Best Runs in Tokyo - Imperial Palace and Yoyogi Park

When you run in Japan you have the impression of a nation of runners. There is a long history of great long distance runners and one of the sporting highlights of the year is the New Year’s  Day Hakone Ekiden a 200km plus, over-two-day, run in which a number of Universities compete to run out from central Tokyo out towards Mount Fuji and back. There are possibly as many spectators as there are for the London Marathon.

Imperial Palace Run & Yoyogi Park run

Fitting in running when travelling is something that is entirely possible to do, even on a business trip with back-to-back meetings.  Though it can sometimes require some creative on the spot thinking, I’ve actually found that - with a bit of flexible planning, research and optimism - it is very possible to plan a run session (or two), even on a shorter trip.

Of course, it does help if you know a little about the city.  I lived in Tokyo for a number of years in the 1980s so I know the main city runs well.  On my latest business trip there, I managed to fit in the Classic Loop around the Imperial Palace and a second run later in the week through Yoyogi Park.  Both Tokyo city run routes are ideal if you are in the city for a few days and both are easily accessible by metro.  

On this trip, I was in Japan in February. The weather was similar to London but drier and a little colder. It was around 3 degrees and with a light wind. I found on this particular trip that combining the Richmond jacket with the Thorpe long-sleeved top helped me ease into the colder air without leading to overheating.   

I thought I would share my experience of fitting these runs into my trip as well as what the city of Tokyo is like itself for any runner planning to travel there for the first time (and still keep up their training).

Best Runs in Tokyo - Imperial Palace and Yoyogi Park

Sake barrels at Meiji Shrine

Arriving in Tokyo 

When you take the Narita Express to Tokyo Station from the airport your first impression is of a massive metropolis. There are a few farms near the airport and then it’s concrete as far as the eye can see. Not the best place for running you might think but first impressions can be deceiving. If the weather is good you can sometimes see Mount Fuji in the distance (and for my next trip I will write about running in rural Japan) but this trip was an in-out meeting packed trip so not much time for sightseeing.

View from the Capitol Tokyu Hotel

View from the Capitol Tokyu Hotel

Though Japan certainly lives up to its reputation as being incredibly crowded and lively what isn’t obvious on first impression is the fact that most of the population is concentrated along the coastal strip, while the country’s interior land mass is relatively depopulated.

As such, Tokyo is an incredibly busy city and running in the streets can be quite challenging as a result.  There are a couple of good runs along the capital’s river (I’ve actually participated in a number of 10kms races that go around the river), but to go anywhere else you have to contend with stopping for traffic.  That’s why other routes such as around the Imperial Palace are great because you can complete a full loop of it without interruption.

Taking the underground to get to places is also something I would highly recommend if you are not used to this city as it is pleasantly straightforward - signs and announcements are made both in English and Japanese (which is a big change from when I lived there before).

My hotel was in the Akasaka district. It’s a big restaurant and entertainment area (there are some excellent traditional Japanese restaurants there) which also wasn’t too far from my first run around the Imperial Palace.  Also near by was the Roppongi district (popular amongst international visitors) and Mid-Town which is a more recent development with many local and international businesses there.  

The outer Palace gardens with Yurakucho and Marunouchi behind

The outer Palace gardens with Yurakucho and Marunouchi behind 

The run routes

When I travel I try to juggle my training plans to keep as close as possible to my London schedule. Travelling between cities or countries can make an organised schedule difficult. At the moment I am really recovering lost fitness but as I move towards my race season I will need to be even more organised.

A typical race for me would be a 10Km run (as a part of an Olympic Triathlon) so if I can I will tend to choose a hotel with a pool (My Iffley Road shorts can double up as swim shorts!) and with the ability to run nearby (as is the case with the Akasaka Hotel / Imperial Palace run). 

1. Imperial Palace Run - 5km loops of the Palace

The first route I attempted was the Classic Loop of The Imperial Palace which is bang in the middle of the City (super easy to find being pretty much the only area of green for miles in any direction). It is very accessible by Metro, regardless of where you are staying. The closest stations are Sakuradamon, Nagatacho and Nijubashimae. An uninterrupted loop of exactly 5km around the home of the soon to abdicate Emperor.

View of the Imperial Palace

View of the Imperial Palace

Being Saturday the course was packed with runners of all abilities and there was also a race going on at the same time. The course itself is flat for around three-quarters of the loop but on the northern end, you climb gradually and then descend more steadily back to the start. A good easy run if you’re feeling a bit jet lagged after the 11-hour flight from London.

Map of Imperial Palace Loop

The eastern edge of the Imperial Palace Gardens

The eastern edge of the Imperial Palace Gardens with Marunouchi to the right

Tokyo has less of the air pollution problems of many other Asian Cities (think the Beijing Olympics). On the day I ran the air was cold and clear and no wind (I was glad I had decided to layer up and to have my Barnes beanie on hand to keep my head cosy).

Iffley Road kit - the Richmond jacket, Thorpe long-sleeve zip top and Barnes Beanie

Me in my Iffley Road kit - the Richmond jacket, Thorpe long-sleeve zip top and Barnes Beanie

From a running point of view, the Palace Loop is unique in Tokyo as there are no traffic lights to hold you up and no roads to cross once you get to the route itself. The whole place is immaculate: perfectly manicured grass, not a scrap of litter and to cap it all I felt good in my running. It was as good a run as I can remember.  You can see all the outer walls of the Palace and glimpse a few of the outer buildings but if you want to see the Palace itself you have to go to one of the tall buildings around which allow you a good view.

The East Gardens

The East Gardens

If you are in Tokyo this is definitely the place to head to and remember…only run anti-clockwise...this is Japan after all.

That’s why other routes such as around the Imperial Palace are great because you can complete a full loop of it without interruption.

2. Yoyogi Park Run - 1.5km loop with additional loops extending to 3km

 This can best be described as a hybrid city run. Yoyogi Park is a large expanse of trees and brownish grass in central Tokyo. Whereas the Imperial Palace is in the heart of the business district this is set in one of the shopping and restaurant districts.

Yoyogi Park Map

Yoyogi Park Map

Yoyogi Park is tailor made for running. It has a series of trails and is around 1.5 km round but there are additional loops which extend to around 3 km. It is flat and the park itself has a certain atmosphere which I have always liked.

Yoyogi Park

Yoyogi Park

It is easily accessible by the Yamanote Line (Harajuku station) and the Chiyoda Line (Meiji Jingu Mae). The more interesting place to go to is the Meiji Shrine next door although not ideal for running as sadly it is forbidden to run there. (Hence the hybrid nature of this City Run).

The Shrine venerates Emperor Meiji and his wife who ruled Japan in the 19th Century. It would, of course, be extremely disrespectful to run there and when I tried to do so I was reprimanded by a policeman. It is well worth a visit but try to go early in the morning or during the week. At all other times, it is packed beyond belief.

Yoyogi Park

Yoyogi Park

The whole nearby Harajuku area is packed with shops and restaurants and is also something of a Mecca for teenage girls with bizarre dress sense.  My strong suggestion is to try the Yoyogi run in the week as it is much less crowded and try the Palace at the weekends.

Top tips for running in Tokyo

  • As in many cities, you can buy stored value cards for subway travel and, in Tokyo, they are called Suica or Pasmo cards. However, they are much more widely accepted than in just the subway. You can also use them in taxis, convenience stores and some restaurants. So take your Suica card when you run.
  • If you are running you never can go far without seeing a vending machine and you can buy a dazzling array of drinks.
  • Also, take a card with the name of the hotel in Japanese written on it. Many taxi drivers are valiant in their attempts to speak English, but this will make your life easier.
  • If you are hungry post run, my advice on finding a good restaurant is… ask the hotel or just take pot luck. I am yet to eat in Tokyo where the food wasn’t spectacular! But if you want an outstanding Sushi restaurant, try Sushi Dai in Ginza (Address Ginza 8-6-5 Tel 03 3569-0677. See a sample of the menu below 

Sushi restaurant

Sushi Dai 

So there you have it - two great running routes in what I believe is one of the most vibrant and interesting cities in the world. If you happen to be passing through Tokyo I hope you may get the chance to try them and enjoy this amazing cultural experience as much as I do!

General tips for running on a business trip

  • The best piece of advice I can give when you are undertaking something like this is to plan the run into your schedule as if it’s another meeting. Getting back to the hotel with half a mind on dinner always leads to cancelled runs.  
  • It also helps to have a quick google of where the best run routes are in the city you are visiting so you have a rough idea of which ones are close to your hotel, and which might require a trip on the underground or train to get to.
  • Of course, a good dose of enthusiasm goes a long way in getting runs done on your trip you may have thought impossible to fit in, but at the end of the day always be realistic.  If your meeting ends late in the day and it’s going to take two hours to travel to your chosen running spot, it might be best to slate that for another day and time.
  • Packing the right kind of kit also makes a difference.  You want to make sure you have something for any eventuality (heat, rain, wind), particularly if you are somewhere where the temperature fluctuates.  

Written by: James Marler, 55, A financial consultant specialising in Hedge Funds, a passionate runner and Chairman of Optima Racing Team.

Photo Credits: James Marler.