Go speed racer, go!
The first I heard about the Kyotei boat racing stadium was when I walked past a poster for an upcoming race my first day in Osaka. I knew the Japanese had a fondness for speed, but I’d always associated that with motor racing.
The Kyotei circuit – there are 24 stadiums dotted around Japan – has apparently been wildly popular since speedboat racing was first introduced as a sport back in the 1950’s and while the stadium was fairly quiet the night I went, the fact that it seats 21,000 spectators suggests that the sport is just as popular today.
3 down, 20,997 to go
The attraction, in part, is the low entrance fee. For just ¥100/€0.89, you can sit and be thrilled by the races all day. That said, the main appeal, apart from the bone-vibrating, blood-rushing, spray-in-your-face spectacle of it all, is that you can bet on races.
Having a flutter
I didn’t, and not because the one time I did make bet, I was persuaded by a more experienced ‘friend’ to back a horse other than the one I wanted only to have my original (and very much not the favourite) choice romp home first, but because the system is so byzantine. There are seven ways to bet; a Win, a Place, an Exacta, a Quinella, a Trifecta, a Trio and a Quinella Place. I could explain, but I’m not sure I understood myself, so it’s probably best to take a Japanese-speaking friend if you intend to stake money on a race.
Although the boats themselves are relatively small, they make an impressive amount of noise. Watching them skid around the track, pilots standing, leaning and crouching to improve their speeds, boats cruising around the buoys so perilously close to one another there seems barely a hair’s breadth between them it’s easy to forget that they are powered by relatively small engines – only 390cc – but as each stripped to the bones and barely weigh more than the pilots, they run like the clappers.
About as slow as it gets
Much as in horseracing pilots are subject to a strict weight limit and must weigh between 49-59 kilos to compete. Consequently (although curiously, the same cannot be said for horse-racing), Kyotei attracts a relatively large number of women racers, who are amongst some of the best pilots on the circuit.
The ‘track’ itself is a 300-metre circuit marked at either end by two horizontal buoys. There are six boats in each race, which consists of three laps or 900 metres in all. For all the adrenaline they generate, races last less than a minute. With all the anticipation, nerves, pre-race fumbling, jockeying for position and engine-gunning antics, Kyotei races resemble in many ways the average person’s First Time. It might be over before you can lie back and think of Japan but a minute is still more than long enough to blow your week’s earnings and judging by the howls of despair that emanated from some parts of the crowd, a number of the men attending last night’s race must have had quite a bit of explaining to do when they got home.
The ones that didn’t make it
I found this part of the Kyotei experience a little depressing because judging by the appearance of some of the people making bets, the low entrance fee also encourages those who probably can’t really afford it to gamble their futures away but the size of some previous wins – in the tens of millions of yen – keeps the punters coming back. A fool and his money, as they say.
Clearly, the corporations backing the sport are making out like bandits, though and for once, the pilots themselves don’t do too badly. Earnings are based on winnings and most pilots take home around three to four hundred thousand dollars a year but those at the top of their form can earn several million a year. Peanuts compared to what’s made at the turnstiles, perhaps, but still just about enough to make the risk of competing (there are several casualties a year) worthwhile.
Take the subway to Suminoekoen station and then follow the signs (and the sounds of the boats roaring around the track) to the stadium. It’s about a 3-minute walk.
Entrance is ¥100 to the open-air stand, ¥2000/ €17.80 for a comfy seat with your own television screen and ¥5000/€44.50 per person for a VIP box, which comes with complimentary refreshments and must be reserved in advance.
Race schedules (in Japanese only) can be found at: http://www.suminoe.gr.jp/cal/cal.htm