that year.

Paralympic medalsFinally, and by fluke, I headed down some steps and found myself in front of some glass doors. Despite not seeing a single person yet, the doors swished open as I got near, and I was greeted by a lady who clearly was happy to see a paying punter. The place was empty. Really empty. The first thing she did was usher me into a film room, where the opening and closing ceremonies were being played on a 3D projector screen in front of me. Happy for a sit down for a while, I adorned my dusty 3D specs and watched as the various small children of the ceremony leaped about in front of me. Torches were lit, spotlights flashed and focused on different areas of the arena, and some sort of story of Nagano and the olympics was played out via the medium of dance. It was all very nice, and when it all went dark at the end, it was a little sad. Now, opening before me was the museum dedicated to the memory of the olympics, which was all that was left of a time of newness and excitement and hope. The place was deserted, smelt of mothballs, and some of the exhibits using the 'latest Windows 98 computers' were showing blue screens of death or other such disabilities. A Japanese speed-skater took gold, so his brief heroic status was a main featureAs I went round, the dusty remainders paved the way to the entrance to the indoor stadium itself, the cheering of the spectators still ringing in my ears from the video. It was now mostly silent, and as I climbed the stairs up to the higher seating areas the only signs of life now were a few people mulling about on the rink below, which had been drained of ice and water, and had just finished being the site of a car show. A few surviving olympic mascots - a quad of giant furry owls - sat in one of the corners. Sad and dejected, they were shadows of their former selves.
Inside the arena - not much happening
The final nail in the coffin of the memory of the olympics was the souvineer shop at the end, where the curators were still trying to sell off stocks of T-shirts, badges and books at silly prices. It made me glad to get out of there (this time by the now-obvious proper exit).
Going back to the hotel through the wires and jamsBy now, the light was fading, and the bus I rode back on spent an hour or so in terrible traffic. Once back in the comfortable part of Nagano, I went to the 24h Internet Cafe again and uploaded all my pics, then went back to the hotel with some Halls cough sweets and ordered a pizza in. I don't know whether it was my feelings on seeing a city desperately try to wring some extra cash out of a fleeting event rather than concentrating on its much longer and better held history and architecture, or whether I'd picked something up, but I was starting to feel a little off.

Japan 8 : Some Proper Sights

I savoured the moment. I had woken up and was not feeling particularly inclined to jump into the shower and run for a train. Today was Niigata day and I could take my time. Even though I did have to be in the next city along (Nagano) by the end of the night, the distance from Niigata to Nagano was a fraction of the distance I was used to travelling so far.
Niigata Station after a dewey start
I managed to rouse myself at about 8.30am and left my big backpack at the hotel. Backtracking, I stopped briefly at the station again to check train times. The next train to head to Nagano was a Hokuetsu 6 leaving at 1pm, changing at Naoetsu. I bought a ticket and headed quickly in the direction of the group of black spots on my map indicating tourist spots and silently cursing my selfish sleep-in. Heading out through the early morning traffic down the back streets, I passed a group of crows who had worked out how to group lift a rubbish bag out of a bin and were now reaping the spoils. With no-one around they had the situation to themselves and were an almost comforting sight of nature in all the high-rises around me.
The Shinano River
Passing the Niigata Telecoms tower, I followed my city map and headed on foot through the west side which was full of partly-finished buildings until I came to the Yachiyo Bridge, one of the main crossovers to the north side of the Shinano river that cuts it in two. Over the other side, the embankment took me to the edge of Hakusan Park, the start of the main sightseeing area, where a large pedestrian bridge unceremoniously straddles a much older road and twists and twines around like a demented rambler.The Prefectural Building Entrance
Taking a guess, I headed down a spiraling walkway to the road below and was greeted with the original Prefectural Government Assembly Hall, a very western-style building from the late 1800's where the councillors of the day laid down the rules for the residents of the then much more town-sized Niigata.

Slipping off my shoes, (for the first of many, many times) I tiptoed alone around the 2-storey building, which had now been fit out as a museum complete with display cabinets, blown-up pictures of the building during construction and the surrounding area, though the main hall had been left pretty much the way it was when it was filled with arguing and banter. Each of the rooms were kitted out with western furnature, victorian fireplaces and period decor, with a smattering of Japanese ornaments and pictures to remind you where you were. Heading down the stairs back at the entrance, I was greeted by one of the curators, a middle-aged woman in a white cardie and we began the now quite familiar exchange of hand movements and repeated phonetic pronunciations. She wasn't going to let me get away that easily...

Where the decisions were madeJust as we were making some communicative headway and we once again went around the ground floor buildings, she was joined by an older gent, who was the owner of the building. Not unreasonably, with the tourist season just about hauling itself out of bed at this time of year, they were more than happy to communicate with the strange-looking foreigner pointing like a doof at the walls and ceilings and water filters donated from a shop in The Strand in London, a place I'd walked down about a fortnight earlier. After some personal guiding arond some of the rooms, pointing out the oft-missed ceiling decor adorned with intricate carvings of roses, they took me into their office room and we chatted for a while over coffee! At this point, my little Yorkshire Dales book came in handy to show them my part of the world and they cooed and were genuinely interested at the picture-postcard versions of the litter-strewn and often rainy countryside I was used to.
Master Ukon Tugue and his assistant outside the building.
I wasn't sure how I got there but myself, Master Ukon Tugue, (as the gentleman turned out to be called) and now two assistants were getting on swimmingly, despite them knowing as much English as I knew Japanese. He gave me his personal card, and I gave him a hometown postcard back, with a little greeting on it. They posed for a picture outside the place (of which it was clear they were both intensely proud) and they saw me on my way.

Hakusen ParkPointed around the side and through a small gate by Tugue-san, I entered into a Japanese Stroll Garden, which was actually part of the Hakusen Park. Several large sculptures hidden between the trees lined the pathway on one side, with a perfectly flat and serene lake on the other, seemingly unaware that it was in the middle of a city. A little way on, the pathway opened up and the twin Torii gates, one concrete and the other bright red painted steel flanked me on either side of the main pathway. As I followed the main pathway, it was clear that the maintainers of the garden had a challenge on their hands keeping things from falling over, perhaps due to heavy winds or showfall, but many of the trees in the park were being held up and were often pretty diagonal, as if it was their duty to halt the natural growth-decay cycle of these trees and keep them growing indefinitely.

Hakusan ShrineAt the end of the pathway was the Hakusen Jinja Shrine Gate, which by this point in my shrine- viewing experience looked pretty big at the end of a set of lanterns in a slightly errie and empty area. Inside the main courtyard, there were more poles holding up more trees, but this time joined by my first Shrine experience. It was also the dawn of my realisation as to the point behind the mysterious wooden slatted boxes that appeared everywhere I had been so far that had looked remotely touristy. They are donation boxes, with the inbuilt temptation within them to lob your donation into them from a distance, which I have also found, is frowned upon.

The shrine, as with most of them, have as well as the donations box, a large rope hanging from the ceiling with a metal sphere containing stones at the top. Not being a religious man, I did not immediately take to paying my respects. Someone clearly seeing that I was hesitant stepped up in front of me, threw 100yen into the box, shook the rope, and clapped his hands twice, bringing them together and closing his eyes for 5 seconds, then leaving with a smile. Sheepishly, I copied him, and I had to admit, it felt pretty good to do. I guess if there was going to be a religion to adopt 'when in rome', I might as well make it one that sees the beauty in the creation around us rather than a 'my gods better than yours and i'll kill your people until you agree with me' approach. Sorry, god-botherers out there, but I aint returning to that flock.

EnkikanQuite pleased with my new-found and entrely superficial religious experiences, I pressed on under a gate lined with thousands of wooden plates and those familiar paper ribbons carrying wishes attached to the walls, and emerged in front of Enkikan, a traditional tea-ceremony building that had been dismantled from its original location and moved into the park. With enthusiasm building from my succession of new experiences I tiptoed through the gate into an area clearly designed for removing shoes. After some random pushing/knocking, I found out how to get into the place and was immediately greeted by a number of surprised women. I guess that the tea ceremonies/flower arranging spiel in my book should have suggested to me that it would be a largely female congregation, and a large foreigner, stooping uncomfortably to avoid cracking his head on the beams must have come as a shock, but nevertheless, they allowed me to stay and look around, so long as I was quiet and didn't go opening any more random doors. Enkikan was a very traditional wooden Japanese house. A succession of adjoining rooms, connected together by a side corridoor, which looked out onto a tranquil garden outside. Each room was pristine, with tatami mats and delicate sliding doors, and looked like they had just been made, despite being hundreds of years old. Impressive though it was, a little bit of looking into empty silent rooms was enough and I moved on.

Statue of a teacher and unruly kids outside the culture center.Outside, I was back in the main park area and to my right was a walkway up to the imposing pedestrian bridge I had come in on. Looking at my watch there wasn't a lot of time left to look around, and I had passed several imposing-looking structures on my way, which I was now at the other side of. I briefly walked by the local baseball stadium where a few people were shouting but not a lot else was going on, then headed to the Music and Culture Hall, which had clearly been made with a lot of 1960's decor in mind, the main centerpiece being a massive new-age chandelier in the entrance hall. Much though I would have loved to have seen some of the things that were on, I was beginning to get that feeling of train timetable dependance, so I exited out the other side and headed for the next spot on my map - the Next21 building a good 10 minute walk to the east.

Niigata from Next21Shaped like a pencil, the building is one of many in Japan that has a viewing platform, so after some hurried limping (my feet were starting to complain) I made it there, up and back down again in about 10 minutes, with a couple of pictures to boot. On the way down the elevator, a strange sight stood out from the hundreds of buildings and nearby cemetaries - a giant (and I mean Giant - it was larger than a house) statue of a wandering monk. Checking both compass and watch it was on the way, so I headed in its direction, and after finally finding it was ushered towards the river by an over-helpful bloke carrying a big bunch of flowers that dwarfed him who thought I was lost (which, to be honest, I was a bit). Recovering my bearings I got back over the Bandai bridge and - after nearly forgetting - pegged it back to the hotel to retreive my larger backpack. I got onto the train with about 2 minutes to spare. Getting some food over the course of my little 5-mile journey would have been nice but it was clearly a luxury in the time I'd given myself.

Some of the better sights on the way to NaoetsuThe train to Naoetsu showed some of the less pretty sights of Japan; as the rice fields stopped, the large concrete overpasses started, dwarfing the old villages they stamped through on the way to somewhere and damn-near blocking out the sun for them. As soon as I left the train at Naoetsu, it was clear by my ticket I would need to rush again for the next one, so no sightseeing and no food there either. As I boarded my second train of the day and started taking pictures, a group of Japanese teens smirked at my deschevelled self and outright laughed when I banged my head on the overhead baggage trying to get a picture. Chattering amongst themselves thinking I could not work out what they were saying, they referred to me as an American. Not too far from the end of my tether after running across the station for the train, I said 'Ingrisu' (English) in my best Batou voice and strode into the next carriage, content by their sudden surprised silence that I had given them the impression I knew exactly what they had been saying.

Bridge, Lonely Island and Japan SeaNaoetsu to Nagano was a much more picturesque experience, the snow reappearing here and there as the train wound its through the mountains. Unsettlingly, this had the effect of sending my compass in all directions rather than the general SW direction I would have been the most comfortable with it sticking to. Several times, I had to check with the other passengers whether it was Nagano we were heading towards. Again, we touched the tip of the Sea of Japan on the north coast, before finally heading inland and swapping direction at Nihongi, pointing us squarely at the intended destination.

Nagano in the Evening
By the time I had got to
Nagano Station, the intended hour-or-so's journey according to the map had turned into three and a half, and the best of the light had disappeared from the day. However, there was still some left, so after finding the mercifully closeby hotel (literally across the road) I showered and headed up Chuo-Dori, the main street up the centre of Nagano, at the end of which is the Zenko-ji temple. I had a mission - to find the fabled curry house called Joy Guru, purveyors of simple Indian Kewzeen located somewhere up the main street. Since arriving, I had been curious to see what sort of spin the Japanese had put on this fantastic style of eating, and Joy Guru was the first restaurant I'd heard of in a place I was visiting. I walked, and walked, and then some more, but could not find it, until I came back down the other side of the road and clapped eyes on the largest sign I could get away with missing.Saiko-Ji Temple in the last of the light

I will say this now, and will repeat it later. The Japanese cannot do Indian meals. Joy Guru happened to be the best of the ones I had tried during my trip though, and even though their rice was sticky like their rice cakes, and the menu was pretty basic (only a couple of kinds of curry, one rice style and some strangely cut naan breads) the meal was filling and the service very accommodating, to the point where I was digging around my phrase-book for something both clever and full of praise for the poor woman who served me and several others as if she had twenty arms.

Saiko-Ji Temple in the last of the light
Pleasantly filled with warm curry, I ambled back down Chuo-Dori, through the station and back into the hotel at about 11pm. It had been a good day.