Providing access to the heart of central Tokyo, I have travelled on the Yamanote line countless times before. Although I have never travelled its full circle in one go, I know it would take approximately one hour. I wonder how long it would take to walk it…?
This was the question I pondered as I held on to the handrail while staring at the screen on an early-morning train making its way through the cover of darkness. This was not simply a mere hypothetical question but one that I would find the answer to in the not too distant future. Because that is exactly what I was about to do: walk the Yamanote line.
You may think I am crazy. I mean, why walk when there is a perfectly efficient and convenient train system at my disposal? Well the idea came from a group I am involved in, the Oxfam Japan International Volunteer Group.
The Oxfam Japan International Volunteer Group or the IVG is the English-speaking arm of Oxfam Japan, an international NGO providing emergency relief and development projects worldwide. We are run entirely by volunteers and hold a variety of regular fundraising events aimed at raising awareness of the issues facing the millions suffering from poverty and injustice around the world. We hold Awareness Workshops twice a month where volunteer instructors present on a variety of topics that allow participants to discuss and share opinions about global issues. We also run fortnightly pub quizzes where attendees can enjoy a fun night out while putting their knowledge to the test on the night’s quiz theme.
The latest event to be added to our regular events calendar is the Tokyo Yamathon – a physical endurance, teamwork and navigational challenge, and the ultimate urban adventure. The idea itself is simple: walk the entire length of the Yamanote line in teams of 3-4 people in the best time possible. However, the concept provides a whole host of variables that make every team’s experience unique and allows for participants to make of the experience what they will. With almost infinitive possibilities, the Yamathon is an event that one could continue to take part in and never have the same experience.
I was making my way to Harajuku, one of Tokyo’s biggest attractions known for its cheap shopping and as a guaranteed spot to view some of Tokyo’s quirkiest cosplay fashion. I arrived just as the sun started to throw early morning light on a waking city. As I made my way to Yoyogi Park, just a couple of minutes walk from the station and the site of our official Yamathon opening ceremony, I glanced over at an empty Takeshita Dori, Harajuku’s famous shopping strip known for its insane crowds, especially on weekends. With the shops’ shutters pulled down and barely a soul in sight, this was the beginning of a whole day of discoveries: seeing the familiar in a whole new light and discovering the ignored and less obvious as unsung delights.
As teams began to arrive, the excitement too began to build. With an off-hand idea a couple of months earlier we had created the inaugural Tokyo Yamathon with 110 participants across 29 teams, contributing 123,000JPY to Oxfam Japan. One of the things I love about the IVG is the freedom we have to decide on the scope of our activities. We decide on the events we would like to do and then as a team work out a way to achieve them. There was a sense of history in the making and of starting a tradition that could well become the ultimate urban adventure for foreigners and local residents alike. At 7am, the first of the teams made their way to Harajuku Station to buy a 130 yen train ticket to mark their starting time and take a starting photo, the first of the 30 they would take along the course, one at each station along the way (two at Harajuku station at the beginning and end). From there, walking or running was the only permissible form of transportation.
The Yamathon is unique in that there is no set course, the only requirement of the event that teams must visit all 29 JR stations on the Yamanote and of course no train! Teams can either move in a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction. Teams are provided with a google map as a guide but are encouraged to use their creativity to find the best shortcuts – whether it be through parks, underground passageways or shopping malls. This added navigational challenge provides another fun, competitive element to the event. It’s like going orienteering but with the whole of inner-city Tokyo as your canvass. Or as one team put it “like a treasure hunt”.
Unlike other marathon events that require months of serious training, the Yamathon is achievable for all ages and fitness levels. Spirited competitors can take on the event as an athletic challenge while others as an extended stroll, taking in some of Tokyo’s most infamous sites as well as those hidden gems in backstreets. While we set a target time of 12 hours, there is no time limit so teams are free to set their own pace and take as many breaks as they like.
As teams can travel in either direction around the loop, teams often cross paths creating not only spirited competition but a nice sense of camaraderie and common experience. Discovery is all part of this urban adventure and teams passing each other from opposite directions would often pass along information about great things they had found and to look out for along the way, including delicious snack stops to keep you “genki”.
You may think you have seen Tokyo before, but Tokyo by foot presents whole new facets to this city that many of us foreigners have grown to love. Even for the numerous Japanese who took part, many said it was as if they had really experienced Tokyo for the first time.
So the answer to my question: 12 hours. Six and a half for those running. Can you do it faster? Join us for our now twice yearly urban adventure and be a part of the fastest growing event in Tokyo.
Want to know more about the IVG? Check out www.oxfam.jp/en/whatyoucan/ivg/
The IVG is currently seeking volunteers to take on leadership roles and is actively recruiting new Board Members to fill the positions of President, Vice-President, Promotions Coordinator, Awareness Coordinator, Fundraising Coordinator and Website Coordinator for the April 2011 – March 2012 term.
If you’ve ever thought about volunteering and want something great to add to your CV, then now is the time to join us! Being part of the IVG Board is a rewarding experience. Gain professional skills that will look great to any prospective employer while contributing to a great cause and having fun as part of a supportive and passionate team.
We invite anyone interested in what being a part of the new board has to offer or any other of our volunteering opportunities to attend one of our monthly meetings or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
The next Yamathon will be held on Saturday, 9 April 2011. To register or for more info, please see: www.tokyo-yamathon.com