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Owakudani Volcanic Activity Raises Questions About Cutting the Hakone Ekiden Course Short

an editorial by Mitsuo Kamiya
translated by Brett Larner

"If this volcanic activity continues like this then it won't be a situation where you could think about holding an ekiden," said an official nervously.  He was speaking of one of the biggest national events, the New Year holidays' Hakone Ekiden.  Located near the Hakone Ekiden's climax, the mountainous uphill Fifth Stage, the Owakudani valley famous for its "black eggs" is currently experiencing earthquakes and increased volcanic activity with the land in the valley having risen an alarming 12 cm.

On May 6 authorities elevated the eruption alert level at Owakudani from 1 (normal) to 2 (crater periphery restrictions).  To put it simply, the move meant that an eruption could happen at any time.  During the Golden Week holidays in early May the surrounding hot spring tourism area experienced few cancellations as tourists told each other, "If we all go then it won't be scary," but since then tourist numbers have dropped noticeably from normal.  "Owakudani is only a small part of the Hakone area and the only part that is restricted.  It is important that the public receives accurate information," said town hall officials, seeking to prevent damage to the reputation of the area and its artisans.

But at the same time experts warned that they could not even make a guess about what would happen, saying, "Nobody knows when an eruption will occur.  You have to rely on experience and intuition."  As is human nature, the rumors are already flying.  One says that it is highly likely that this is connected with Mount Fuji, located just 25 km away.  If they were to erupt together the nearby Tomei Expressway and shinkansen lines forming the heart of Japan's transportation network would be completely paralyzed.

If the level of magma pressure continues to increase gradually over a long period of time, it is entirely possible that authorities' elevation of danger levels could likewise continue until the next New Year holidays.  Seeming to indicate a reluctance to hold the only event bringing more people into the Hakone area than the Golden Week holidays, police officials commented, "We cannot take responsibility for people's safety and hope that they avoid the Hakone area."  As track and field officials said, it would not be the kind of situation where you could think about holding an ekiden.

So what would the options be for the Hakone Ekiden?  "Well," said a race official, twisting his neck in perplexity, "the only choices would probably be either changing the course or cutting the Hakone section."  The current course runs 107.5 km from Tokyo to Hakone and 109.6 km on the return trip.  If the course is changed, in terms of distance equivalent courses would be 120 km for Tokyo to Mito or 140 km for Tokyo to Nikko.  But with the race taking place over two days of heavy New Year's traffic it is impossible to imagine the police cooperating with the road closure needs created by an alternate course.  That means cutting the Hakone section, the uphill Fifth Stage and downhill Sixth Stage to create a race between Tokyo and Odawara, an Odawara Ekiden as it were.  At 84.3 km on the first day and 88.7 km on the trip back it would be an uninspiring distance, but that may be the only real option.

"At the Hakone Ekiden the mountain stages are incredibly dramatic every time, keeping viewers glued to their TVs until the very end," said one critic.  "If it becomes a flat race it will be no different from November's National University Ekiden between Nagoya and Ise Shrine.  It will lose half its appeal."  How long will the dangerous levels of volcanic activity continue?  For Hakone Ekiden organizers these are restless days.  All they can do is pray to the God of the Mountain.


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