“Run-cation”: Running + Vacation
I know what you’re thinking: a runcation? What even is that? I mean, you can’t mesh just any word with “vacation” and call it a thing.
PSA: Sometimes you can, and it miraculously and wonderfully works.
CTC Travel offered me an opportunity to pop my marathon cherry in Okinawa, in a short Run'cation, inclusive of travel and accommodation, offered exclusively by them. This short trip is one of my most quirky and interesting experiences ever. Here’s why you should try it too.
Okinawa is the southernmost prefecture of Japan, consisting of a pool of islands lying off the mainland. At least a plane ride away from the mainland, it’s little wonder that it’s often overlooked as a tourist destination.
But that’s not to mean there’s nothing to see or do in Okinawa – in fact, the truth couldn’t be farther from it.
This trip to Okinawa was centered on the Okinawa Marathon, one of the biggest marathons in Japan, with over 13,000 participants. Here’s discovering this city of brilliance with my trusty running shoes.
The Marathon and More
Can you imagine running in a onesie in Singapore? For starters, can you even make it out of the house without disintegrating into a puddle of sweat?
In Okinawa’s 16°C weather, you can. Come marathon day, tons of participants came dressed up in the name of fun - my local marathon companion was dressed up as a Shisa, an Okinawan mythological guardian creature.
There were groups that turned up as the complete set of characters of various anime, while others donned banana costumes or dressed as superheroes of all sorts. One runner even completed the entire marathon (yes, I saw him crossing the finish line) in a top-to-toe business suit, shoes included. And a briefcase. Big props to him!
Running amongst the sea of adrenaline-filled runners was exhilarating. I’ve always had trouble running even for 20 minutes on the treadmill – if I manage to drag my sorry self on it at all – it’s so impossibly boring. But this marathon brought a whole new meaning to running and I absolutely loved it – this coming from someone who has no trouble lazing in bed watching Netflix all day.
The marathon route was enchantingly scenic – we ran past the dreamy city, humbly inviting residential areas, occasional ensembles of cherry blossoms in their morning song, and along picturesque bridges overlooking the placid sea.
We even ran past the Kadena Air Base, a massive United States Air Force base that’s normally closed off to the public. Running past this stretch was such an eye-opener – here, the community is mostly made up of Americans and it exuded completely different vibes from the rest of the route.
Running the route gave me an insight into the different facets of Okinawan lives, from that of the locals to the many Americans who found a home in Okinawa. I got to explore the city from a completely new vantage point that wouldn’t otherwise be possible if I were to be, say, commuting around in a metro cabin half the time.
But more than the marathon route, the spirit of the myriad supporters was – dare I say it – the highlight of the marathon. Standing by the roadside for hours zestfully cheering on complete strangers in a marathon? Who does that?! Okinawans, apparently.
My frequent visits to Japan had me falling impossibly in love with the kindness and sincerity woven into the fibers of Japanese culture. But this, for me, embodied an unparalleled magnitude of their amiable nature.
Their cheering certainly did help to sustain everyone runner’s high. Or perhaps some simply didn’t want to disappoint the supporters – how could you bear to?! – either way, we ran. And ran.
There were supporters with mini rattle drums, flags and encouraging signs, while others were dressed up in onesies or costumes. Some set up their own water stands or gave out goodies such as bananas and candy to the runners.
My heart melted when I ran past twinkly-eyed children in peals of excitement giving out water to the runners and exuberantly skipping back to the stand for another cup to hand out. Other kids, without instruction, were picking up cups and litter that the runners had discarded by the roadside. Talk about Japanese etiquette!
Despite it being a Sunday, there were even schoolkids in their uniforms outside their schools, looking more than happy to cheer the runners on.
The Americans in the air base were extremely supportive in their own way too. Near the 30km mark, nearly all life was sucked out of me by then, but having the air force officers and their families welcoming us into their home ground and egging us on was a much-needed perk-me-up.
One American in the air base (read: cute air force officer who can bake) was even offering home-made cake to the runners – so yes, I had cake mid-marathon. And it was really good cake too!
It was all merry cheer at the finish line. It’s hard to imagine people looking simultaneously exultant and so direly exhausted, but that was exactly the expression everyone had on their faces when they triumphantly passed the finish line.
There was nothing not to love about the marathon – the cool weather, the scenery, the supporters, the adrenaline rush.
Coupled with the cool weather, it made it so much easier for the runners to trim their personal best timings. CTC Travel sent elite runners (yes, it's a legit thing) to take part in the marathon - Jasmine and Stuart from F1 Runners. Jasmine, whose PB was 3.5 hours, cut her timing all the way down to a solid 3 hours, winning 1st in her category, while Stuart clinched a worthy 4th. Singapore represent!
By the end of the marathon, I felt like death had come to take me, but it was, hands down, worth every ounce of effort. I’m immensely glad to have braved this marathon, and, not to mention, every morsel of food (and beer) tasted a thousand times more delicious afterwards.
And after a 42km-long leg workout, it was only right we got our hands to work too.
Okinawa is known for its purple yam (or sweet potato), and we got to bake purple yam tarts. It was idiot-proof, but for someone who once tripped the entire house’s power while attempting to use the oven and caused the apocalyptic deaths of all the fish in her pond in the process, it was quite an accomplishment.
I also may or may not have eaten all the remaining cream straight out of the icing tube.
Look, Ma, I can bake!
We also tried our hand at coral dyeing. Once our instructor walked us through the process, we got down to wrapping our chosen fabric around coral fossils and pressing dye onto the fabric to yield various designs.
Doesn’t sound like much fun? That’s what we thought initially, but we thought wrong, and were hooked once we got started.
And, of course, there was the shopping.
There were many tax-free shops all around, my favourite one being Don Quixote, a 24-hour megastore sat along the famously touristy Kokusai Street.
Never mind that it was already 11pm that night and I had to wake up at 7am the next day – when there’s 24-hour shopping, you best take advantage of it. I was reveling in the myriad Japanese products, from Pikachu onesies and an entire array of Gudetama goodies to shelves and shelves heartily stacked with food products.
The loot. Excessive? I think not!
And let’s not forget about the food.
I live for Japanese food – I’d breathe sashimi if I could. But Okinawan food isn’t like what you’d find in the mainland - by day 3 of the trip, it was already the longest I’ve gone without sashimi for as long as I can remember, and ironically, I was in Japan. But I’m not even complaining, because Okinawan food has a scrumptious appeal of its own.
Okinawa is big on pork. Case in point:
In clockwise direction: fall-off-the-bone tender glazed pork ribs, sashimi and umibudo (Okinawan sea grapes), unassuming yet mind-blowing fried seaweed with pork cubes, stewed pork with vegetables and tofu, stewed pork belly.
Whenever there was a stewed pork dish at the table, it was a hot favourite. You’d agree if you tried it!
We got to try other Okinawan delicacies as well, such as umibudo (sea grapes). Its crunchy pop-in-your-mouth texture made it insanely addictive, its briny taste redolent of the freshness of the sea. We all loved it so much that we all bought packets of them from the supermarket to bring home.
Can I also just point out that this plate of rice with Japanese curry was not a kid’s meal, but part of the actual menu:
But the best food is always simple home-cooked fare, and it was no different in Okinawa. We got to visit an Okinawan house, where the hosts prepared a lavish lunch for us.
What a spread - if I had known there’d be so much good food, I would’ve gladly starved for 3 days to make as much space in my tummy for the food as I could.
Each household in Okinawa has its own homemade miso that they serve as a topping on rice. This one was made with pork neck, and it was amazing. Delicious. Exquisite. Divine. I kid you not. My friends will know that I eat everything in my cai fan (mixed vegetable rice) except the fan (rice), but I devoured a good two bowls of rice with the miso. It was THAT good, and I went to heaven.
We tried to ask for the recipe; the grandmother was more than happy to give it to us, but didn’t have exact measurements – she simply agar-agars from years of experience in the kitchen. Seeing how much we loved it, they packed us some to take home!
We also had a great chat over the meal sharing stories and laughter, which surprises me on hindsight as I don’t know how we managed to do so while so rampantly stuffing our faces.
The cutest little girl and the weathered hands of a loving grandmother.
The masterchef herself!
The hosts even played traditional Okinawan music for us after the meal. Their hospitality was so generous and genuine, I was this close to asking them to adopt me.
A Trip To Remember
I thought I knew enough about Japan (Bet you had no idea the legal drinking age is 20. Me 1 – you 0), but Okinawa was a whole other side of this country – with its own kind of charming – that many leave undiscovered
I never thought I’d ever run a full marathon, not to mention enjoy it. But this runcation was one of the best vacations I’ve had, and undisputedly the best run too.
If you're interested in experiencing a runcation for yourself, CTC Travel has plans specially tailored for runcations in Sydney (18 September 2016), Taipei (December 2016), and Okinawa (February 2017). Find out more about upcoming Run'cations in 2016 here or keep a look out on their Facebook for more details.
Who needs boring old staycations any more? Hope this inspires you to go on your first ever Run'cation! Sayonara!
This post was brought to you by CTC Travel.