Real Speed Racers

Mj 618_348_hydroplane racing in tokyo

Walking through the streets of Tokyo’s Shibuya district feels like walking through a city patrolled by cadres of teenagers. Kawaii culture has hoisted its flag, and that flag is a bejeweled teddy bear cell phone charm. Fortunately, an escape from this saccharine adolescent assault sits only a few train stops away in Ota. The Heiwajima Boat Race Stadium is full of weathered, tipsy gamblers, and the midday whine of speedboats in a murky pool. This and the vision of 70-year-olds complaining about their losses – boat racing is one of four sports Japanese can legally bet on – is enough to scratch away the Tokyo sparkle for one afternoon.

Part of the thrill of hydroplane racing is that the rules and regulations are completely baffling. Yes, the idea of going around a track until you win is easy enough to grasp, but unless you’re up on flying starts (racers have a half second to cross the start line if they don’t want a monthlong suspension) and the pit-out (a frantic and incredibly short dash before the race even starts), it can take a while to figure out who is actually winning and why. After jockeying for position before the race starts, the drivers tear towards the start line to hit the half-second window. Around the first buoy, back again on turn two, and in just three quick laps on the 600-meter course, one of the six racers crosses the finish line, hopefully with your number stenciled on his or her boat. Fortunately, the betting itself is no different than putting money on ponies, which is to say anyone can manage it without a translator.

When you’ve done enough damage at the water track, grab a bowl of motsu-nikomi – stewed beef intestines – and swing by the stadium’s Enka stage. Think Lawrence Welk, except here young singers take the mantle, belting out the oldies – favorites include the extravagantly expressive Saburo Kitajima’s ‘Yosaku‘ – for the old-timers that sit near the front of the stage and wave as excitedly as seems reasonable at 11:00 in the morning. Liquor? Liquor.

It’s cheap entertainment: ¥100 ($1) to get in for outdoor general admission. Tickets for air-conditioned seats start at ¥1,000, and up to ¥4,000 per seat for private rooms. Most of the ticket machines require a minimum ¥200 bet for a quinella – picking the top two finishers, but not necessarily in order. It’s a small price to pay to watch men and women zip around on hydroplane boats. If you lose, at least you’ll be able to afford that steaming bowl of offal.

More information: For races at Heiwajima Boat Race Stadium, catch the #4 bus at Oomori Station, but really, just follow the old men with betting tables at the bus stop outside the station and get in line. Most days, races generally run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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