Meeting Takeru Kobayashi is like coming face-to-face with someone who has slept with Julia Roberts or had a near-death experience: You long to ask what it felt like. How does it feel to cram 4 kg of food into your stomach in less time than it takes most people to walk to the pub?
Kobayashi’s talent is being able to eat more, faster, than anyone on the planet. In summer 2004, he scoffed a gut-stretching 53 1/2 frankfurters in the stipulated 12 minutes, setting a new world record at Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island. By the time the final buzzer sounded, Kobayashi was some 3 1/2 kg heavier and looked, with his waxy pallor and rasping breath, like he’d swallowed a toilet plunger.
This year, he thinks he can eat even more when he defends his title for the fourth time on July 4. “I have no intention of losing,” he says. “I take this business very seriously.”
Few will be betting against him: In the words of Rich Shea, president of the International Federation of Competitive Eating, Kobayashi is the “Tiger Woods of chow,” boasting such prowess in his field that he is almost unchallengeable.
Cameras at the Coney Island event last year caught Kobayashi’s hapless, goggle-eyed competitors — mostly 130-180 kg men with nicknames like Refrigerator and Tank — as the diminutive, 170 cm Japanese who weighs about 77 kg ate a greasy sausage and bun about once every 11 seconds.
In 2003, 190-kg ex-American football star William Perry dropped out after just five dogs and spent the rest of the match staring at Kobayashi like he had arrived from another planet.
In person, Kobayashi is disappointingly human: a handsome 26-year-old with clear skin and broad shoulders. His good looks have inspired more than a few female fans to write to him with proposals of marriage.
The man they call “Tsunami” discovered his talent while still an economics student. “Some restaurants in Japan award prizes for customers who eat a lot,” he explains. “I found I could eat more than everybody else.”
Kobayashi was drafted by late-night Japanese TV to demolish mountains of noodles and curry; from there, it was but a short step to his first Coney Island meet in 2001 where he ate 50 hot dogs, shattering the previous record of 25.
So huge was his margin of victory that rumors began circulating that he had an abnormally small esophagus and that he took muscle relaxants to help him squeeze more into his gut. “People want to know what my secret is: Whether I have two stomachs, or if I’m taking drugs or supported by a Japanese government program,” says Kobayashi. “But it is not about having a big stomach, just the right mental attitude.”
The win also brought the discovery that he could make money. Kobayashi reportedly pulls in anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000 a year and considers himself a serious athlete — a competitive eater no less. “I train hard and pay a lot attention to my diet,” he claims, displaying fistfuls of dietary supplements that he swallows every day.
Training means going to the gym to build up his physical strength, and working on his mental approach to competition. “Until now, it was mainly fat people who did this. But now you have athletes and some are learning how to control their bodies and train for competitions,” he says.
But Kobayashi never mixes up normal eating with what he does for a living. “Eating is for enjoyment or nourishment, or to help my body get strong. I don’t consider going into competitions as eating. If you think of it like that, the only training you will do is eating, and it takes more than that. To reach the top of anything you have to have a total mental and physical approach. Having a big body alone is not enough.”
Deep in training
With just weeks to go until a series of U.S. competitions, climaxing at Coney Island, Kobayashi is now deep in training. “I’ve started increasing the amount I eat every day, and eating actual hot dogs,” he says. I will now get my weight down and make sure my stomach is completely empty before the competition.”
So for the record, what does it feel like to consume 16,000 calories in one sitting? “Well it isn’t pleasant,” he admits. “Once I calm down, I find it is difficult to breathe because the food in my stomach is pushing against my lungs. I have to breathe shallow, and my shoulders become really stiff because my stomach is so big, like a pregnant woman.”
He says it takes about four days to get back to normal after competition: “My insides feel sluggish and tired. I don’t sleep so well that night. I go to the toilet more.” It can’t be good for you I suggest; has he seen “Super Size Me”?
Kobayashi agrees that competitive eaters have to be careful. “I’ve had ulcers, and I watch out for high cholesterol, blood pressure and kidney and liver problems. I’ve heard about that movie but there’s no chance of me destroying my body like that. It’s not that he ate a lot of burgers, it’s because he ate without taking care of his body. You can only end up like that if you don’t control what you eat. People ask me if my body is OK, but I take better care of my body than most ordinary people.”
Kobayashi doesn’t know how many more years he can go on with his regime of bingeing and training, but says he will do it as long as his body holds out. He has a well-rehearsed answer for those who think there is something disgusting about public displays of gluttony. “It might not look like it, but I was brought up to have respect for food and I still have. It’s just a tool for me. I was born in a rich country, and I feel really sorry for those in poorer countries who are not blessed like me — but I can’t help them by stopping what I do.”
And as for whether he still likes hot dogs?
“Yes. What is there not to like?”