Running against the tide

MEGAN NICOL REED
Last updated 05:00 22/06/2014
TOKYO
Getty Images

INNER SANCTUM: The Imperial Palace and outer garden nestled in the heart of Tokyo.

Princess Masako
Reuters
ROYAL PRISONER? Her Imperial Highness Crown Princess Masako.

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OPINION: She was schooled at Harvard and Oxford, speaks five languages, and intended to be a foreign diplomat.

Instead, and only after she had hesitated for seven years, twice rebuffing him, she married an emperor's son, and now
lives in a palace surrounded by moats, and is rarely seen in public.

She is known in the international media as both "the saddest princess" and "Japan's best-known prisoner".

She is said to be clinically depressed, suffering from adjustment disorder, triggered by the pressure to produce a male heir and her struggles with the archaic Imperial Household Agency's control over her every movement.

I got as close as a commoner can get to Her Imperial Highness Crown Princess Masako over the three days and
nights I recently spent in Tokyo.

It was hot, unpleasantly so, but not unbearably, and each morning I rolled out of bed, pulled on my running shoes and ran the 5.8 kilometres it takes to circumnavigate the Imperial Palace grounds.

I could see its green gabled roofs and established trees from my 19th-floor hotel room.

It promised respite in all the grey and the hard, but up close the trees are hemmed in by ramparts of rock and there are only vast and bleak expanses of concrete and gravel.

It is persistently grim. My daily constitutional offered no insight into the Japanese royal family's inner sanctum, but it did afford another view.

The concierge frowned as I slipped the business card-sized jogging map under my bra strap. Is it signposted, I asked?
No, she said, just follow the runners.

I have run my entire adult life, only breaking the habit through injury. And I always run when somewhere foreign. It
is like purposeful sightseeing.

Interacting in ways that are not possible from any vehicle; covering more ground than any camera-armed meander.

I have been laughed at by road workers sheltering from the heat under palm trees in Suva; entertained by the inventive ways the locals exercise in Shanghai; and stared at uncomprehendingly by women chain-smoking Marlboro Lights in Paris.

But I have never happened upon a community of runners like I did in Tokyo.

Often teased for my curtailed stride, I felt at home here, like I had found my brethren. As if their centres of gravity
were lower than ours, Japanese runners sink deep into their hips, legs striking out, short yet strong and steady.

In a country of champion consumers, their gear is the latest. They wear compression socks, stopwatches and futuristic glasses.

There has been some bad press from visitors to the palace about discourteous runners, but I found them unfailingly
polite, as orderly as a line of sushi.

Intuitively I set off clockwise until, belatedly, I realised I was running against the tide. Everyone runs the same way
and so, in spite of an instinctive desire to rebel, I turned.

Every day more than 10,000 runners come here. I don't know why I was surprised. After all, Haruki Murakami, the greatest writer on running, is Japanese.

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Apparently it is his routine to wake at 4am, write for five hours, then run. He credits running with teaching him focus and endurance in his writing.

Out for dinner the other night with friends, we were talking about personalities. And my husband said that in the company of big noters, he feels no urge to compete; is, indeed, compelled into silence by their egos.

And then he said, and it grabbed me, because this is perhaps what I find most attractive in him and yet I'd never before given it a name, that he always comforts himself with the fact that they would be next to useless in an apocalyptic situation, whereas he knows he could manage.

Courageous, skilled with his hands, masterful at procuring food: my husband is the ultimate survivalist.

At first I panicked when he said this. What value would I serve in a disaster?

But when our friend said she wouldn't make it because she'd give up at the first hurdle, I realised that that was my skill.

I would endure.

I'm not a fast runner, averaging about a kilometre every five and a half minutes, but I'm steadfast. Running has given me stamina. Possibly it was there to begin with, I just didn't know it.

I don't come from a sporty family. My parents neither watch nor talk about sport. I grew up with the unspoken knowledge that sports in this country comes at the expense of artistic pursuits.

I wish I'd discovered younger, though, what my body was capable of and the freedom and pleasure to be gained from physicality.

On my circuits of her house and garden, I liked to think that maybe, within the confines of her prison, the saddest princess was running alongside me.

- Sunday Magazine

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