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Over the Finish Line: Marathon Running in Japan

Here is everything you need to know to get started.

By 3 min read

Marathon running is an extremely popular sport in Japan. There are nearly 30 popular marathons planned throughout the year, and the largest, in Tokyo, is one of the World Marathon Majors. A championship-style competition for runners. It’s easy to see the appeal—the countdown at the start of the race over the loudspeakers, thousands of runners’ releasing stored-up energy and months of training coming to fruition.

I ran the Kyoto Marathon on Feb. 19, 2023. While the buildup for a marathon takes a lot of individual effort, there were around 16,000 runners taking part in the event!  While it takes a lot of work, it’s also a lot of fun, and almost anyone can try it. That being said, here is everything you need to know to enter

A lottery to enter

This guy can’t believe he’s in the Tokyo Marathon.

Marathon running is so popular in Japan that most races have a lottery entry system. The big-city marathons I’ve competed in, Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe and Nara, had a lottery admission system that started six months before the event. Unfortunately, you must have a degree of luck and foresight to enter.

The Tokyo Marathon took multiple failed entry attempts. I finally gained admission and completed it in 2019 after entering the yearly lottery since 2013. An estimated 300,000 people applied that year for the lottery, and 30,000 could participate, providing participants a one-in-ten chance.

Tokyo is the premium marathon experience as it is one of the World Marathon Majors, a championship-style competition. It is a unique opportunity because it attracts the world’s best runners.

Cultural elements

You never know what you’ll see at a marathon in Japan.

Although marathoning is an individual sport, running clubs are very popular and can be highly beneficial. If you need motivation, friends to train with, support during the day, or insider knowledge, running groups can help you achieve various running goals.

Having taken part in three such groups, I see their appeal, especially for people wanting to get involved in the sport. They often form around individual running shops, sports gyms, community groups, popular running trails, or other such groups.

The streets are lined with thousands of supporters waving flags, clapping and chanting.

Moreover, major marathons here in Japan have fun cultural elements and traits that make them unique. For example:

  • Tokyo runners love to dress up in costumes
  • Osaka Marathon has a near-kilometer-long “food buffet” where each color team prepares a local delicacy, and you can sample them all late in the race.
  • Nara marathon features wacky costumes, musical performances along the route and several deer sightings.
  • Kobe Marathon runs along the ocean and has teams of cheerleaders and Taiko Drum squads.
  • Kyoto Marathon runs past several of the city’s best-known temples and shrines, and you can even interact with geisha en route.

The streets are lined with thousands of supporters waving flags, clapping and chanting. If you are an international runner, wear your flag enthusiastically, and you will be bombarded with support.

Marathon season

On your mark!

There are two marathon seasons in Japan. The spring season mainly comprises marathons in February and March, while autumn marathons are generally from October to December.

Spring marathons

Here is a list of the biggest marathons you can join in Spring. Remember that the dates are not set, so double-check the official date when it is announced.

Fall marathons

Here is a list of the biggest marathons you can join in the Fall. Again, be sure to double-check the official date.

Whatever your reasons to try and tackle a marathon,  Japan’s wild and interesting running culture will draw you in and keep you entertained. I hope to see you out enjoying one of the various marathons held annually nationwide.

Have you ever run a marathon in Japan? What was your experience like? Let us know in the comments!

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