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Nan-no-Hana Marathon in Ibusuki, Japan

Whether you’re a die-hard marathon fanatic or a first-time challenger like me, the Nan-no-Hana Marathon is a great opportunity to test your physical and mental capabilities.

By 6 min read

Although the task of completing a full marathon is often a personal mental challenge, at the Nan-no-Hana Marathon in the far southern tip of Kyushu in the city of Ibusuki in Kagoshima Prefecture you’re always surrounded by many supporters who make you feel right at home.

Now in its 35th year, the Nan-no-Hana Marathon is Japan’s oldest marathon, and it was named after the nan-no-hana or yellow rape blossom which is indigenous to the area and in full bloom in January. This marathon is, however, sometimes also called the “Nippon Ichi Omotenashi Marathon,” as it seems as though the entire town of Ibusuki comes out to cheer on the participants during virtually every stretch of the course. Omotenashi (おもてなし) means “hospitality” in Japanese, and the residents of this remote part of the country truly go out of their way to make every visitor feel welcome.

The Nan-no-Hana Marathon takes place in the middle of the 3 day weekend in early January, thus making it the first large-scale marathon of the year in Japan. In 2016 approximately 17,500 people participated, and almost everyone finished. It can only be run as a full marathon which was quite a challenge for me, a first-time finisher. I just barely made it with only about 5 minutes to go before the race was closed.

That was, though, the primary reason why I chose to run my first marathon in Ibusuki. Runners are allowed to finish in 8 hours, as long as they pass the 30km mark within 6 hours and the 35km mark within 7 hours. Thus it is possible to walk for approximately 20km and still make it to the finish line on time which was precisely how I did it! There are, however, quite a bit of vertical ups and downs throughout the course which circles west from Ibusuki into gorgeous mountain scenery, skirts around Lake Ikeda, passes fields of bright yellow nan-no-hana flowers, traverses the side of Mt. Satsuma-no-Fuji which looks like a mini-version of Mt. Fuji and then hugs the coast back to Ibusuki proper. There are multiple rest stations with plenty of toilet facilities along the way.


While the rest areas offer all runners plenty of water and snacks, the great thing about this particular marathon is the enthusiastic support of the local community. From people in their nineties to thousands of children it seemed like the entire town lined up along all portions of the course to encourage the runners to keep going and give inspirational high fives. The supportive shouts of “Ganbatte!” (“Give it your best!”) and “Fight!” certainly kept me going.

Farmers cook up local specialties such as Satsuma imo (sweet potato) and tonjiru soup. During the span of approximately 5km I took an inventory of everything that was passed out including rock candy, isotonic drinks, curry soup, grilled fish, mountain vegetables, cotton candy, chocolate, green beans and mochi rice balls. There is, in fact, so much from which to choose, you must be careful not to eat too much for fear of getting a cramp. In addition to the food, the locals provided a wide variety of live music to encourage the runners. There were taiko drummers, a children’s choir and a high school rock band in front of a gas station at about Kilometer 21 that spurred me out of a long stretch of walking and got me to start jogging again. All of this support helped me to achieve “kanso” (完走) or “complete the run” just in time.

Like other marathons, the Nan-no-Hana Marathon attracts a lot of runners who dabble in cosplay. I often found myself in the same group of runners that included four people dressed as Mario and Luigi, a whole flock of geese, Kamen Riders (Power Rangers), numerous Mexican wrestlers complete with full face masks, star troopers from Star Wars as well as a group of local garlic farmers whose costumes were life-size packages of their product along with garlic shaped hats. Especially as this was my first marathon, though, I tried to dress as lightly as possible. For most of the race this choice worked out well, although it got a little chilly toward the end of the day. If you’re able to complete the marathon in less than 3 hours like the fastest runners, I suppose that taking only the bare minimum is adequate. If you plan to use the full 8 hours allotted, it would, however, probably be a wise move to take along some warmer layers that can be shed (but still carried) during the middle of the day just in case.

Before or after the Nan-no-Hana Marathon it is essential to try Ibusuki’s other claim to fame, the steaming sand hot springs on the beach called Sunamushiburo. You are literally buried alive while wearing only a yukata bath robe with just your head above the surface, steamed like a lobster for approximately 10 minutes and then emerge from the sand ready to wash off in a hot spring bath. It is actually a wonderful experience which only costs approximately 1,000 JPY. If you wrap your mobile telephone or camera in one of the plastics bags distributed near the lockers where you change your clothes and bring it with you to the beach, then it is possible to have the people who shovel sand over you take your picture while you’re completely buried. This certainly makes for an interesting selfie. After about 10 minutes you become acutely aware of your own pulse and just how hot it gets. That was my clue that it was time to get out!


Ibusuki is not “right around the corner.” You need to plan in advance to get there in time for the marathon. The nearest big city is Kagoshima which is the terminus of the Kyushu Shinkansen (bullet train). Once you arrive in Kagoshima the best option is to take an express train called Tametebako which takes approximately 1 hour to reach Ibusuki. This tricked-out, retro train features seats that face the window on the sea side for great views of the nearby, active volcano Sakurajima which dominates the coast line near Kagoshima. All seats are reserved, and there is a 1,000 JPY additional fee for this ticket, but it’s worth it! The regular train stops at every station along the way and takes 1-1/2 hours to reach Ibusuki. It only costs 1,000 JPY.

While there are lots of places to stay in Ibusuki, the town can only accommodate approximately 6,000 guests at once. Thus approximately 2/3 of the marathon participants stay in Kagoshima and get up at the crack of dawn in order to reach the starting line on time. If you don’t mind paying a slight premium for the experience of staying at a famous ryokan (Japanese style hotel), then the best option—by far—would be to stay at Hakusuikan which is a large ryokan located only a few hundred meters from the start and end of the Nan-no-Hana Marathon. This traditional inn features an enormous bath house and beautiful rotenburo (outside bath). The food is outstanding, and the service is very personal. Many staff members actually run the marathon during the day and come back to work in the evening! Hakusuikan is very popular and often becomes completely sold out during the Nan-no-Hana Marathon. Thus it is imperative to make reservations well in advance.

Whether you’re a die-hard marathon fanatic or a first-time challenger like me, the Nan-no-Hana Marathon is a great opportunity to test your physical and mental capabilities while having a pleasant experience in the beautiful countryside of rural Kagoshima. Don’t put it off another day. Sign up now for an experience that you’ll never forget.

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