From Tokyo to Hakone: Japan’s Favorite Ekiden

The Ekiden race is a popular running event that spans more than 100 years and has a history of more than 400 years in Japan! Come along with us as we make a brief run through this amazing history!

Having its roots in the old Japanese stagecoach courier system that transmitted communication in stages, “ekiden” now stands for the popular athletics competition where athletes run from one stage to the next, and pass along a sash, or “tasuki” to the next runner on their team. Similar to a marathon, the overall length of the race is long, ranging from the 42.195 kilometers length of marathons, to hundreds of kilometers! In addition to the overall length, the distance in each section or stage, as well as the combination of men and women will change depending on the tournament. As such, strategy and teamwork are as essential as running skills. Sometimes called “road relay” in English, the original Japanese term “ekiden” is also widely used, as the sport originated in Japan.

During the Edo period (more than 400 years ago) when traveling between Kyoto and Tokyo, there was a system to transfer horses at each station, or “eki”. As the total distance is quite far, the horses would tire, and so riders would change to a rested horse at the station and continue their journey to deliver the messages. “Den” can mean “to transmit” and refers to the message. The sport we now know as “ekiden” is based on this system.

As a popular and well-loved sport in Japan, ekiden races are enjoyed by many schools and companies – and they place a strong focus on managing teams and training their athletes.

Held every year on January 2nd and 3rd, the Tokyo Hakone Ekiden is one of the most popular ekiden races in Japan. Most Japanese people are on winter vacation during this time so many will gather along the route to cheer on the runners. Of course, during the COVID-19 pandemic, most fans refrained from gathering on the streets and cheering on the runners, and chose instead to watch them on tv at home. And even when fans gather along the streets, many more watch from home on tv as massive media coverage provides background stories on the runners, the teams and the race’s 100+ year old history. It’s a captivating drama that viewers can experience live!
University teams participate in the Tokyo Hakone Ekiden, which stretches from Otemachi in Tokyo to Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture. The two-day race starts in Tokyo with the first half ending in Hakone, and runners returning to Tokyo the following day during the second half. 10 runners for each team cover the 217.1 kilometer course. This is a widely celebrated competition and as such, is considered by universities and athletes as a sort of dream-level competition.

And although this race is only held 2 days out of the year, there are many places runners pass through that are enjoyed by thousands all year round. Today, we will introduce the areas around the starting point and the turning point.

Located close to Tokyo Station, Otemachi is the starting point of the Tokyo Hakone Ekiden. Also known as the Marunouchi area, it is an economic and cultural hub for Tokyo. Starting with Tokyo Station, visitors can enjoy modern architecture, go shopping, or grab something to eat in the many skyscrapers. The Imperial Palace, home of the Japanese Emperor, is also closeby, and many people run on the outer road of the palace.

For more information on where to go and what to do in the Otemachi - Marunouchi area, check out this page!

On the other end of the course, you will find Hakone, a famous hot spring town, and the halfway point in the race. Tourists come here year-round from all over Japan – and the world. And at only 2 hours away by train, it’s close enough for a day trip, not to mention an overnight stay. There are many attractive tourist spots to enjoy while you’re there, such as Lake Ashi, a caldera lake, and Owakudani, an opening in an active volcano where vast amounts of sulfur come out.

Don’t ekiden races sound exciting? When you are able to travel to Japan, why not follow along this famous ekiden course and enjoy the sights in all the major spots along the way?