Hakone Ekiden: A New Year’s tradition unlike any other

Photo by Degueulasse, Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Degueulasse, Wikimedia Commons

Hakone Ekiden: A New Year’s tradition unlike any other

by Jun Sakahira
Stripes Japan

Sports and New Year’s. In the U.S., they go together like a soldier in camouflage.

In Japan, it’s no different. But it’s not football that the locals are glued to the TVs for here. It’s Ekiden.

During the Olympics, track and field and road races are followed by many, but there may not be another running event that draws the attention of the people like the “Tokyo-Hakone Round-Trip College Ekiden Race,” more commonly known as “Hakone Ekiden.”

The race is a two-day marathon-style road relay that takes competitors 135 miles across Japan, and the entire event is shown on Nihon (Nippon) TV.

According to the Hakone Ekiden official website, the etymology came from the communication system that was established to connect the central government and local governments on arterial roads in the Nara Era (710-794 A.D). Hence the literal translation - Eki-station and Den-transmit. The system was called Ekisei, or station system. It evolved over the centuries.

The very first marathon-style road relay held in 1917 was called Ekiden. The race was designed like the communication system of delivering messages from one place to another. Then in 1920, Shiso Kanakuri, father of the Japanese marathon, created the Hakone Ekiden with the idea of “bringing up runners to compete in the world.”

With Japan’s popular professional sports, baseball and soccer, in the offseason, there are not many options for sports fans, which may be part of the reason people turn their eyes to Ekiden. This is the national sporting event during the New Year’s holiday in Japan.

Coming up on the 96th installment of the race, Hakone Ekiden consists of 21, 10-person teams representing universities in the Kanto region. This two-day race takes place Jan. 2 and 3 every year.

The course is divided into 10 different sections, totaling 217.1 km between Otemachi, business district near the Tokyo Station and the Imperial Palace and Hakone, a tourist destination in the western Kanagawa prefecture. It’s broken up into five legs, roughly 20 km apiece, that are run each day. On the first day, five runners from each of the 21 teams run to Hakone, with each passing off a team sash to the next person once their leg is over. On the second day, the other five will do the same from Hakone back to Tokyo.

The race is the last of the annual triple-crown intercollegiate Ekiden, but the attention paid to this one surpasses the other two. The race is limited to only universities in the Kanto area, yet, this is one of the biggest New Year’s sporting events in Japan.

One of the reasons for the extra attention could be the timing of the race. Centered during the New Year’s holiday, the Hakone Ekiden coincides with a lot of family get-together time.

Many families will line the streets along the route to cheer on their favorite squads. Just like wearing apparel at professional sports games, many people wear their alma mater’s, and raise school flags along the road.

Those who can’t make it, turn to the TV show, which begins at 7 a.m. The race then starts at 8 a.m., and the winning team usually crosses the finish line around 1:30 p.m. The TV show itself does not include anything fancy, like the Super Bowl’s halftime show, but it is highlighted in the media more than any other sports during the New Year’s holiday. The images of the winning university’s anchor will be all over the place on the following day.

Another reason for the popularity could be the runners’ passion for the race. Many runners dedicate their college life for this. From one section to another, passing the school sash is more important to the runners than anything. Such passion and love for Ekiden always bring dramatic moments every year.

To say the Japanese New Year begins with the Hakone Ekiden is not an overstatement. The race is also a good branding opportunity for the universities. With Japan being the aged-society, schools seek out any possible opportunities to increase the number of prospective students.

I personally enjoy watching Ekiden a lot because of the showdowns between schools rich in history versus new rising powers. Universities that finish in the top 10, automatically get a spot in the following year’s race. The rest is determined through qualifying that takes place prior to the event in the fall.

In the Hakone Ekiden, runners leave the hustle and bustle of the Tokyo business district and head for the serene Mt. Fuji area, all the while passing beautiful shorelines and picturesque mountains. This holiday, if you’re sick of football and flipping through the channels, give Ekiden a chance and see what all the hype is about.

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