The Tokyo Plan (Part I)

The Tokyo Marathon is notoriously difficult to get into due to its lottery-style entry process and the relatively small cap of 35,500 participants. Among the Abbott World Marathon Majors, Tokyo is the second smallest race in number of participants, out-ranked only by the exclusive Boston Marathon, which accepts just 30,000 runners. My wife, Ruth, entered the lottery and crossed her fingers she would get an entry, particularly because completing Tokyo would mean finishing her Abbott World Marathon Majors series.

On the morning in September when the lottery selections were emailed out, Ruth was elated to discover she had obtained a spot. As soon as we knew she was in, we immediately set about planning the trip. Travel is a huge shared passion of ours, and we knew right away that we would extend our time in Tokyo to make the most of the journey. By that evening, with me on the other side of the country in California for a business trip, and Ruth back home in Philadelphia, we had booked flights and a hotel on our preferred travel site,, and our 8-day trip to Tokyo was officially on the calendar. 

September through February was a planning period. For Ruth, planning for the trip meant training, taking good care of her body, building up her long runs on weekends, and pacing herself to avoid injury. For me, planning meant itinerary-making. Whenever we travel, I build an itinerary. It keeps me organized, and eliminates the potential of sitting in hotel rooms googling what to do, eat, or see next. I love to research a location before we travel and document not only what we will try to do each day (I say try because one of the biggest misconceptions about itineraries is that they are a set in stone plan), but also more general lists of places to eat, museums to visit, neighborhoods to explore when we find ourselves with open time. 

Tokyo was one of the most challenging places I’ve ever researched. First, the streets don’t all have names, so even mapping out how to walk from one place to the next is more a scavenger-hunt process of finding landmarks, rather than a turn-by-turn set of directions. Second, the character-based language made it tough to read maps and look at local resources. And finally, the city is absolutely vast. We didn’t really grasp its size until we were there in person, but for scale, Tokyo’s population equates to the population of over thirty-three major U.S. cities combined (including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia).

Check out this map to see what I mean:



When I am planning an itinerary, I try to follow the same process each time. You can read about it on my trip-planning blog. Despite the fact that Tokyo presented a few challenges to my usual planning process, I persevered, and by the time we left for Tokyo in February, we had a detailed itinerary ahead of us, with the marathon on day three.

Tip: If you are planning a trip around a marathon, try to keep the race early in the trip. Give yourself time to adjust to the location and time zone, and to make it to the marathon expo of course, but then allow the back-end of the trip to be post-race. This gives you freedom to eat, drink, and explore in a way you won’t be able to if you spend your whole trip leading up to the race itself.

We decided to locate ourselves in Shinjuku at the Granbell Hotel for the duration of our stay in Tokyo, but also kept an eye out for day-trip ideas to other parts of Japan, particularly if we could go by bullet train. We bundled the hotel stay with flights that would stop in Washington, D.C. on the way there and back, making for a long, close-to-direct flight.

Lengthy flights can feel intimidating, and many people dread being in the air for ten, twelve, or fifteen hours, which can keep them from even traveling to more far-flung places. It wasn’t until I traveled to India in April 2017 that I learned how much I enjoy a long flight. The beauty of a long flight (10+ hours) is that you actually have time to settle in, sleep, and start to adjust to the time zone of your new locale. When we looked at flights to Tokyo, I was excited to see that we could find options that landed in the late afternoon. This meant that if we timed it right, we could sleep for a few hours on the front end of our flight, and then stay awake for the second half so that we would be appropriately tired by the time we landed and have no trouble going to bed that first night.

Here are a few of my personal must-have items for a long flight:

  • Bose QuietComfort Noise-Cancelling Earbuds, $250
    • Until I owned these, I had never realized that the ambient noise on an airplane is extremely loud. With these noise-canceling earbuds, I can comfortably tune-out everyone and everything on the flight. I often wear them switched on without any music or movies playing just to enjoy the noise-canceling effect.
  • Leggings & a Comfy T-Shirt
    • While I don’t like to travel in anything that resembles pajamas, if I am going to be on a flight for more than 10 hours, I want to get into something cozier than a pair of jeans at some point. I like to pack a pair of leggings and a comfortable t-shirt in my carry-on bag, which I can change into before I go to sleep. One of my favorite things about this strategy is that it allows my travel clothes to stay fresh for when I change back into them before we land. Because, really, is there anything worse than the feeling of travel clothes sticking to your body when you finally stand up at the end of a long flight?
  • Rodan + Fields REDEFINE Lip Renewing Serum, $56
    • My lips can become painfully dry and cracked on a long flight, particularly if I fall asleep. So, before I doze off, I apply one capsule of R+F’s Lip Renewing Serum to keep my lips moisturized throughout the flight. One capsule is more than enough, so if you’re traveling with someone, split a capsule between you! Full disclosure: I love the effect R+F products have on my skin so much, I became a consultant for the company! 
  • MidNite Sleep Aid, $6.35
    • This drug-free sleep aid works wonders for me when I’m trying to adjust to time zones when traveling. Comprised primarily of melatonin with a mix of lemon balm, chamomile, and lavender added in, this is a gentle sleep aid that helps me doze off on a long flight without the groggy effect of a strong sleep medication.
  • Muji Notebook & Pens, ~$10
    • You never know when inspiration will strike, so having a blank notebook and pens handy can help you pass the time with creative pursuits. I love documenting where we go and what we do when we travel, and there is no better time than the flight to begin journaling the trip experience. Plus, Muji’s sleek, minimalist design is quintessentially Japanese, so if your trip is to Tokyo, you will fit right in.
  • Location-Specific Book
    • This will depend on where you are traveling, but I love to read a book that takes place in my destination. When I traveled to India, I read Lion on the way over. In Japan, I read Memoirs of a Geisha. Find something compelling, either fiction or non-fiction, and enjoy conjuring up images of your destination before you even touch down.

By the time our trip rolled around in late February, Ruth and I felt completely ready to take on Tokyo. We tried to keep our packing minimal, first, in keeping with Japanese tradition of minimalism, and second, to make room for some inevitable purchases along the way. We both packed carry-ons with our own idea of what items we consider essential. And for Ruth, one such item definitely included her running shoes. In the dreaded event your bag gets lost, the last thing you want to be without the week of a race are your beloved running sneakers!

When we woke up the morning of our trip, we faced our first travel obstacle – a flight delay. Our short flight (the one we purposely booked because of its reliability) between Philadelphia and D.C. was delayed long enough that it would force us to miss our connection to Tokyo’s Narita Airport. So, with a quick adjustment in plans, we rearranged our flights and connected through Chicago instead. A route, ironically, we had avoided when initially booking out of fear that winter weather would create a delay or cancelation. After a two hour flight to Chicago, and a pleasant thirteen hours in the air between Chicago O’Hare and Tokyo’s Narita Airport, we landed in Tokyo ready to take on a new city and marathon.

Check into this blog’s Part II - Tokyo, The Trip to learn about our eight days in Tokyo, including our daytrip to Kyoto.

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