As the weather begins to heat up, and the last vestiges of the cold season that once was wither away, we begin to find ourselves outside more, enjoying the sun and exploring the places that our winter selves only dreamed of in a huddled mess under a blazing kotatsu. The seemingly late arriving spring, with its unkind mix of warm and cold days, brings runny noses and unforgiving coughs that have begun to run the throat dry. But the dry times too will soon pass as rainy season looms near. Yet fear not, for the warm days of June are the perfect time to visit a Japanese institution steeped in history. What better way to spend a warm weekend than in the sun with beer in hand and a pocket full of money?
Horse racing in Japan began in 1862 in Yokohama, and has since blossomed into a big part of Japanese life. There are ten racecourses in Japan, Hanshin Racecourse being one of the “big four” which also includes Kyoto, Tokyo, and Nakayama. Hanshin racecourse is located in Takarazuka and was once the site of the Kawanishi Aircraft Company, which manufactured warplanes during World War II. In 1949 the factory closed and the Hanshin racecourse was built. Since then it has been refurbished multiple times, most recently in 2006. The racecourse has a capacity of 139,977, with seating for 12,603, and features a grass and dirt course.
The admission price is only 200 yen (2,000 yen for a ‘luxury seat’ with personal TV and a comfortable chair) and it is a great way to spend a day when you don’t feel like spending too much money and are looking for an exciting time. But one cannot go to a racecourse without betting! There is something invigorating, exhilarating, and undeniably amazing about punching the ticket for the horse you like. It suddenly becomes your best friend for that one minute it’s gliding across the track, majestically taking long fluid strides, glistening in the sun. Everything around you becomes quiet and it’s just you and the horse.
But winning is another story and it is not as simple as it seems. When you walk around the park you see old men with their newspapers studying each horse intently, assessing the weather conditions, and considering any other factors that could affect the outcome of the race. These men are professionals at what they do and they take it very seriously. I tend to take a much more bohemian approach and choose the horse with the coolest name, or the horse that looked the toughest in the pre-race parade. I highly recommend taking a newspaper detailing all the races that day. It will tell you everything you want to know about the race, the horses that are running, and also provides “expert predictions.”
The Hanshin Racecourse is open the first four weekends in June culminating with a large and important race on June 23rd called the Takarazuka Kinen. This is the last race until September. Each race day there are over ten races, starting in the morning and ending in the early evening. Doors open around nine although the big races are not until the afternoon. After each race there is about a 30-minute break for people to make bets, use the bathroom, or to buy drinks or lunch. There are restaurants everywhere in the stadium and you can also bring your own lunch and alcohol. This being Japan, there is ample space for picnics inside the actual stadium itself. This is also a good time to make your way to the parade ring of the stadium where they have what looks like a miniature racecourse with a huge TV and scoreboard hanging over it. This shows race results and live races from other parts of Japan. Crowds form as the soon-to-race horses walk around the ring, allowing people to decide which horse they fancy the most. From this vantage point one can really appreciate the strength and beauty of these fabulous animals.
Whether you are looking for a crazy day in the sun, or a relaxing time with the family, the Hanshin Racecourse can satisfy anyone’s needs. It’s perfect for those that want to see slice of life in Japan that is different from the norm. It is a great day out.
There is no English at the Hanshin raceway so it is recommended to familiarize yourself with the betting card and types of bets before going. This is a great website to do so (http://japanracing.jp/en/jpn-racing/guide/index.html). Hanshin Racecourse is 30 minutes from Osaka and 25 minutes from Sannomiya on the Hankyu Kobe Line (in both cases transferring at Nishinomiya-Kitaguchi Station.) Then, take the Hankyu Imazu Line and get off at Nigawa Station.