Japan boasts a whole host of conventional racecourses, but Hokkaido’s Ban’ei Tokachi has just the one. With an origin in agricultural work, ban’ei involves huge draft horses pulling weights of up to a tonne along a 200 metre gravel track. An already arduous task that’s made all the more difficult by a couple of hill-shaped obstacles that slow proceedings down even further. In fact the race often comes to a standstill, as readjustments in direction are made, or the horses are braced before taking on the mounds — the sheer effort of which is hard to capture in a photo, especially from a distance, so for something of a taster, there’s a race video here.
This unusually slow pace also means that spectators can jog along at the side of the track to keep up with the race, although they are, somewhat half-heartedly, encouraged not to.
Starting out as an event at local festivals, the popularity of ban’ei grew to such an extent that in 1953, four racecourses were built. A business that eventually turned out to be unsustainable, and in 2007, the courses at Kitami, Asahikawa and Iwamizawa sadly closed down, leaving just the one at Obihiro.
Spending a good few hours there, it was interesting to see the number of punters ebb and flow. Visitors to the area clearly help enormously in keeping the enterprise viable, but like most forms of gambling, it has its hardcore fanbase. Old fellas mostly, who, like gamblers the world over, are there through thick and thin. Each and every time hoping, against all the odds, for that one last hurrah.
Very interesting photos and race style! Gotta love the don’t run guy. My guess is he doesn’t run himself! 😉
Cheers. Definitely different that’s for sure. And yeah, clearly the strolling type!
Great find. I’m sure I’ve never seen anything like this. Did you win?! 😉
Been wanting to go for ages, so it was good to finally get there.
Sadly not. It was a fun time, but not a financially rewarding one…
James H. says
Great photos. I’ve never seen such an unusual racing style.
Thank you! Same here, so after seeing footage of it years ago, it was good to finally catch a few races.
It doesn’t necessarily have the excitement of regular horse racing, but the end is still quite tense despite the relatively slow speed.
Great photo’s, as always you perfectly captured the atmosphere! Both the sport itself and the facilities have obviously seen better times, it makes you wonder how long they will keep going on. It would be sad if this last Ban’ei course would close down.
I visited Obihiro in Februari 2015 on a tour of Hokkaido witner matsuri, the snow made everything just a bit more beautifull: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQI4vF0SZr4
Apart from the sport itself it’s just good fun to see the gambling business in Japan. Besides Ban’ei I’ve been to regular horse racing at Fuchu, and Auto Race (on bikes, not cars: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SBKPAKO7-XQ) in Hamamatsu. I still want to visit Boat Race somwehere. In the end the sport doesn’t matter much, it’s mostly about old dudes watching results on monitors 🙂
Thank you very much!
Definitely possible, and it would without a doubt cease to exist if it weren’t for the tourists who visit the area. But it was initially bailed out by SoftBank, and it now has some big name sponsors, so fingers crossed.
Oh, that is quite a difference in the snow, isn’t it? Been to Hokkaido 5 times now, but never in winter. Early spring is the closest I’ve gotten to some serious snow and cold.
The Auto Racing is great, isn’t it? The noise the bikes make before the green light is just incredible. Makes me feel like an excited little boy each and every time!
You should also check out the keirin. Lots of tracks, and a great day out. Personally I prefer it to the boat racing. Lots of old fellas looking at screens of course, and the excitement lasts right until the end. With the boat racing, it’s invariably done and dusted by the first corner. That said, the stadiums are interesting, so worth going just for that.
You really should go to Hokkaido in winter! Not just for the many festivals, but also for an ice drift cruise and the Prison Museum in Abashiri, the red-crowned cranes near Kushiro, Jigokudani at Noboribetsu Onsen, or just to enjoy a rotemburo in the snow….
I’m gonna check out keirin. I have heared about it, but wasn’t aware it was still popular. But I just looked up some footage at Youtube, it looks, pretty interesting. Though it lacks of course the wonderful noise of auto race 🙂
And good to hear Ban’ei has some good sponsors, so at least for some time it will survive. I guess that even if the track would close, they will keep the sport somewhat alive at festivals, but that’s obviously quite a bit different.
BTW: Silver Spoon is indeed great!
I know. Also just to see the place in the snow. A completely different landscape.
Yes, do. Keirin is great. Especially so at the older stadiums. Lots of character, and characters.
Yeah, it seems to be OK at the moment, so hopefully it will stay that. Like you said, it likely won’t disappear whatever happens, but it really wouldn’t be the same if the racecourse did close.
The manga Silver Spoon (and its anime adaptation) actually feature Ban’ei racing as a part of the agricultural culture of Hokkaido. Here’s a bit of it from the anime: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyeEbiJV-yk
Thanks a lot for that. Anime generally isn’t my thing, but really enjoyed that. Captured a lot of the feelings I initially had too!
I learnt about Ban’ei courtesy of my favorite Pear (fairy), Funassyi…
(And yes, ban’ei does feature in its “Funanomics 3” DVD!)
Haha, looked like Funassyi was more popular than the actual races!
What an incredible event. Your photographs and the comments have been quite an education into this unusual and powerful sport.
It is. Like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Good to hear you got something out of both the photos and the comments too.