i visited japan again for the first time in three years. i was soo excited to visit this time, as i was going alone and it was the end of a long busy season at work. my brother has lived in northern japan (hachinohe, aomori prefecture) for over ten years. i couldn't wait to see my super kawaii (cute) niece and super cool nephew.
first though, i had to plan my trip. i bought my airplane ticket on a whim in january. i found a great deal via singapore airlines. seemed cool enough, and i didn't mind a layover, as i find the direct flights from dulles to narita a bit irritating. there is just something about sitting in a tube in the sky for 16+ hours. let's not kid ourselves though, no matter the flight length, xanax and bloody mary's make them more tolerable. i was soo busy at work for two months, that my planning fell within two weeks of me leaving for tokyo. one thing was for sure, i had to see a keirin race, and there were none scheduled for my 3 days in tokyo, before i headed up north.
i desperately emailed my brother and sister in law. japanese websites translate inconsistently, and i was lucky if i clicked the right links to find a calendar. i figured out that the takichawa velodrome had nothing going on with help from the guys at tokyo cycling club, but there was still another one in tokyo and the aomori velodrome, a two hour drive from my brother's house. thankfully my sister in law works at the local high school that is known for it's sports programs. the cycling coach there steered us to the aomori velodrome that was having a large race my second week in japan. i couldn't contain myself. even though, that was two days before i left japan, it couldn't happen sooner.
of course, i did some other things. i went to the studio ghibli museum while in tokyo, and i went to the calico cat cafe! it was awesome! a friend of mine and i spent the day exploring kichijoji and drinking beer. there are no open container laws in japan. i couldn't help but laugh as we sat in the bank exchanging my dollars for yen with a tall boy of kirin each. we then went and had more beers at iseya, a yakitori bar that has been there since 1928. to be honest, i don't think it has been cleaned since 1928, but a great spot for chain smoking, japanese beer (and hoppy!), chicken on a stick, and hilarious conversation. finally, my friend's wife joined us around 5, and we went to a dinner serving okinawa type cuisine. we talked and laughed some more, while imbibing in too much shochu. i must admit, i remember saying goodbye and walking to my hotel across the street. how i got in to my room is a mystery for the ages. the next day, i toured tokyo and made my way to tokyo station to catch my shinkansen to hachinohe. i took in the beautiful japanese countryside and napped off the previous day's debauchery.
i was met at the train station by my brother and his family. my nephew ran up to me, screaming my name as i was barely off the escalator! i scooped him up and my 40lbs of luggage and kept us moving out of the trail of people behind me. it was great to be with my brother and his family. i hadn't seen my niece since she was just a big, fat baby and my nephew i saw briefly a year ago. we had a blast hanging out, playing, shopping, and checking out the hirosaki cherry blossom festival over the weekend.
finally, the second week came and wednesday arrived. my niece woke up with an ear infection, which delayed us leaving for aomori by a few hours, as we dropped her off with her grandparents and other aunt. so, my sister in law, john, and i left for aomori with a day of keirin ahead of us! we finally arrived two hours later to the velodrome. i was soo excited. i told my sister in law about keirin, and it's traditions. stuff, that even she wasn't aware of. keirin exemplifies deep japanese culture. it's state sponsored gambling, like sumo wrestling and horse racing. for instance, the popular pachinko parlors, while in essence are like a casino, you are only awarded funny chips and prizes. conveniently, there will be a house nearby where you can exchange your winnings for actual money. the keirin track can best be compared to horse racing on bikes. there are odds, rider history, betting tickets, betting windows, and men standing there watching the monitors. i was the only gaijin, one of about 10 women, and the youngest by about 40 years. needless to say, everyone seemed to stare at me and wonder what the hell i was doing there.
i picked up my newspapers, betting slips, and pencil. i asked my sister in law for help translating the japanese. she is japanese and was confused about how the riders were rank, their odds, etc. so, i decided not to bet and just enjoy the races. we bet amongst ourselves and would all pick a color. my five year old nephew was best at this. after, i questioned why i didn't just use his pick! we listened to the count down song 3 minutes until betting closed. we got all excited when we could see the riders down below on their way to the surface. they walked their bikes, stopping to bow to the keirin flag girls, mounting their bikes and then putting them in their gates. they bowed to the crowd, and my nephew and i bowed back. we waved and yelled at them. i was soo giddy. as soon as the gun went off, we sat there yelling our color we wanted to win. the average 70 year old spectator stared at us in curiousity, since we weren't there to bet. it was amazing to see them on their last lap and a half. their speed was mind blowing, the buzzing of their bikes and them yelling at each other. i never wanted the race to end, but alas they did. all the men in the crowd gave their shouts of disappointment at their pick. the scene would then repeat another 15 minutes later after every one had their time to place their next bets.
if you are ever in japan, seek out a keirin race! you will be amazed at the tradition and beauty! until that time, check out this brilliant 8 minute documentary by jonathan de villiers. it will give you a better insight in to keirin.