After the first race was held here in 2016, an amazingly fast process over four years resulted in the race becoming an international event. Matsunaga-san explains the process, and his own relationship with this beautiful Shitada mountain.
Born in 1980 in Shizuoka prefecture, Matsunaga-san is a professional trail runner who now makes his home in Niigata. He has participated in many international races in Europe, America, Oceania and Africa, winning many of the events. Since moving to Niigata in 2006, he has been involved in promoting and hosting running events as the director of Trail Runners. Drawing on his global experience, he now hosts 15 races annually at six locations across Japan. His concept is to create life-changing events covering a wide range, from the Trail Runners Cup which even small children can join in, to international competitions. He is very active in social media as well, posting on YouTube and other media and hosting his own podcast.
“I think it was around 2010. I was looking for a place to practice for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc UTMB), probably the most beautiful but also one of toughest races in the world. It’s a magnificent tournament around Mt. Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe, crossing over the borders of France, Italy and Switzerland. Mt. Awa, just a 30-minute drive from my house, has a steepness and slopes similar to that of UTMB, so went there almost daily. I started with one round trip in a day, then two round trips, then three and four. I got up to six round trips of the course in a day, which often took more than 12 hours. At first this was all for training, but by the time I got to six round trips in a day, I was completely captivated by Mt. Awa. Six round trips in a day—normally you can’t do that! But it was Mt. Awa that made it possible. Each trip revealed a new personality, something so interesting that it made me want to climb again and again. I’ve seen mountains all over the world, but here was something as attractive as anything I had seen on any mountain anywhere.”
“Mt. Awagatake rises to a height of 1,293 meters, and straddles the border between Sanjo and Kamo cities in Niigata. From up high, you look over fields of some of the finest rice in the world, stretching across the Niigata Plain. It’s very familiar to the local people, and, depending on the course, even elementary school students can enjoy climbing it. It’s often said locally, though, that if you can climb Mt. Awa, you can climb almost any mountain, and I do think it is an excellent peak for training for the Alps. It is known as one of the 300 Famous Mountains of Japan, and on a clear day you can see all the way out to Sado Island and Noto Peninsula on the Sea of Japan, as well as the beautiful scenery of the mountain itself. The steep slopes on both sides around the area of the ninth station are wonderful, especially during the snowy months—it’s not inferior to the European Alps! I think it’s a mountain that is full of potential, a place for climbing for everyone from beginners to experts.”
Mt. Awa was the place where I trained my body and mind in order to challenge the world. So, I felt like I wanted to give something back to it. I thought it was strange that everyone didn’t know about this wonderful mountain. It felt like a buried treasure. I had a sense of mission, that I needed to prepare a stage suitable for this mountain on which to showcase it to the world. First of all, I would give the local people of Shitada and Sanjo an opportunity to display the charm of Mt. Awa. I’ve seen the world, and, speaking frankly, I think I hit on the potential of Mt. Awa. For many people it might be something floating out there in nature, but for me, having seen mountains all over the world, right here is a wonderful mountain, as good as any other in the world.
“There were various reactions to my ideas at first. Some people simply said there was no way we could do that. But I just took this on as a headwind, and with a headwind, a kite just flies higher, so I decided that I would deliver Mt. Awa to the world. So, I kept on giving my explanations, and people slowly began to agree that we should have a world-class competition here. Now I can ask the locals, when shall we do it next year?”
“Since the beginning of 2006, we’ve really kept the whole world in mind as we organize the race. This can be seen in the logo. Although the wording uses Roman letters, we used a brush typeface to create a Japanese feel. We’ve had some really nice comments from athletes from around the world that the logo is cool. In June of 2018, we really made an extra effort to attract the world. I was invited to compete at a race in Switzerland. This was a great opportunity, and meant that I was the first Japanese ever to meet directly with Skyman, the Swiss organizers of the world series of races. After the race, we held the first negotiations at the Geneva Airport. Right there, we were urged to hold a series race in Japan. My initial vision was to hold a Vertical Kilometer World Circuit (VKWC) event, in which contestants race straight up a five-kilometer-long, steep mountain trail. The people at Skyman, however, felt that it would be difficult to draw in athletes from around the world for a VKWC event. Instead, they encouraged us to hold a Skyrace with a length of 20 to 30 kilometers. At the time they were beginning to set up a World Series event in China, but wanted to make something more pan-Asian, and that Japan would be a necessity for this. I was a bit puzzled about what to do during the flight home. When I returned to Japan, I had the chance to meet with the Mayor of Sanjo, and finally came to a conclusion. I made up my mind and said that we should do a Skyrace. “After that came one of the hardest periods in my life, developing the course and contracting with Skyman, arranging with the athletes and getting involved in negotiations, and, since I’m still an athlete, I continued with 100-mile training sessions. But we were able to overcome the challenges, and, with record speed, we held the race in 2019. We had completed one of Japan’s toughest courses, one that athletes from around the world said had intense ups and downs like a roller coaster through the beech forest. Many said that the endless mountains of snow were a lot like Europe. We published a course map so that anyone can try out this world-class course whenever they want. Actually, there are still some spectacular courses I haven’t yet tried at competitions outside Japan, so I’m still looking forward to future events.”
“Because trail running is an outdoor sport in which we really get to enjoy being in nature, I feel that it’s our responsibility to give more thought to the environment than the average person. The Mt. Awa Skyrace faces the issues of us wanting to go paperless, as well as of dealing with garbage, both part of our sustainability programs. We have also been working to achieve gender equality. Our statement to athletes and visitors alike is, ‘The only thing you can leave behind after the race is your impressions,’ and we are really aiming at being a sustainable race. I also hope that the Mt. Awa Skyrace will be a great way for local children to get a more first-hand meeting with the world. I also think that it is important for people to get a sense of this being a ‘genuine’ event. The experience and impact of the event will almost certainly strike the hearts of many children, and a heart that loves their home will also be a proud one. I do believe that this will serve regional revitalization in the long run. I hope that, in the future, I’ll hear from someone that, ‘I saw the Mt. Awa Skyrace when I was a kid, and that made me want to become a professional athlete,’ or, ‘Mt. Awa is such a beautiful mountain that I decided to start a business here.’ We’ll keep building the race into something that the local people will be proud of.”