Sunday morning, what to do, what to do? I could tune in to the gossip from the Wella Ladies Hair Salon up the street --Mr so-and-so got drunk and peed on Mrs so-and-so’s hydrangeas again -- or I could tune out in the Himeji Castle park with some cold beer and dried squid and make animals out of the Autumn clouds.
Or, I could go to the horseraces!
The Japan Cup it isn’t but the sights, sounds and smells of a day at the Himeji Racecourse have a gritty charm of their own. Call it a polyester parade, a high-tar heaven for the hard-working men of this great city who pay their dues from Monday to Friday in the steel foundries and heavy fabrication plants along the coast. Sunday is their day.
That they blow their sake allowance on horses with names like Storm Mouse, Milky Magic, Long Camelot and Special Aroma is beside the point. It’s the thrill they come for.
Unlike in the West, horseracing in Japan is the ‘poor man’s pleasure.’ There are no fine dining facilities, no millinery or manners on show. Admission is 100 yen, the concourse is crowded, the green tea dispenser overworked and the betting hall haze heavier than a Jimi Hendrix riff. Despite this, a festive atmosphere prevails.
My mate Smokin’ Joe Matsumoto, the kitchen gardener who lives up my street, first visited the race course as a ten-year-old in 1956. “Back then the track was a ribbon of dirt and the starting gate a piece of rope,” he says. “Horses that bolted before the Marshall’s call threw their jockeys over it.”
At big city race courses, fortune-tellers, called yosoya-san, sometimes set shop up outside the front gates. For 300 yen (a few bucks) per race, they advise the punter on which horse to back based on his zodiac sign blood type etc. To my knowledge, the only thing predictable about these people is the high speed at which they move on if your horse doesn’t come in.
I trust in my own good sense as the contenders for Race Eight enter the paddock. A flighty beast bearing the number “six” enters last and I crack a smile when I see this one answers to the name “Shrink.”
The purse for Race Eight is a handsome 900,000 yen and excitement builds to fever pitch on the concourse overlooking the paddock. A tooting trumpet sounds the start of the race. No sooner does the last horse (I might have guessed) -- Shrink -- enter the starting gates then they’re off, bolting through a spray of hot sand.
In each punter’s mind only 1400 metres separates him from his winnings. And like them, nothing I feel is coming between me and a fist full of “Souseki’s” (1000-yen bills) that my horse, Buzz My Heart, will bring home today.
But something does. Through the dusty haze the pack falls away one by one, two by two, until on the home stretch there is only one horse out front.
The winner by five unbelievable lengths.
Next week: The Good Hood goes to the Nada Fighting Festival!
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What is the essence of a traditional Japanese neighbourhood? Writing from my home in Himeji, a castle town in western Honshu, Seaweed Salad Days distills, ferments, presents!