Round-Kyushu – The World’s Longest Relay Race

Japan has had its hand in creating some of the most innovative and intriguing forms of sport to date. Past its creation of some of the most prolific martial arts in existence, the Land of the Rising Sun has also taken a liking to modifying existing sports for a variety of reasons. Regardless of the motivation behind creating a new form of sport, a few things are always guaranteed – it’s going to be highly interesting to spectate and normally takes something that’s already been done but to a more extreme level. Ekiden is one of those sports, where Japan took the classic running relay race and pushed it to new extremes, especially in terms of individual running distance and overall course length.

The Price Takamatsu Cup Nishinippon Round-Kyushu Ekiden is one of the most exciting annual competitions held in the Ekiden community. The cup, normally referred to only as the Round-Kyushu Ekiden, shares its name with the late Prince Takamatsu. Prince Takamatsu was the younger brother to Emperor Showa and son to Emperor Taisho and Empress Teimei. Takamatsu lived until 1987 and had the Round-Kyushu Ekiden named to honor him, prior to even becoming emperor.

The race has been held annually since 1951 and draws in competitors from all prefectures located in Japan, including those not on the main island such as the Okinawa and Yamaguchi Prefectures,  to the island of Kyushu in order to compete. Round-Kyushu Ekiden is the longest relay race in the world just in sheer distance. The race-course consists of 72 segments, wherein each runner has one segment to himself, coming together for a total distance of 1064 kilometers (660 miles).

The 72 segments and excessive distance to be covered crosses through 10 towns from start to finish, starting in the city of Nagasaki, followed by Sasebo, Saga, Kumamoto, Minamata, Kagoshima, Miyazaki, Nobeoka, Oita, Kitakyushu with the final destination being Fukuoka where the final segment and race to the finish line beings.

Round-Kyushu Ekiden is held every November and results in the winners receiving the prestigious Prince Takamatsu trophy. A significant factor that goes into the planning for the event and strategizing for the teams is the time of year – November is a cold month in Japan, especially at night and early morning. Since the race is continuous, some of the competitors must compete in the harshest weather conditions the nation has to offer. It is to note however, that the race has not taken place since 2012 due to the harsh conditions of the race on the athletes as well as potential for traffic accidents involving the competitors. It is, however, likely for the race to resume its annual tradition once different routes and competition times have been established.

An exhausted runner is led away by his teammates at the Hakone ekiden

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The Hanshin Tigers

Baseball is, interestingly enough, the most popular sport in Japan and has held the title in this for years – and is unlikely to be removed from the top spot any time soon. Soccer is firmly entrenched in second place behind Baseball, allowing the two dominantly western sports to rule the world of Japanese contemporary sport.

Nippon Professional Baseball, or NPB for short, is the highest level of regional baseball to compete in throughout Japan. There are a total of 12 professional teams competing in the NPB – a figure that has remained constant throughout time, with teams divided into two leagues. Due to the low number of teams there’s a comparatively small pool of highest level players competing at any time, making the competitive factor of the lower league, and those wanting to be drafted by the top teams, very extreme.

The Hanshin Tigers are one of the teams competing in the NPB. They’re one of the six teams competing in the “Central” League, meaning their opposing teams are the Yokohama Bay Stars, Hiroshima Tokyo Carp, Chunichi Dragons, Yomiuri Giants and Yakult Swallows.

Most of the teams competing in the NBL are somewhat representative of a particular region of Japan and the Hanshin Tigers are no different. The team’s origins lie in Koshien, which is in Nishinomiya, which in turn is home in the Hyogo Prefecture, a south western part of Japan when using Tokyo as a central point.

The team’s logo is circular and features, as the name implies, a tiger. Many see this as a reference to the American NBL team, the Detroit Tigers, which feature a very similar logo. Despite the cosmetic similarity of the Hanshin Tigers to the Detroit Tigers, it’s not the Detroit Tigers that the Japanese team is often compared to. Instead, its main comparison normally lies with the prolific Boston Red Sox, also a very popular American NBL team. The comparison stems from the Hashin Tiger’s similar rivalry with the Yomiuri Giants, reminiscent of the rivalry between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.

Also similar to the Boston Red Sox is the Hanshin Tigers team’s status as “cursed.” In 1985 they managed to win the Japan Series, where the two winning clubs from each of the two leagues fight for the national title. Following the win many of the club’s fans dressed as the tiger resembled in the team’s logo and proceeded to jump into the Dotonbori Canal in celebration. For reasons unknown, the canal-diving fans decided that they didn’t resemble the team’s American First Baseman, Randy Bass, enough to warrant jumping into the canal themselves and hence proceeded to procure a life-sized statue of Colonel Sanders, the trademark logo of the famous Kentucky Fried Chicken chain, and threw him in the river instead. Since then the team has had one of the worst records throughout the NPB and is believed to be under the curse of the Colonel.

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Japanese National Baseball Team

The western sport of Baseball has dominated the Japanese sports scene for years now as the number one most popular sport in the south-east Asian country with its only competitor being soccer – understandable given that soccer is the single most popular sport across the globe. However, Baseball has always had more of a niche reputation, given that it’s a mainly American sport.

The Land of the Rising Sun has not only adopted the game itself, but has adapted to the culture surrounding the sport – including its international competitive aspect. Japan has its own international team representing the country and has aptly gained the nickname “Samurai Japan” as a moniker referred to the nation’s long history marked by the samurai warriors and their fighting spirit – instead that instead of curved swords, these “warriors” wield baseball bats and instead of striking down adversaries they hope to strike home-runs.

In the light of international competition, the Samurai Japan team has been rather successful and sheds light onto the international baseball scene, which one might expect to be entirely dominated by the USA team, similar to how the American teams seem to effortlessly defeat its foreign opposition in the sport of Basketball. In fact, while the American International Team is ranked first on the International Baseball Federation’s list, Japan is currently placed second with around 65 points behind the leaders and 60 points ahead of third-ranked Cuba, making international baseball far more competitive than one might have imagined.

Japan’s national baseball team has managed to win the World Baseball Classic on several occasions, an international competitions regarded as the “world cup” of Baseball with the winners being crowned the World Champions. The competition used to exist side-along the Olympic Games but has been given preference over the Olympics, causing Baseball to cease being an olympic sport and become a standalone sport instead. Prior to the inception of the World Baseball Classic, Japan competed in every Summer Olympic Baseball event since its acceptance into the Olympic Games during the 1984 Summer Olympics.

World Baseball Classic is a fairly young competition, however, Japan has managed to win it once in 2006 by defeating Cuba in the finals. The next victory for Samurai Japan would come at the second installment of the World Baseball Classic in 2009, crowning Japan the champions of the baseball world once more, only to fall short in the semi finals in the 2013 episode, placing third overall.

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F.C. Tokyo

Football, or soccer, is the single most popular sport across the world. In Japan however, the popular sport has only managed to take hold over the spot as the second most popular sport played in the country as Japan has taken an even greater liking to the American bat-sport, Baseball.

Regardless, soccer does have its place among the Japanese and is taken very seriously, so seriously in fact that the Japanese compete at the highest possible levels Internationally and formed their own local league. The highest level of national soccer in Japan is played in the J-League.

F.C. Tokyo, short for Football Club Tokyo, is one of the teams competing in the J-League, originating in the Tokyo prefecture, representing it similarly to how many sports teams represent different parts of a nation in other forms of sport. The history behind Football Club Tokyo is intriguing as the club started out as nothing more than a company team, referred to as Tokyo Gas Football Club when founded in the early 1990s, a time when the Japan Soccer League still existed before being replaced and revamped by the modern-day J-League.

The team was rather amateurish until 1997 when a Brazilian international, Amaral, was brought into the club to play alongside a new manager, Kiyoshi Okuma, slowly shaping the club into a competitive force to be reckoned with in the J-League.

TFC managed to win the Japan Football League championship in 1998 following a runner-up finish in the year previous. Despite winning however, the team did not meet the requirements to move up to the highest level played in the league, J1, and thus remained in the second league, J2. It was at this point that several large companies came together, including the well known TV Tokyo and Tokyo Gas, to change the team to become eligible to compete in the highest level of football, representing the Tokyo Prefecture. They set up the Tokyo Football Club Company which would give birth to F.C. Tokyo later on.

The team plays in the Ajinomoto Stadium, or officially called Tokyo Stadium, which the club is home to. There was a time when the club did not have its own stadium to play in and simply used some of the surrounding fields for practice, including the National Yoyogi Stadium, the National NIshigaoka Football Field and even the Komazawa Olympic Park Stadium, until settling with the Ajinomoto Stadium in 2001, where F.C. Tokyo has been home ever since.

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The Japanese have always had an interesting relationship between sports and gambling – in fact, many countries have and still do to this day. However, Japan is a bit different as gambling is generally banned and illegal in many of its common forms. There are no officially sanctioned casinos or other other institutions wherein one can go to play the classic Poker, Black Jack or Roulette gambling games.

The only forms of permitted gambling are Pachinko, a type of slot-machine similar to what is seen in casinos, lottery and betting on 4 different types of public sports.

Kyotei is one of the aforementioned public sports it is legal to bet on is Kyotei which can literally be translated into boat racing is, in Japan, nationally known as “boat race.” as the name implies, Kyotei is a  motor racing sport involving boats. The sport has a rather linear history as opposed to many other sports popular in Japan, dating back to 1952, a time where Japan began recovering from the significant damage done to the nation over the course of World War II and its population beginning to re-establish itself as a progressive society.

24 boat racing courses populate Japan, governed by the Boat Race Promotion Association. The organization used to be called the Kyotei Promotion Association, however changed its name in an effort to promote to the sport nationally as well as internationally while maintaining a sense of uniformity.

A Kyotei race is held on oval courses specifically constructed for the purpose of the betting sport. The courses are 600 meters (1970 feet) long and make the stage for the six competing boats. A single race consists of three laps around the oval-shaped watery race track, bringing the total length of a race to 1800 meters (1.2 miles). Given the speed at which the boats travel and the oval shape of the course, races are over in around 2 minutes, give or take a few seconds, making it a very fast paced and intense form of competition.

An interesting part of Kyotei is that the boats do not start from a stationary position. The boats and their captains are given a signal to leave their docks, from which they begin to circle around the course, warming up their motors and essentially selecting a starting position. A one-minute countdown is initiated and a dozen seconds prior to ending, the boats start racing towards the starting line at maximum speed. In order to set a level playing field, boats must cross thee starting line within one second after the countdown reaches 0 – should they cross too early or late they’ll be disqualified and the bets made on that particular boat are refunded to the betters.

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Auto Race

It may come as a surprise to those who have not visited Japan that gambling is, in fact, mostly prohibited in the country – some consider this an oddity of sorts as many Japanese find great entertainment value in games and types of competition that include chance, luck and other randomized variables.

However, there are a few legalized forms of gambling. These do not come in the form of casinos, but in the form of betting pools centered on so-called “public sports” – spectator sports that tend to draw significant amounts of viewers and large sums in the betting pools.

Auto Race, or Oto Resu locally, originated in the 1950s alongside many other Japanese gambling sports, notably the four which are now “public sports,” in a time period where Japan began reinventing itself as a dominant force in the world economy as a nation of progress for technology and scientific innovation.

Despite the sport’s name, Auto Race does not involve cars. Instead, the betting sport centers on high power motorcycles, normally in the engine power range of just under 600cc. Races today are held on asphalt courses, but originated on dirt tracks and other potentially hazardous surfaces. During the 1960s races on non-asphalt surfaces were banned and the sport standardized by racing on asphalt only, which is now a trademark of the sport. The sport is governed alongside the other gambling sports throughout Japan by the JKA Foundation.

An interesting aspect of the races is that all competing riders are required to spend the night prior to an event in a dormitory with the other riders. During this time, all riders are not allowed to communicate with any party outside the dorm, a measure implemented to prevent potential race-fixing. Race-fixing posed a serious problem in the sport prior to 1967 when the Japanese Yakuza controlled many facets of the sport behind the scenes, causing the popularity of the sport to almost fizzle into non-existence. However in 1967 a motorcycle federation was authorized to control the sport and cleaned it up as a result.

The average Auto Race lasts for a rough 3 minutes over 6 laps and has 8 riders compete against another. This makes the races very short and intense – a trait all of the four public betting sports have in common with another. In addition to the previously mentioned dormitory-system is the alias system – each driver goes by a nickname or alias in competitions. Each driver has to pass an accredited training school prior to taking exams which will grade the rider according to their skill which will determine their starting positioning in a race with the highest ranking rider taking starting spot furthest away from the starting line.

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Horce Racing

Gambling sports are a big thing in Japan, regardless of how restricted it is. While it is common in many countries to simply go to a casino and play Poker, Blackjack and Roulette, the Japanese are somewhat restricted to go to spectate, and bet on, the four “public sports,” sports officially regulated and permitted to be gambled upon.

One of the four sports is Horse Racing – and it’s perhaps the biggest of the four. Unlike the other three sports, horse racing also boasts a high variety in events and even sub-types.

There are three types of horse racing in Japan: Jump racing, flat racing and draft racing. Each type of race has its own set of rules and differences, some are are even governed by different entities.

There are two governing bodies in Japan for horse racing. One is the Japan Racing Association, JRA for short, and the other is the so-called National Association of Racing, NRA for short.. They’re both responsible for different types of races. The JRA regulates and oversees racing events held in the ten major horse racing courses in the densely populated areas while the NRA holds power over the frequently smaller, more localized forms of racing events throughout Japan. This form of regulating the equestrian variety of gambling sport is rather unique and not found outside of the Land of the Rising Sun.

There are over 21,000 races held in total throughout Japan, with events varying in all sizes. Some draw crowds in the high thousands, especially the ones held at the major racetracks governed by the JRA, while some number in the low hundreds in smaller towns and more remote areas.

Jumpy Racing is one of the types of racing seen in Japan. This is a type of race wherein the jockeys have to practise maximum control over the horses as it involves jumping over obstacles. It’s normally slower paced than the other forms.

Next is Flat Racing. As implied in the name, the race takes place on an even track, with events set at predetermined distance. This type of race excels in testing a rider’s ability to restrain the horse and control its speed. For the horses used in the races, speed and stamina are the most important factors. It’s generally the most exciting type of race to spectate due to its high speed and stakes.

The last form of racing seen in Draft Racing. This is perhaps the most unique form of racing as strong horses pull sleds behind them over a distance, racing to finish first. While not as fast paced as Flat Racing, it is still highly entertaining, and quite a novelty, to watch.

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Japan Cup

Horse Racing is likely the largest form of racing sport throughout Japan and thus, also the sport with the most impressive betting pool. Boasting over 21,000 individual events per year, the Japanese Horse Racing scene is thriving – that’s an average of over 55 events across the Land of the Rising Sun – more than any other Asian country in fact, and probably amongst the top of nations with a large following in the horse racing scene.

As with any other sport, there has to be one premier event, one above all the others. In the case of Japanese Horse Racing, the Japan Cup is the very highest level of national competition. In fact, the Japan Cup is of a size large enough to rival the prolific Melbourne Cup and Dubai World Cup. In terms of turf-based races, the Japan Cup actually ranks second worldwide in terms of prize money, trailing behind only the Australian Melbourne Cup. In terms of all international horse racing events, the Japan Cup ranks second as the Dubai World Cup is included. The financial crisis of 2008 was a major factor in setting Japan Cup’s global ranking for its value as the Yen fell below 100 to the dollar.

The cup is held annually on the last Sunday of every November on the Tokyo Racecourse, starting at 3:40pm. The course’s length spans 2400 meters (7900 feet) and permits a maximum amount of 18 horses and their respective jockeys on the field for racing for any given event.

The Japan Cup is also a major international attraction aside from drawing in many of the local celebrities and personalities, many internationally recognizable names show up the event as well. Winners from many different foreign countries have emerged at the Japan Cup, including USA, UK, Australia, and various other European powerhouses.

The Japan Racing Association is the governing body for the Japan Cup and initially established the event in order to raise the standard of local professional horse racing by having the local talent compete against the best other nations have to offer in the scene. It also has the added benefit of creating goodwill amongst the competing countries and allows for an exchange in knowledge regarding breeding procedures and other relevant topic areas.

Generally the Japan Cup is considered one of the most entertaining horse racing events due to producing some very memorable finishes as jockeys bring out the very best of their horses, making the event an all around pleasant finish to a year in a very hectic industry.

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