Travel

Boat racing: Endearingly rubbish and genuinely dramatic

by Chris Russell

Staff Writer

Lurking in the background of the impending Tokyo Olympics are various curiosities that seem to resist any attempt at co-option or beautification, offering potential respite from that upcoming sporting behemoth and its crowds.

One such curiosity is kyōtei (boat racing), a kind of slow, aquatic NASCAR that also happens to be one of the few things that you can legally gamble on in Japan. Six motorboats vie for top spot as they take three laps around two buoys — a simple endeavor that belies a great deal of skill.

Hidden in plain sight, kyōtei is an easily accessible facet of national life, owing to its central role in Japan’s betting landscape. Twenty-four stadiums are dotted across the country (bar Hokkaido, Tohoku and Okinawa); my own port of call has always been Heiwajima in Tokyo’s Ota Ward, a notably drab part of town that occupies similar psychological terrain to post-industrial parts of Kawasaki. Kinkakuji temple it is not, yet Heiwajima is no less interesting, providing a portal into a different, somewhat darker side of Japan.

Kyōtei is in many ways a hangover from 20th-century Japan, its origin sitting at the nexus of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, postwar reconstruction and international philanthropy.

In another timeline, where kyōtei isn’t a government-backed betting enterprise whose funds are overseen by a foundation that was set up by Ryoichi Sasakawa, one of the best-connected men in Japan’s postwar history, it’s not obvious that Heiwajima would be allowed to continue to exist in Tokyo in 2020. In English-language promotional material, strange emphasis is placed on the existence of the giant clock that signals the start of the contest: “an iconic BOAT RACE symbol.” Clearly the competition exists in a time of its own.

The Heiwajima venue is dominated by a grandstand overlooking the pool where the action takes place, with an outside terrace for regular punters drenched in sunshine on nice days. Inside are the betting machines, screens showing odds, footage from other races from across Japan and highlights of Heiwajima contests, as well as various stalls selling cheap-and-cheerful food along with alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks. Various indoor seating is available on the upper levels, some of which can be reserved for a fee, although there’s no real reason to go for this option, even for the higher-ranked tournaments.

Bets are made by marking the provided cards and putting them into the machines, with wagers made according to specific results or who you think will finish within certain positions.

All of this should ostensibly be informed by the copious amounts of information available on the races — the riders’ recent performance, rankings of the boats’ motors and assessments of the exhibition laps before the actual race, for example — but my own experience indicates that you can be just as, if not more, successful by betting based on completely arbitrary considerations such as “Who has the nicest hair?” or “Who has the best vibe?”

One of the few certainties is the mistake of backing the rider furthest from the turn markers — not only does that starting position put them at a major disadvantage, but these racers tend to be more hapless than the rest.

It is also possible to solicit advice from the various tipsters that dot the inside of the grandstand, who for around ¥100 will give you a slip of paper with their picks for the upcoming race. While they like to present themselves as uniquely sagacious individuals — a friend once heard one tipster describe himself as a god — their advice only serves to underline the fact that no one really knows what is going on, with their suggestions usually being wrong and little in the way of consensus existing across the tipster grapevine.

All of this is just as well, because in any case you actually have a decent chance of making back some or all of your money depending on how, and if, you hedge your bets. You may even make a profit. And with the stakes so potentially low — bets start at ¥100 — there is no need for the whole thing to get too serious.

But to be clear, this is gambling, and as such the whole enterprise invites a necessary grittiness. Although you will find a smattering of families, there is a grim intensity to some of the spectators. It’s the anti-Olympics for a reason.

There is something endearingly rubbish about the whole thing but that shouldn’t obscure kyōtei’s capacity for moments of genuine drama, from the way the boats cut sharply around the markers, narrowly avoiding some kind of harrowing collision, to the feeling of cheering — against the odds, against expectation — as your picks try to make up what ground they can on the straights, the boats and riders straining against the very limited technology they’ve been blessed with — much like the sport itself.

There are four kyōtei venues around the capital: Heiwajima, Edogawa and Tamagawa in Tokyo, and Toda, Saitama Prefecture; admission is ¥100; for schedules, race details and nationwide venues, visit boatrace.jp.

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