A fifteen-minute walk from the Tenjin subway station, the entrance to a lesser known Japanese known as boat racing lies. It’s one of the few legal forms of gambling in Japan and similar in structure to horse, dog, or even Nascar racing. Boats piloted by a racer zip around an oval shaped track as onlookers, who have bet on their favorites, cut the suspense with their cheers.
General admission is just ¥100, while indoor glass-covered reserved seats are ¥1,000, and there’s a VIP section for ¥3,000. Boat racing is popular. In Fukuoka, approximately 500,000 attend annually.
Each floor of the stadium has multilingual betting machines that appear similar to the IC machines you find at a train station. A detailed English explanation of betting options is available at the information desk. For my part, I wagered ¥100 on a “trifecta”. To win a trifecta bet, you must correctly guess the exact placement order of the top three finishers.
I penciled in the bubbles representing my picks and just before the race begins, I insert my money and sheet into the machine. It prints me off a small ticket. If I win, all I have to do is take my ticket back to the machine, and it will give me my (hopeful) winnings.
There are twenty-four such boat racing stadiums across Japan, including Fukuoka. Roku, a new facility designed to appeal to groups looking for a comfortable experience was recently opened. It’s a beautiful two-story building complete with a bar, betting machines, monitors, and an outdoor observation deck with a good view of the action. Food stalls can be found on each floor of the main building and a kids play area (free of charge) is available on the first floor.
The actual racing is straightforward and easy to follow. Six boats run in a race. At the beginning of each tournament, a lottery to assign a boats and engines separately to racers is held. During the tournament, each racer is allowed to tune-up, but not modify the engines.
Before each race, the boats speed around the track to give the audience a chance to size them up before bets are placed. Each race is three laps and covers 1,800 meters. Two buoys serve as the turn markers. The race around each turn marker is the most exhilarating part! With so few laps, every turn is crucial and the boats crowd closely to the markers, bringing themselves dangerously close to collision.
So, how does one become a racer? First, they spend a year training at the Yamato Boat Race Academy in Yanagawa during which they are prohibited from using personal communication devices, such as mobile phones and the internet. These restrictions continue during tournaments even after they turn pro. During tournaments, racers live together and communication with the outside world is strictly controlled. This is done to reduce the possibility of interference from outside on the races.
Alas the racers are well rewarded for their isolation and their hard work! The average racer makes about ¥16,000,000 (about $144,176 USD) per year, with top ranking racers raking in as much as ¥34 million (about $306,374 USD). Interestingly, boat racing is mixed gendered, however there are many more men than women.
A long, covered bridge connects the stadium to the pit area. This area is closed to the public and I was not allowed to take photos. An ambulance is parked nearby in case one of those tight turns produce a collision. Thankfully, only a handful of serious injuries occur each year.
After a brief visit, I head back over the bridge to the second floor observation deck. The race is about to begin. The countdown ends and the racers speed toward the starting line at full throttle. Racers jockey for a starting position. The first racer to cross the starting line sets the competition in motion. A quick three laps later, the race is finished and I have lost my ¥100. It’s time to call it a day.
Report and photos for Fukuoka Now by Nathan Spencer (May 2017)