THE SLUGGISH CBD-RUNNING CULTURE IN TOKYO
This brief SPORTIFY CITIES report explores Tokyo’s CBD-running culture, an emerging urban lifestyle trend in mostly developed cities. By outlining the structural and socio-cultural circumstances of Tokyo’s inner-city districts, the report examines the Olympic City’s prospects, and challenges, of ever becoming a globally recognisable CBD-running hub.
Over the years running has emerged as the physical activity of choice in many urban centres of the developed world. Due to its stimulating effects on the cardio-vascular system, its independent form of exercising and its compatibility with a mix of practical health parameters monitored by commercial, wearable activity trackers, urban running has become emblematic of the increasingly health-conscious, individualistic and performance- and feedback-driven societies.
City folks typically use running trails that are located in close proximity to their places of residence. As of late, however, white-collar workers have begun to turn urban and green space around high-concentration employment sites – predominantly in city centres and Central Business Districts (CBD) – into running zones: large parks, gardens, river and waterfront trails are the most common choices. These CBD-based workers typically choose to go for a run during lunch-break or after regular working hours, depending on the local working culture and the flexibility of employers (for more information on CBD-running, please read ‘Urban running cultivation’ in the SPORTIFY CITIES special report ‘Singapore – A high-density city with sporting characters’).
Tokyo, one of the top-tier World Cities and the host city of the 2020 Olympic Games, for instance, contains several major commercial and administrative centres, providing 3 million of its residents with work opportunities within its city-centre districts – according to the national 2010 workforce survey. This astonishingly high number of inner-city workers creates vast potential for a CBD-running culture to thrive. Yet despite the fact that various high-concentration employment sites are located within the five central wards (Chiyoda, Minato, Chūō, Shibuya and Shinjuku), the options for CBD-running within Tokyo’s inner-city districts are rather moderate – to say the least.
There is little space for CBD-running in the built-up zones along Tokyo’s rivers and its heavily industrialized bay area.
For example, the north and east boundary of the central Chūō ward is marked by the small Kanda river, the large Sumida river and reclaimed land areas along the vast Tokyo Bay. In principle, all these areas could provide suitable environment settings for urban running. But regrettably, built-up zones are the main characteristic features of these, and other, CBD-waterfront areas in Tokyo, with no running trails or any other outdoor sporting facilities being offered along their shores.
As a result, utilization of city parks appears to be the only viable option for Tokyoites who go running within proximity to their workplace in the central districts. Yet despite the provision of numerous inner-city green spaces nearby high-concentration employment zones, only a couple of parks and gardens appear suitable for CBD-running.
Green spaces in Tokyo’s central wards of Chūō, Minato, Shibuya and Shinjuku.
The landscaped Hama-rikyu garden – which is adjacent to Shiodome, a large commercial and business area located near the Tokyo Bay – could, in principle, be used as a running location; the longest non-bitumen trail loop in this garden is about 1.7km. However, visitors to this garden are asked not to carry out any strenuous physical activities out of respect for the historical importance of this land area (this site once contained a detached palace belonging to the past royal families).
The large Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is another inner-city park area that is located within walking distance to a major financial and commercial zone – the CBD around the major Shinjuku train station. This fee-charging garden (¥200 per entry) contains features of the English Landscape Garden, French Formal Garden and Japanese Traditional Garden, and it offers various running-suitable gravel trails zigzagging the park – with the longest trail loop totalling 2.7km. Although jogging is not specifically mentioned on the garden’s official ‘not to do’-list (other physical activities such as cycling, rollerblading, badminton, Frisbee and ball games are not permitted, however), this garden does not seem to attract many running enthusiasts. A major downside of the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is its short opening hours; as it only operates from 9am to 4.30pm, it is not considered a viable after-work CBD-running location for local white-collar workers.
The spacious Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is located within walking distance to the commercial and administrative hub around the major Shinjuku train station. Yet its limited opening hours makes this site of little use for potential after-work joggers.
Playing ball games and jogging are not permitted in the Hama-rikyu gardens (left photo). Although the information board of the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden (right photo) does not specifically mention running, the absence of joggers in this garden may indicate that excessive sweating is generally not welcome.
The largest green space within Tokyo’s 23 Special Wards, the city’s core metropolitan area, is located between the commercial district of Shibuya and the business and financial district of Shinjuku. The entire park area contains more than 100,00 trees, and it is located within walking distance to Harajuku – the centre of various Japanese subcultures and street fashion. Much of this green space area is called Meiji Shrine Gyoen, which is a sacred Shinto shrine dedicated to the past Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken. In this entire ‘sacred zone’, however, jogging and cycling are strictly prohibited.
The Torii Shrine Gate at the Meiji Shrine Gyoen. Due to its cultural and historic significance joggers do not enter this large green space.
By contrast, the Yoyogi Park – the smaller segment of this large green space – is popular among recreation and sporting folks. This area served as the Olympic village during the Tokyo 1964 Summer Olympic Games. In the post-Olympics period this site has eventually been transformed into Tokyo’s main recreational park. It now contains numerous paved trails, with much of the trail network being covered with large trees. The longest possible loop for running or walking reaches a respectable distance of approximately 2.5km, yet it gets used only randomly. Instead, the sporty visitors to the park rather opt for the 1.2km main trail, which encircles the central field and the water circuit. Although this trail is fairly short, local runners do not mind the monotony of carrying out countless rounds around the same location.
The Yoyogi Park is very popular with local joggers who typically utilize its main trail in the early morning hours (by contrast, on weekday afternoons and evenings the trail gets barely used). During weekends, on the other hand, large numbers of recreational running teams and joggers from various parts of Tokyo flock to this centrally located park in order to use its network of trails – and particularly its short, paved trail loop of 1.2km – for long-distance training sessions.
Located within walking distance to the Harajuku district, the heart of youth culture and fashion, the Yoyogi Park has become the key recreational park for young Tokyoites and tourists alike.
On weekends the circular main trail in the Yoyogi Park is the most popular site for running groups.
Yet despite being popular with local runners, the Yoyogi Park is largely unsuitable for after-work CBD-running, for mainly two reasons. For one, the park is not located within walking distance to any of the high-concentration employment sites in the CBD, basically remaining inaccessible to the mostly full-time employed Tokyoites who work in various inner-city areas. For another, between mid-October and the end of April this park closes its gates at 5pm, which is far too early for the CBD-based white-collar workers who, if fortunate, leave their offices at around the same time (between May and mid-October, though, the park only closes at 8pm).
Within Tokyo’s central districts the best spot for CBD-running appears to be the Imperial Palace in the Chiyoda ward, which is located within walking distance to high-concentration employment areas, such as Japan’s main financial centre and the key national political institutions. Tokyo’s Imperial Palace is the residence of Japan’s Imperial family and represents the geographical centre of the city.
Although the palace itself is not considered a sporting or recreational area, the fairly wide pavement that encircles the large, historic walled palace offers a long running and walking loop of 5km. This running trail is particularly popular with the business and political elite as well as white-collar workers who typically go running around this scenic site during after-work hours. That said, the pavement at this location of historic significance was not specifically built as a running trail. Rather, the local running enthusiasts themselves have turned this convenient area into Tokyo’s most noteworthy running hub, establishing a vibrant after-work CBD-running culture.
The 5-km running route around the Imperial Palace – the geographic and historic centre of Tokyo – is a convenient and scenic site for joggers who work in the nearby financial centre and political institutions.
Numerous behavioural norms are expected from joggers who use the circular Imperial Palace trail.
Yet despite its popularity, the circular Imperial Palace trail does not offer an ideal running environment. For instance, the 5km-loop provides runners with only little tree coverage – an important sun-protective urban feature during Tokyo’s hot and humid summer period. Also, the main roads encircling the Imperial Palace display heavy motorized traffic during much of the day, exposing joggers to hazardous exhaust fumes. (On Sunday mornings, one of the main roads – between the Imperial Palace and the business district – gets closed to motorized vehicles, providing runners and cyclists with a car-free experience for, at least, a few hours per week).
While the 5km-long Imperial Palace running trail is certainly not perfect, its impressive length and its central location have helped this trail to become a popular urban space for both sporty white-collar workers and local residents, suggesting that in the long run there may be potential for a more widespread CBD-running culture in this top-tier World City.
In order to initiate an inner-city-wide trend, however, the municipality would need to improve accessibility to local city parks and waterfronts for the 3 million city-dwellers working in various CBD areas. Moreover, demonstrating a more hospitable attitude towards running (and other physical activities) would be crucial to establishing a prospective CBD-running culture.
In Tokyo’s central wards much of the after-work jogging happens on pavements, as some of the key park areas do not offer running-friendly environments.
Simultaneously, Tokyo should seize on an upcoming one-off marketing opportunity that would make a potentially emerging CBD-running culture recognisable beyond its city’s boundaries. As the hosting city of the 2020 Summer Olympics Tokyo could perhaps create an urban sporting lifestyle or Healthy City brand by promoting its Imperial Palace-running culture. Eye-catching images and videos of local running enthusiasts flocking to one of Tokyo’s most significant and most scenic locations could be powerful symbols of future city living. For this reason, the political and business elites should at least reflect on the idea of incorporating this concept of a vibrant CBD-running culture into their Tokyo 2020 city branding.
To be clear, such city branding strategies will remain fruitless, unless the key conditions for an influential CBD-running culture – such as a suitable structural and socio-cultural environment – can be provided. Hence, establishing and diversifying running trails across Tokyo’s inner-city districts would certainly be a good start.
The daily fashion show on the Imperial Palace trail.
This report was first published in July 2016; updated in February 2017.
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