ASK THE GOAT: Kumamoto Castle Marathon, part two

Mar. 06, 2014 @ 05:00 AM

My first day in Kumamoto, Japan was a cultural whirlwind. Like San Antonio, Kumamoto has many sister cities (to include runners from Aix-en-Province, France; Heidelberg, Germany; Kaohsiung, Taiwan; Ulsan, South Korea; Suzhou and Shanghai, China). Most of my interaction was with three German runners and the delegate from France.

We toured the Kumamoto Castle, visited the Suizenji Garden and toured the Lafcadia Hearn residence museum. We grabbed a Soba noodle lunch and even had a traditional Matcha Green Tea at the Garden. Everything was beautiful, simple and ritualistic. For an OCD, type-A personality who follows a structured day bordering on uber-discipline — this was a place of perfection.

The first day ended with a 14-course meal which ranged from various soups, vegetables, seafood, chicken, noodles, tofu and rice. The Japanese incorporate the full spectrum of food colors into every meal, thus insuring every essential vitamin and mineral is represented. Flavors lean towards bitter (vinegar) and salty over sweet and the sours. The exception to the lack of sweet flavors is in the alcohol. I tried a bit of plum wine that made the sweetest Rieslings and European dessert wines taste bland. Dinner was fabulous and the conversation with my hosts was both enlightening and filled with laughter.

Day two began with the Hosokawa Mansion, the residential estate of one of the Shogun’s Feudal Lords. Ornate clay tiles adorn a traditional rice paper walled structure. The low beams and intentionally squeaky floorboards (Nightingale Floors) served as defense mechanisms. The labyrinthine floor plan surrounded various gardens. The mansion is truly a sight to behold. Everything was an example of the purest simplicity and minimalism. From there, we saw the Kumamoto Fujisakidai Baseball Grounds, various Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Finally, as afternoon brought us closer to the Marathon Exposition and Banquet dinner, we went to the Wakuwaku Za Culture Museum.

The marathon exposition was in the center of one of Kumamoto’s expansive shopping arcades. The entire city was adorned in flags, flyers and banners advertising the event. Remember, the Kumamoto Castle Marathon is put on by the City of Kumamoto, not a corporate entity. This event is part of the city’s civic pride, and although only in its second year, has grown to over 13,500 participants — which is comparable in magnitude to the Walt Disney races. And not unlike Disney, the city has created an iconic figure that has become one of the most recognized figures in Japan. Kumamon was born in 2010, and has come to represent Kumamoto City. This black bear with round rosy cheeks is a fan-favorite, and is everywhere you look — city busses, bathrooms, building murals, pamphlets, store windows and restaurants. At least in Kumamoto, Kumamon reigns supreme.

Day two ended with the pre-race banquet, a very formal affair where the sister city delegates were presented to the public. In addition, the mayor of Kumamoto met with each of us to wish us luck at the marathon. Mayor Seishi Kohyama is a runner himself, and actually was gearing up to complete his first marathon along with us. I am proud to report that he did; in an impressive time of around 4:30.

At the banquet’s close, after the speeches, presentations and an impressive display of samurai skills from an entertainment troupe, we were all pleased to see Kumamon take the stage. At the prodding of the French runner, I joined him onstage to dance with the iconic bear. He apparently has a much choreographed routine not unlike the Margarina — but more animated. So, Kumamon, the Frenchman and the kilted Texan flailed around wildly to the delight of all present before returning to the final sleep before the marathon. So far, so good...