EKIDEN, EATING CONTESTS, BULLFIGHTS AND OTHER OFFBEAT SPORTS JAPAN

BULLFIGHTS IN JAPAN

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bullfight in Kagoshima
Bullfights are held in six prefectures in Japan, including Kagoshima and Okinawa, but only those in Nagaoka and the neighboring city of Ojiya in Niigata Prefecture are designated as national important intangible folk cultural properties. The reason for this designation is that the bullfights in Niigata Prefecture, which usually end in a draw, are based on a Shinto ritual with a history of more than 1,000 years. [Source: Akira Anzai, Yomiuri Shimbun, June 2012]

Bullfighting similar that held in Niigata is also practiced in Uwajima in Ehime Prefecture on Shikoku and Kagoshima, Kyushu. Describing a fight in Uwajima Tom Baker wrote in Daily Yomiuri, “Two bulls slam together forehead to forehead, making a sound like wood on wood. They lock horns and strain against each other with gigantic muscles quivering beneath their black hides, Sometimes one of them will exert sudden pressure that lifts his opponent’s front hooves of the ground. Sometimes one will twist his head with enough torque to drive his rival down to one knee....Through it all, hundreds of beer drinking, noodle-eating, camera-toting, program-reading humans avidly look on.”

Good Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article on Ekiden Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Takeru Kobayashi Wikipedia ;Takeru Kobayashi takeru-kobayashi.com ; Wikipedia article on the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest Wikipedia ; Links in this Website: SPORTS AND RECREATION IN JAPAN (Click Sports, Recreation, Pets ) Factsanddetails.com/Japan ;

Bullfighting in Niigata

Bullfights between two bulls, known as Ushi no Tsunotsuki, are a big deal in the around the towns of Ojiya and Yamakoshi in Niigata prefecture. Weighing nearly a ton, the bulls have names like sumo wrestlers and use 16 recognized techniques such as striking an opponents neck or forehead with the horns. The sport has been designated by the government as an intangible cultural asset.

The bulls are ranked. Bullfights are conducted like sumo tournaments with low-ranking bulls battling each other in the early bouts and the yokozuna bulls appearing in the last bouts of the day. There is one key difference though. Almost every match ends in a draw. The bouts begin when a referee blows a whistle and the bull’s owners pull the tethers from the bulls’s noses to guide them. Most of the oxen, aged from 3 to 15, are Nambu-ushi cattle from Iwate Prefecture. [

There are eight bullfighting tournaments between May and November. Typically about 1,000 people show up. Before the bouts sake is splashed on the backs of the bulls. During the matches, the bulls are surrounded by beaters that encourage the bulls to fight and separate them after the fight is over by tying the animal’s hind legs with ropes. The beaters control the bulls by beating the animal's hind legs, jumping on their back and thrusting their fingers in the bull's nose---its weakest point.

Bull fights in this form has been practiced since the Edo period (1603-1867). They are regarded as a tribute to local deities. A number of bulls were killed in the Niigata earthquake in 2004 when the residents of Yamakoshi were forced to evacuate and some bulls were trapped in collapsed barns. It was a big deal when bullfighting returned to Niigata after the earthquake. It was viewed as a sign that things were returning to normal.

When the Niigata Prefecture Chuetsu Earthquake devastated the Yamakoshi district, then Yamakoshi village, in October 2004 with an intensity of upper 6, the future of bullfighting in Yamakoshi was in doubt. However, it has achieved a remarkable revival and is now on a scale similar to that before the earthquake, thanks to the efforts of local people and fans. Haruji Matsui, 71, chairman of the Yamakoshi bullfighting group, remembers how he desperately struggled to rescue oxen from a collapsed cattle shed after the earthquake. "Many people left Yamakoshi after the quake. I hope they will visit as we revitalize the community through the bullfights," he said. [Ibid]

Japanese Draft Horse Races

Ban-ei---draft horses racing in which the horses race on a sand track pulling sledges---is a traditional sport of eastern Hokkaido. The horses, which often weigh more than a ton, pull heavy sleds, which weigh up to a ton, on a special course with two small hillocks. The hardest part of the race is pulling the sled up the hills. Many horses stop and rest and gather their strength before making a stab at the hill. Some horses don’t finish even though the track is straight and only 200 meters long.

Legally managed races began in 1946 and were very popular in the Bubble Economy years in the 1980s when four tracks drew reasonable-size crowds and made large amounts of money from gambling. Betting on the races peaked in 1991 when ¥32 billion was wagered. In 2005 only ¥15.4 billion was bet and the Hokkaido Municipal Horse Race Association was in debt of ¥3.13 billion.

In November 2006, the Hokkaido Municipal Horse Race Association said the sport was formally going to terminate at the end of the 2006-2007 because of losses incurred at the race courses. A month 2006, the Internet and cell phone company Softbank agreed to sponsor the draft horse races and the Obihiro municipal government said the races would continue. The desire to keep the sport going was driven by a love of the sport, worries about lost jobs and concern over the welfare of the horses that might have to be killed because without racing there was nothing for them to do.

Many feel the sport is doomed. Fans of the sport are old. Young people have little interest in it and horses no longer play a part in Hokkaido society. “Nowadays only fools own horses” one horse breeder told the International Herald Tribune.

Yuki ni Negau Koto (“What the Snow Brings”) is a film about draft horses race in eastern Hokkaido. It won many awards at the Tokyo Film Festival in 2006.

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Draft horse race

Description of Japanese Draft Horse Races

Ban-ei is associated with settlers to Hokkaido, who raised horses to plow fields and haul logs and staged competition in which horses pulled logs from different directions. The horses originate from Europe and were originally used for military purposes, plowing and food. Racing became a pastime linked with the agricultural off season with the biggest races held at the Omatsuri Bamba Festival.

There are race courses in Asahikawa, Iwanuzawa, Obihiro and Kitami and an organizing body call the Hokkaido Municipal Horse Race Association. Bets can be placed on the draft horse races. The racers, spectators and fans have traditionally been men The races are often held on the snow in midwinter.

Describing a draft horse race in Norimitsi Onishi wrote in the International Herald Tribune: “The gate opened, and 10 huge draft horses, each weighing about a ton and pulling an iron sled just as heavy, lumbered forward as the jockey urge them on with cries and whips...After easily clearing the first mound No 10 took the lead and waited for the others to catch up before trying the second higher mound, Reinvigorated by the rest. No. 10 burst over the mound.”

“The horse dig their hooves in the dirt with sweat and steam rising from their bodies.” Onishi continued. “When they struggle up the slopes they often neigh. “Climb up! Climb up!” a jockey shouted, as the other horses struggled in the cold air, snorting white breath, one with forelegs buckling. No 10 was the first over but he was soon challenge by No. 7, a few lane over. In the final stretch, as the jockeys whipped them in a frenzy of motion, No. 7 crosse the finish line first.”

“By the time you reach the finish line you are ready collapse,” a 53-year-old jockey told Onishi. “When its really tried, a horse”ll suddenly drop its head, just nice, before raising it back. This requires an incredible amount of strength.”

Bicycle Racing in Japan

The Japan Cup road race is the biggest bicycle race in Japan. Italian Ivan Basso, winner of the Giro d’Italia placed third in it in 2008 after returning to professional bicycle racing after a two-year doping suspension. The winner in 2008 in Utsunomiya and 2005 was Italian Damiano Cunego.

In 2009, two riders---Fumiyuki Beppu and Yukiya Arashiro---became the first Japanese to complete the Tour de France. In 1996, Daisuke Imanaka competed in the race but didn’t finish. Beppu won a the combative jersey for best individual performance of the stage on the last stage of the race into Paris in 2009.Japanese rider Yukari Arashiro was Japan’s national road race champion in 2007 and a stage winner at the Tour Limousin in France, finishing third overall. In 2008 he raced tin the Tour de France with the team Bouygues Telecom.

In August 2012, Eurosport reported: “Europcar's Yukiya Arashiro won the Tour du Limousin after coming second in the fourth and final stage, which was won by Jeremy Roy. In the first truly hilly stage of the four-day race in France, the Japanese rider finished 21 seconds behind Roy, who completed a solo win on the 173.9km course in four hours, three minutes and 21 seconds. [Source: Eurosport, August 18, 2012]

Roy was second behind Arashiro on the overall podium, with Anthony Geslin third on the day and Fabien Schmidt completing the overall podium. Prior to the final stage the lead had been swapped between sprinters such as Jure Kocjan and Evaldas Siskevicius, both of whom finished well off the pace in a ride suited to the climbers. It is the 27-year-old Arashiro’s first win in Europe, although he has several Asian titles to his name and finished third in the 2006 and 2008 editions of this tour. [Ibid]

Ekiden

Ekiden is a type relay race with teams of runners competing against one another. The distances and number of runners vary from race to race, often with individual runners running different distances. Typically there are at least five runners and they usually run at least five kilometers. They only thing that is always they same is that runners wear ribbon from their shoulder when they run and pass it to the next runner like a relay baton.

Ekiden is very popular from both a participatory and spectator view point. Many Japanese have participated in ekiden races when they young and cheered on streets in local races. Many races are televised. It is said that the word "ekiden" was coined to describe the marathon relay race by tanka poet Zenmaro Toki (1885-1980). In 1917, The Yomiuri Shimbun sponsored the "Tokaido Ekiden Toho Kyoso." Japan's first ekiden took place when Toki was editor of the national daily's City News Department. One of his poems reads: One wooden plank/ Bears the name of/ My old friend/ Even that may vanish/ Into a sea breeze

One of the longest ekidens is the 855-kilometer Aomori-to-Tokyo East Japan Ekiden. It takes about 45 hours to complete and feature 24-member teams. One of the more grueling races is one that goes up and down My. Fuji.

Tokyo-Hakone Ekiden

The first Tokyo-Hakone ekiden was held in 1920. Even then ten thousand people showed up to watch. The 216.4-kilometers Tokyo-Hakone Collegiate Ekiden is now one of the most famous ekidens. It is run over two days around New Year’s Day. The race on the first day is 107.2 kilometers, from Tokyo to Hakone. The race on the second day is 109.2 kilometers from Hakone to Tokyo. On each day there are five legs, with the distance of each leg varying from 20.7 kilometers to 23.2 kilometers.

There are ten runners on each team (with five running the first day and five running the second day). The toughest leg is the long up hill run in the foot hills around Mt, Fuji. Many families watch the race while they hang out at home during the New Year holidays. At the 80th race in 2004, there were 20 teams, all of them from universities. Komazawa University won the race for the 6th time in 2008.

Henshu Techo wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Athletes from teams that compete in the Tokyo-Hakone ekiden are in their late teens and early 20s. Had she portrayed someone the same age as these runners, Sugimura might have run with her chest stuck out. During the first half of the long-distance relay road race, all athletes ran with their chests stuck out against the cold wind, wearing cloth sashes to be passed on to the next runners along the Tokyo-to-Hakone route. [Source: Henshu Techo. Yomiuri Shimbun, January 3, 2011]

The ekiden route includes hills and slopes that can torment runners. Each team's success in reaching the goal is not the result of a single runner's efforts. Watching a live TV broadcast of this year's Hakone ekiden, one may feel tempted to liken the road race to the act of continuing to live. Though this year's slope appears to be very steep, I have to start running anyway. I must, even though I belong to a group of people who have to run with their hips stuck out and their upper bodies occasionally sagging. [Ibid]

Tokyo-Hakone Ekiden in 2012

Describing the 2012 Tokyo-Hakone Ekiden Kyodo reported: “Proving its depth, Toyo University won the annual Tokyo-Hakone collegiate ekiden road relay for the third time in four years with a stunning record time. Toyo completed the 217.9-kilometer round trip between Tokyo's Otemachi business district and the spa resort of Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture in 10 hours, 51 minutes, 36 seconds, more than 8 minutes faster than the previous record of 10:59:51 set by Waseda University a year ago. [Source: Kyodo, January 3, 2012]

Komazawa University finished second in 11:00:38. Meiji University came in third in 11:02:50 and Waseda was fourth 20 seconds farther back. Toyo started's 109.9-km return trip with a lead of more than 5 minutes ahead of Waseda after ekiden superstar Ryuji Kashiwabara broke his own record in the uphill 23.4-km fifth and final leg of the race. Toyo was never in danger of losing the lead, with four of its five return-trip runners posting the fastest times in their respective legs. Among them, sophomore Yuta Shitara clocked a record 1:02:32 in the 21.3-km seventh leg. His twin brother Keita ran the second leg for Toyo. [Ibid]

"We are so happy because we endured a tough defeat last year," said Toyo coach Toshiyuki Sakai. "We won with a team effort. As for the record time, each of our runners did better than I could imagine." In last year's race, Toyo finished 21 seconds behind Waseda, the closest margin between the top two finishers in Hakone ekiden history. "I didn't do anything as captain, and everyone thought about what to do to improve and acted in a responsible manner," Kashiwabara said. "At times I was tired of all the attention because of this Hakone ekiden. But in the end I'm glad I set a new record and won the title with my teammates." Kashiwabara helped Toyo win three Hakone ekiden titles in four years of his college career. The Fukushima native first came into the national spotlight in 2009 when the then-freshman broke former Juntendo University star Masato Imai's fifth-leg record by 47 seconds. Kashiwabara rewrote his record in his sophomore and senior years. [Ibid]

Eating Contests and the Japanese

Many of the world’s best competitive eaters are skinny Japanese. They have won some the world’s best-paying and competitive eating contesting, embarrassing fat American eaters four times their size. Speaking on behalf of big men eaters in the United States, the president of the International Federation of Competitive Eating said, the "thin" men from Japan "raise questions of national honor for many people. These stunning defeats have been a blow to the big men of competitive eating.”

Shows with eating contests have traditionally been very popular in Japan. Prime Time shows like Food Battle Club and TV Champion are sometimes among the top ranked shows in their time slots. Shows with contestants slurping down bowls of ramen and inhaling 6-foot-long hot dogs were very popular until 2002, when a junior high school student died after choking on a bread while engaging in a speed eating contes with friends at lunch time. After that all eating competition were yanked form television in Japan.

The first Japanese to make a name for himself on the international eating scene was Hirofumi Nakajima who won the Nathan's international hot-dog-eating contest in Coney Island New York in 1997 and 1998.

On July 4, 2000, 34-year-old, 101-pound Kazutoyo "The Rabbit" Arai of Japan defeated 400-pound Steve "The Terminator" Keiner of the United States at the Nathan's contest. Arai ate 25 hot dogs in 12 minutes. Kiener at 16. The year before Keiner defeated a different Japanese rival by eating 20 hot dogs in 12 minutes. Before that nobody had eaten more than 20 hot dogs.

Finishing in third place in 2000 was a Takako Akasaka, a 5 foot 2 inch, 104-pound Japanese woman. She had never won a hot eating contest before that summer but was the Japanese meat bun eating champ.

American professional eaters have been so impressed they watch video tape of Japanese eating contests to study Japanese techniques and have taken up judo to improve the concentration and fitness.

Super Eater Takeru Kobayashi

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Koybaishi
On July 4, 2001, 23-year-old, 132-pound Takeru “The Tsunami” Kobayashi stunned the eating contests world when he consumed twice as many hot dogs as any previous contestant to win the Nathan's international hot-dog-eating contest. Kobayashi ate 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes. The runner up, who ate 31 hot dogs, called Kobayashi a "monster." Kobayashi said, "I though about how I could eat as fast as possible. I knew I was going to win when I passed the 30-dog mark. I just kept eating as much as possible."

Kobayashi said he showed no particular aptitude for his sport when he was young other than the he ate a large boxed lunch at school and consumed two bowls of rice for dinner. He said he said he realized had a talent when he downed 10 bowls (5,000 grams) of curry at restaurant in one sitting. He qualified for Coney Island after he performed well in a televised eating contest---eating 387 small bowls of noodles in 12 minutes---that a friend entered him in without telling him.

Kobayashi calls himself a professional and a “food fighter” and lives off his contest winnings. He get in shape by working out and avoiding caffeine, alcohol and spicy food. He prepares for major events two months in advance by eating six to eight high-protein meals a day, totaling about 10,000 calories and keeps logs of what he eats. He lifts weight to tone up his muscles and improve his metabolism. He runs 10 kilometers in the morning and at night to improve his stamina. He usually weighs between 70 and 80 kilograms and he normally eats conventionally at a normal speed.

When he’s competing Kobayashi says that taste is the farthest thing from his mind but when he’s not training he insists that he eats as any normal person would. His favorite foods are raw liver, yogurt and tofu. "They're cheap, that's why I like them." He told the Asahi Shimbun, “I really enjoy eating slowly with people. Such time is so precious, and I appreciate it deeply.”

In the Nathan’s contest Kobayashi uses both hands, often tearing the hot dogs in half, swallows the meats, dunks the buns in water and swallows them too. He doesn’t chew anything. His technique is called the Solomon Method, after King Solomon who split babies like Kobayashi splits hot dogs.

Kobayashi’s Super Eating Victories

In July 2006, he captured his six consecutive title, eating 53⅓ hot dogs, breaking a record he set in 2005. In 2003, he captured his third consecutive title, eating 44½ hot dogs. In 2002, he ate 50½. He was almost disqualified when some of what he ate started coming out of his nose (contestants who throw up are disqualified) but quickly snorted it back in, which is fine.

By this time Kobayashi was so famous in the United States that he was portrayed as a superhero in NBC’s TV Funhouse segment on Saturday Night Live. Among his records are 17.7 pounds of cow brains in 15 minutes. He once challenged a grizzly bear to a two-minute eating contest and lost.

Hot dogs weren’t the only thing that Kobayashi could consume in massive quantities. In August 2005, Kobayashi ate 100 barbecued-pork buns in Hong Kong, more than twice the number of the first runner up. He was able to swallow many of the buns without chewing them. For his trouble Kobayashi won 20,000 Hong Kong dollars (US$2,574) and a Citizen wristwatch.

In December 2005, Kobayashi won $10,000 eating 67 hamburgers in eight minutes at the World Hamburger Eating Championship in Chattanooga Tennessee, The second place finisher led most of the contest but finished with 62.

In August 2006, Kobayashi ate 58 sausages in 10 minutes at the World Brauwurst Eating Chamopionshi in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. In September he consumed 41 lobster tails in 10 minutes at the Golden Palace.net Lobster Roll Eating Challenge in Boston. In October he gulped down 97 hamburgers in eight minutes at the Krystal Square Off World Hamburger eating Championship in Chattanooga Tennessee. In December he ate 5.5 kilograms of lamp hot pot in 24 minutes and donated the prize money to a local charity. It was the second time he won that event. He has appeared in eating contest at ESPN.

In May 2007 Kobayashi won a Pizza-Hut-sponsored competition in Culver City, California, downing 5½ pounds of pizza in six minutes. He said afterwards, “When I come to America, pizza is my happiness.”

In February 2012, Kobayashi won the 'Wingbowl 20', the annual chicken wing eating contest in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by consuming a record 337 chicken wings in the 30 minutes. Reuters reported: More than 17,000 mostly beer-fuelled spectators packed a Philadelphia indoor arena for the city's annual early morning eating extravaganza in which competitors vie to eat the most chicken wings. Japanese champion Takeru Kobayashi, weighing just 57.6kg defeated his much larger opponents in the 20th annual Wing Bowl and walked away with a $20,000 prize after devouring a record-breaking 337 chicken wings during the 30-minute contest. He easily smashed the previous record of 255 wings set by Jonathan 'Super Squibb' Squibb, who had won the celebration of gluttony the previous three years. [Source: Reuters, February 3, 2012]

Kobayashi Versus Joey Chesnut

In 2006, two rivals for Kobayashi emerged:1) Korean-born Sonya---the Black Widow--- Thomas, who had eaten a record 552 oysters in 10 minutes and 11 pounds of cheesecake in nine minutes; and 2) a 23-year-old American named Joey “the Gurgitator” Chesnut, who set a new American record of eating 52 hot dogs,, just short of Kobayashi’s number, and has set records for deep-fried asparagus spears (6.25 pounds in 10 minutes) and grilled cheese sandwiches (47 in 10 minutes).

The 97-kilogram Chestnut is a project manager for a construction company and a part time engineering student at Jan Jose State University. At the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island in July 2007 he consumed a record 66 hot dogs in 12 minutes, defeating Kobayashi, who could only down 63 hot dogs before a crowd of 50,000. Kobayashi managed his feat despite having arthritis of the jaw and pulled wisdom teeth that left him in pain. A month earlier Chestnut, consumed a record 59 ½ hot dogs in 12 minutes, breaking Kobayashi’s record at the time of 53 3/4 hot dogs at a hot dog eating contest in Tempe Arizona.

At the 2008 competition Kobayashi failed to avenge his loss from the previous year. He and Chestnut devoured 59 hot dogs each at the end of the 10 minute regulation, with Kobayashi winning the contest in a tie-breaking scheme in which the contestants were given five hot dogs to eat as quickly as possible. Afterwards Kobayashi said, “I lost in light of [Chestnut’s] instantaneous force” and said he’d be back in 2009.

In July 2010, Kobayashi was arrested following a scuffle that took place at the July 4th hot-dog-eaten contest.. He didn’t participate in the contest because of a contact dispute with organizers. Chestnut won it for the forth year in a row. Kobayashi had finished second the three previous years. He did not take part because the organizers of the event, the International Federation of Competitive Eating, would have kept him from participating in other eating events in North America without the organizer’s permission. Kobayashi was charged with resisting arrest interfering with police and trespassing.

Kobayashi win the hot-dog eating contest six years in a row from 2001 to 2006 but finished second from 2007 to 2009.

Snow Ball Fights in Japan

See Gambling.

The Mt. Fuji International Yukigassen Competition is a giant snowball fight that draws team from all over Japan and occasionally from foreign countries. Contestants wear helmets and throw snowballs that conform to strict size regulations.

Under rules similar to this of capture the flag or paintball, two teams of seven people each compete in three, three-minute sets. Each team is given 270 snowballs to throw on a tennis-court-size field with barriers. If a player is hit with a snowball he is eliminated. The first team to seize the opponents flag wins.

In 1999, the ultra-serious Seibotu Raiders of Japan defeated a more relaxed European team in the international snowball-throwing championship in Kemijarvi, Finland.

Other Sports

Falconry was a popular sport with emperor, shogun and daimyos. The Imperial Palace still employs an official falconer.

Croquet (known as the "gate ball”) is popular among elderly Japanese. The game is played with three wickets and a single post. When players hit their opponent's ball many do it gently rather than aggressively. Soft tennis, a form of tennis played with a soft ball and a different scoring system, is also popular with elderly people as is gathering in a local park to do calisthenics.

Image Sources: 1) JNTO 2) Strange and Funny Japan News blog

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2013

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