Run Tokyo with Namban Rengo

If you enjoy running and like to have some company while doing it, then book your Wednesday nights, lace up your running shoes, and join Tokyo's international running club, Namban Rengo. The name literally means "barbarian horde," reflecting the group's relaxed and fun attitude. The crowd meets up every week at Oda running field at Yoyogi Park for interval trainings. Don’t get discouraged by the serious marathon runners among the members; there are also some beginners who have never raced competitively before but want to improve their pace on the track in a warm yet challenging atmosphere. "You will become stronger and faster," is what founder Bob Paulson promised me when I showed up for my first Wednesday training six months ago. I was skeptical of his conviction at the time, but it turned out he was right.

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And that’s not the only reason why I pack my running bag every week, no matter how bad the weather is. Namban is also perfect for making new friends. It is a great circle to catch up with fellow runners from all over the world, as half of the members are Japanese, and the other half are expats. “For many foreigners, Namban is their major social outlet. They work in a Japanese company and have no occasion or little time to meet other international people,” explains Bob, an American, who originally came to Japan with the U.S. Navy many decades ago and now works as a freelance copywriter when not running or working out at the gym. Now he is in his 60s, looks much younger, and “feels 45.”

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When Bob started Namban 24 years ago, his idea was not to set up a formal running club. “We were just five or six folks running together frequently. But after the third Ekiden—a relay run—we told ourselves that it was time to get a name. A Japanese member came up with Namban Rengo.” The group grew bigger over the years, as running became more and more popular. People spread the word, and recently also a bunch of young Japanese come by. “Everyone who wants to improve and get in better shape is welcome,” says Bob. Joining Namban is free of charge.

The procedure is the same every week. Runners—depending on weather conditions, somewhere between 50 and 80 people—gather at 7:30 in the evening in the centre of Oda field (after having done some easy warm-up laps), where Bob welcomes new people and explains the program of the day: either some short interval runs or a 5,000 meter time trial. Bob gives instructions in both English and Japanese, so take the opportunity to work on your Japanese skills! The crowd is divided into two groups, one running an average 4:30 per kilometer, the other one running at a slower pace. After the run, the workout is not over. If the weather allows it, people get down on the ground for some stretching and abdominal work.

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After having worked on your six pack, the social part of the evening starts (because you don’t get to chat with your fellow runners while being out of breath on the track). Join your running mates at the nearby sento (public bath) and soak your sore body in hot water, which feels great especially in the wintertime. Feeling hungry? Every week Bob makes dinner reservations at a restaurant in the neighborhood, which is another great opportunity to get to know people better and discuss upcoming races, collective Sunday runs around the Imperial Palace, or the latest training methods.

The group is very heterogenous, but one thing unites them: the desire to improve their running skills and times. Or, as runner Taeko told me, the desire to “kick my ex-boyfriend’s ass.” When Taeko first showed up on a Wednesday night she could hardly jog three kilometers. Her previous boyfriend at the time went for 15 kilometer runs every morning. “He always told me that it made him feel so good. I just thought he was crazy,” she said. But when they broke up, Taeko turned to running herself, and after a while she started to see the fun in it. “People were so enthusiastic, and it felt so good!” Now, one year after joining Namban, she has improved her time on the 5,000 meterrun by more than seven minutes. “Ten kilometers in the morning are no problem for me anymore,” she says.

Taeko did not get back together with Michael. “It was hard. But I am grateful. He ignited my running heart,” she said. What’s more, her newfound passion for running that stemmed from their breakup actually led to her current relationship, with a tall, handsome guy named Sam. He is also a runner, and they met on a Wednesday night at Oda running field.

Katharina came to Tokyo in August 2014. She loves running, hiking and absorbing every bit of Japanese culture. As this includes Japanese cuisine, she likes to hang out in supermarkets with her Japanese friends (who are happy to explain to her the details of even the most incomprehensible products). For Savvy Tokyo she writes about hidden coffee places, international running groups and Japanese weddings—quite a change after having covered European politics as a TV reporter in Brussels, Belgium.

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