Southwest of Tokyo, jutting into the Pacific Ocean and entirely within the Fuji Volcanic Zone, lies the Izu peninsula. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, maybe its exported products, such as wasabi nuts and shiitake mushrooms, do. Izu is also famed for its onsen—Japanese bathhouses to which tourists find their way to sweat it all out in the shadows of Izu’s many volcanoes, with Mount Fuji being the most famous.
But it’s neither nature nor bathhouses that bring us here, but a rather atypical institution. Hidden by the dense, humid forests surrounding it, this establishment is the Japan Keirin School. Here, about a hundred boys and girls are trained, drilled and, occasionally, beaten with the sensei’s bamboo stick to become bicycle track racers. Or, more specifically, keirin racers. The sport isn’t unknown to us, but the western world has copied the Japanese tradition and modernized it for inclusion in the Olympics and world championships. But here in Izu keirin is practiced as it always has been.
The concept is simple. A neutral track racer—not a derny motorcycle as used at the Olympics—starts in front of a peloton of nine racers and sets the pace for about a mile. He systematically increases the speed to 50 kilometers per hour and leaves the track half a mile before the finish. That’s when the keirin racers start jostling for position before making their sprints to the finish line. For Japanese fans of the sport, keirin is first and foremost a betting sport.