I’ve been visiting Oshima for more than twenty years. The first time I took the 8-hour ferry from Tokyo, it felt like I had entered a different world, rather than just an odd corner of the Tokyo Metropolis. The island is dominated by Mt. Mihara, a volcano which last erupted in 1986. This eruption covered large areas of the island in ash and lava which has created the spectacular Ura-sabaku “hidden desert” which spreads out on the east side of the cone.
Mountain biking across the Ura-sabaku
The 8-hour ferry ride is a bit deceptive; Oshima is actually only 100 km south of Tokyo Bay. However, the ferry leaves Tokyo at 10 p.m. and then pootles around the bay for a few hours so it doesn’t arrive in the middle of the night. The jet ferry only takes an hour from Kurihama on the Boso Peninsula, but it sets off too late for the start of the marathon. To compensate for the inconvenience of the overnight ferry, Eric and I decided to book a first class cabin which meant we got bunk beds, a sink, and a kettle. We also got cabin mates. Just as we thought we would have the room to ourselves, an extremely disappointed looking young couple entered, put down their bags, and immediately left for a romantic stroll on the deck.
The island has some incredible mountain biking
Oshima seems made for marathons. The single main road which loops around the island happens to be 42.195 km long. It would be the perfect place for a race if it wasn’t for the matter of the hills. The road undulates the whole way round the island, and has two 100m+ hills as well as one 350m+ pass to cross. This makes for an awful lot of pounding on your legs.
Despite its spectacular volcano and bountiful nature, Oshima struggles to attract tourists. It seems odd that few of its 35 million fellow Tokyoites make the effort to visit the island. However, viewed from the perspective of convenience-craving city dwellers, Oshima is painfully inconvenient. For a start, the ferry operators seem to randomly choose which of the two main ports to arrive and depart from. Many times I have been caught out by a change of departure port and had to jump in a taxi and speed across the island to the other port. Once on the island, there is not a lot to do unless you like hiking up volcanic ash (which fortunately I do) or visiting a squirrel zoo (which I don’t, having more than enough in my garden, destroying my latest crop of persimmons and oranges). It also seems inordinately hard to find a decent place to eat, or even a place that will serve you a beer. Last June, after the Oshima triathlon, a group of us spent several minutes trying to persuade the owner of a bar to serve us a beer. However, for me this all adds to the appeal of the place. One hour on the ferry from Kurihama and you find yourself on a large island with only 9,000 residents and a handful of convenience stores. Paradise.
Eric at registration
The marathon is based at the Motomachi ferry terminal. You start in front of the main building, run around the island, and finish at precisely the same spot. We arrived two hours before the start, registered, and went to the small park by the onsen 5 minutes to the north. On the way, we got fine views of snow-covered Mt. Fuji in the early morning sun. Even better, there were undiscovered toilets behind the onsen.
Mt. Fuji sunrise
It’s a small race of fewer than 400 runners which means there is none of the usual crush at the beginning. From Motomachi, the course heads north along the coast, following the same route as the triathlon bike course. It is very scenic right from the start, with views of Izu Peninsula, Mt. Fuji, and the Tanzawa mountains. It then gets even better as you progress round to the east side of the island. The road winds up high above the sea, crossing fingers of lava from the 1986 eruption, and offering splendid views across to the Boso Peninsula.
There are aid stations every 5 km or so with water, sports drinks, ume boshi, and enthusiastic volunteers. They are pretty much the only people you see until you get round to the south-west corner of the island. However, this lack of people also means there is very little traffic on the road. This is lucky as the road is not closed for the race. At times, I found myself running for several minutes without even a glimpse of another person – runner or spectator. Instead, I spent my time enjoying each new vista as it spread out before me: black magma, scarlet-flowering camellia, blue sky, wind-whipped ocean.
Eric’s YouTube Video
The main ascent to the 365-metre pass took my mind away from the scenery. It corkscrews steeply up the volcano, but at times there are short breaks in the gradient which allow you to regather your energy for the next section. Once at the top, the road undulates for a few kilometres before plunging steeply back towards the sea. The descent feels brutally steep and long. By the time I arrived at the aid station about 14 km from the finish, I was starting to feel the pain in my legs, but thought the worst was behind me. However, the last section is deceptively hilly and proved to be the straw that nearly broke the back of my race. First my left calf started seizing up, and then my right knee began to suffer a jabbing pain. Finally, my right hip decided to join in the fun, which left me desperately trying to find a gait which would relieve at least one of these discomforts. 10km from the finish, I was passed by a young runner who loped by at speed. Two kilometres later, I heard the approaching slap of fast-moving feet, and soon was overtaken by a grey-haired chap who was moving very smoothly. I held on to my fellow age-grouper for a couple of minutes, but then my hip suggested I might like to slow down to a sustainable pace. I feared that I would be passed by a flurry of runners from this point on, but instead I passed two people who were struggling painfully up a long hill. A few glances behind me showed that there was no one else in sight, so I jogged the last couple of kilometres to finish and dreamt of the onsen waiting for me.
After all the effort to get around the island, the finish is decidedly low key. There are a handful of spectators and volunteers, and a finishing tape held by two women in the local kimono. I broke the tape in a pleasing 3 hours 26 minutes, and tried to stay upright as someone tore off my timing chip. I waited a few moments for the pain to subside, and then went off in search of sustenance. There were the usual sports drinks and bananas, but then I spotted a broth of fish and daikon bubbling away in a huge iron cauldron. I couldn’t get enough of it. I also couldn’t get enough of the steaming rotemburo just a few minutes walk away. There can’t be any better way to soak away the aches and pains of a marathon than in a hot spa overlooking the sea.
All in all it is an excellent, mellow race. You get to run around a beautiful volcanic island in the morning, soak in an outdoor onsen, and then take the jet ferry back home in the afternoon. I guess the hills put off a lot of people, but as the proverb says, “yama ari tani ari” – where there are mountains, there are valleys.