With a promise of stellar organization, exciting race expos, a festival-like ambiance on race day, running a marathon in Japan should be on every runner and Japan enthusiasts’ must do list.

With marathons quickly gaining popularity worldwide, Japan has quickly become one of the most popular countries to do a marathon. Not only is it home to the Tokyo Marathon, one of the World Marathon Majors, but every race in each prefecture is a unique and exciting experience to every runner, local or international. 

The race not only gives you an exclusive finisher medal upon completion but also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness a side of Japan rarely experienced by many. Races in Japan are so well organised that an entire city and town would afford to close its roads for the event and its people will take to streets with cheers and food offerings to support tens of thousands of runners. Imagine this to a runcation to remember in Japan. 

Some marathons have a first-come-first-serve system for registration while the more popular ones are entry by a balloting system. Those can be hard to get into as the odds are often against you. For instance, the chances of getting into the Tokyo Marathon is less than 1%, making it one of the most highly sought-after marathons not just in Japan but in the whole world. For races that require balloting, registration often opens six to eight months before the race and the balloting results will be released a month or two after. For the unlucky ones, fret not because there are also pay-to-enter options via fundraising for charities and signing up with an official marathon tour organiser. 

With 2020 shaping up to be an eventful year for Japan with the Tokyo Olympics set to take place in July, here are three marathons worth balloting for next year. 

1. Tokyo Marathon 

Sea of runners at Tokyo Marathon by Tania Wee
Malaysian Running Group at the 2017 Tokyo Marathon by Tania Wee

Ah, the highly popular edition of the world major marathons. Labelled IAAF Gold Label, the Tokyo Marathon is a colourful affair from start to finish with the entire city pausing at its tracks to cheer on over 330,000 runners tackling on 42.195km. The race, which starts at Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building that has free observation decks in both its towers, is just a short walk away from Shinjuku and ends at the Imperial Palace Park. 

The next race will be held on 1 March 2020, capturing a cooling weather towards the end of winter. This combined with a relative flat course often sees a lot of personal best timings achieved at this race. For Malaysians, Tokyo is the most easily accessible city with AirAsia X, Malaysia Airlines, ANA and JAL offering direct flights into either Narita or Haneda Airport. 

2. Kyoto Marathon 

Run through a torii gate by Kyoto Marathon
Memorable finishline by Kyoto Marathon

In contrast to the Tokyo Marathon, the Kyoto Marathon takes place in a city of deep history for the country, surrounded by nature. This race provides a greater challenge for runners as it has a tight cut off time of 6 hours in comparison to Tokyo’s 7 hours cut off time. The route is also hillier but the scenery set amongst a background of mountains is well worth the challenge and braving the mid-February winter chill (16 February 2020 to be precise). 

The main attraction of the Kyoto Marathon is the seven UNESCO World Heritage Site locate along the race route. Through the entire 42.195km RUN, you would be able to see  Tenryu-ji Temple, Ninna-ji Temple, Ryoan-ji Temple, Kinkaku-ji Temple, Kamigamo-jinja Shrine, Shimogamo-jinja Shrine, and Ginkakuji-Temple. Runners are reminded to look up to the five mountains where bonfires are lit every summer during the Gozan no Okuribi to form the shape of giant Chinese characters. 

3. Nagoya Women Marathon 

Starting at Nagoya Dome by Tania Wee
Tiffany pendent for finishers by Tania Wee

Granted, this race is indeed exclusively for women and is very popular for one simple reason. Finishers get a Tiffany pendant necklace as the finishing medal. There aren’t many races in the world that rewards its runners with a practical, sentimental and priceless medal to commemorate the experience. The route is designed to feature many of Nagoya’s attractions with an exciting start and finish at the Nagoya Dome. On top of that, wide and mostly flat terrain making it beginner friendly. 

However, there are only about 3,000 spots open for overseas runners each year so getting a slot is literally like winning the lottery. As it still serves as a qualifying race for elite runners, the Nagoya Women’s Marathon allows everyday runners a chance to run alongside a potential world champion. Till this day, it is still the world’s largest women’s marathon. The Nagoya Women’s Marathon is appropriately set on 8 March 2020 which falls in line with International Women’s Day. 

While there are many wonderful marathons in Japan to join, for those looking for a first time experience, these three are the ones to go for. Many may wonder at your madness for going all the way to Japan to run 42.195 km, it is still a rare chance for you to fully immerse yourself in the country’s open hospitality and its people’s warmth while achieving a milestone for yourself.  


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