CONTRIBUTED BY HEATHER OLSEN
My husband and I heard about a race that you run in the moonlight, and we had to find out more about it. October 19th, I ran the Iheya Moonlight Marathon, and it was one of the best experiences I have had in Okinawa. Iheya Island has a population around 1,200 so the race about triples the occupancy for the weekend. This also means that the amenities are sparse. The shops on island are yen-only and there is only one ATM machine inside the post office. We ran out of yen quickly and barely made it to the ATM to get more before the Post Office closed. Water and food were a little difficult to come by unless you brought them with you. There aren’t any Lawsons, Family Marts or Cocos there. We were lucky enough to find the convenience store. There are only 20 hotel rooms on the island so all of the runners either camped or slept inside schools and public buildings for a few hundred yen per night. We camped out at the campsite and brought our own tents with us. This is a great place to go camping, even if you are not doing the race.
This is one of the prettiest places ever! The shells on the beach were very colorful and massive! The ferries for the race start the day before the race (Friday) so that they can get everyone there in time for the race. That night there is a big festival, with dinner and awamori provided. It was awesome! There was lots of traditional dancing and the elementary students put on a musical. They ended the night with a rock concert.
The percentage of foreigners that run the race is less than 1 percent, so a few of us got together and went sightseeing. There are a limited amount of taxis, cars and bicycles to rent on Iheya Island, so a shuttle bus is provided. There are maps and pamphlets provided that contain the shuttle schedule, amenities information and where the historical sites are on the island.
The tree we are standing in front of (below) is one of the major attractions; it is over 300 years old.
The marathon starts at 3:00 p.m. and the half-marathon at 5:00 p.m. so you will end up running in the moonlight to the finish. I wish that I had run with my camera! It was the prettiest run ever! We came around the island just as the moon was coming up over the horizon in the ocean. Incredible. All of the runners received glow bracelets and the streets were lined with Christmas lights and light carts for when it got dark. I noticed that one of the race staff was taking pictures of the runners with the rising moon so you would see our silhouette against it. So amazing! After the race, dinner and awamori provided again and they opened up the gym so we could use the showers.
The race staff was incredible and the island residents were very friendly. They are aware of the difficulties that come with an event this size for the island and will do anything they can to help you out, including giving you a ride in their car because you missed the last bus to your camp site. Most of them spoke very little English so be prepared with a translator app or Japanese book.
This race would be easy to do in a weekend without taking leave as it is on a Saturday. You could take the ferry Saturday morning and take it back on Sunday. If you get sea sick then I highly recommend taking the Friday ferry. You will need a whole day to recuperate before running a race. I got very sick and I am so grateful that we went in on Friday. Even with the few minor setbacks that we ran into, we had a great weekend and would recommend it to anyone. Next year’s race is on October 11, 2014 so mark your calendars!
To register for the race: Registration is mid-July to mid-August for 1200 runners. Sports entry is the easiest way to register or applications are at the sports store (in Japanese only) that is near Araha beach. Register early if you want a hotel room! Unless you speak Japanese, I recommend finding a Japanese friend that can help you sign up for the race and call to reserve a hotel room, camp site, car rental, etc. If you don’t make any reservations, don’t fret, the race staff will find you a blanket and a place to sleep. During registration you will need to choose a ferry time so they can reserve it for you. Once you get to the port you will purchase the ticket that was reserved with your registration. The ticket cost about 4500 yen per person. If you are coming with kids, I would recommend bringing your own car over on the ferry so you can bring enough gear and food to keep everyone happy. It is also a great way to charge your phone if you don’t get a hotel room! The ferry is through the Unten Port, north of Nago. Be an hour early to the ferry to guarantee that you can get through the line in time for your port call.
Directions to Unten Port: Go north on the 58 to Nago or take the express way to the end. After you get to Nago, turn right onto the 71 (follow for 3-4 miles). At the T intersection, turn left onto the 505. Follow this for 3 miles. Pay attention to the mileage! After 3 miles make a right turn. There is a sign for the port but it is faded. Turn right onto the 72 and the port is just up ahead on your left.
If you miss the right turn onto the name-less road, you will see the 72 after a mile that you can follow back around to the port as well.
Google Map Coordinates: Unten Port – 26.677805,127.996897; Iheya Island – 27.041353,127.966254 (Editor’s Note: Map pin below is at Uten Port)