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Japan’s northernmost city celebrates 30 years of dogsledding

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By Dreux Richard

The Japan Cup National Dogsled Championship celebrated its 30th anniversary on Feb 23-24. with races on both days. This year marks the race’s shift to its new two-day format (past years featured three days of races). Attendance continues to decline, especially on race-heavy Saturday, though fan events on Sunday – including a dog/owner fun run – were better attended, drawing more than 300 spectators, including tour buses from Sapporo.

Opening announcements detailed the race’s former glory – well over a hundred dog teams and 3,000 spectators – and blamed declining attendance on the rough economy, though dogsledding in general has steadily declined in Japan over the past decade.

Though the first day of races concluded with less than 100 observers in attendance (many of them participants and organizers), it nonetheless presented this year’s compelling storyline: veteran musher Hiroshi Hayashi missed a championship threepeat, losing to teammate and prodigy Takuma Shioya, only 14 years old. Both are members of Team Kiba, a Sapporo-based dog enthusiasts’ club which has bred and raced sled dogs for over 20 years.

Hayashi – now 63 years old – began mushing in 1988 and traveled Japan on its once-vital but never-lucrative dogsled circuit. Though Hayashi always placed respectably at major events, he rarely won outright, so the candid and effervescent musher developed a signature visual style to distinguish himself from his rivals; Hayashi races in a flamboyant yellow jumpsuit and a broad-brimmed Australian leather hat, and his traditional dogsled foregoes the modern, drag-reducing accoutrements used by other mushers.

As other experienced mushers retired and the Japanese dogsled racing circuit began to shrink, Hayashi found himself facing fewer old rivals. And he started winning. He blew away the competition in 2011. In 2012, only his protégé, Shioya, came close, losing to Hayashi by three seconds. After that defeat, Shioya called on Hayashi to make a bet: if Shioya beat him in 2013, Hayashi had to let Shioya keep Hayashi’s oldest sled dog, Cross, a 12-year-old Husky who has anchored Hayashi’s teams for over a decade.

This year, Shioya asked the announcer to reiterate the bet before the beginning of the two-dog race that pitted him against Hayashi. Shioya also ascended to the announcer’s booth after completing the race to broadcast the bet himself, prompting Hayashi to scramble up to the booth and proclaim, “I didn’t agree to that!” into a live microphone.

Shioya beat Hayashi by 23.06 seconds. The announcer observed that Hayashi had seemed unusually winded as he crossed the finish line. Hayashi also spent Sunday asleep in his van, feeling ill. And he canceled his participation in the single-dog race meant to be Cross’ last before retirement. But, Hayashi said, illness notwithstanding, all credit for the outcome belonged to Shioya. “I wasn’t sick last year, and he almost beat me then,” Hayashi said.

Hayashi said that his hopes for the future of dogsled racing in Japan have been bolstered by the recent establishment of an annual dogsledding event at Ekorin-mura. The location – between New Chitose Airport and Sapporo city – is perfect for enthusiasts, said Hayashi. And the sponsorships the event has already been able to draw – from Ishiya Seika and the city of Eniwa – are encouraging. Hayashi said he believes the quality of the dogs and racers at the Ekorin-mura event may soon be comparable to those in Wakkanai.

This year’s Japan Cup was also the first in which no dogs with identifiable Karafuto Ken ancestry raced. The Karafuto Ken is a Japanese breed native to Sakhalin Island, and it faces imminent extinction. The breed’s most famous specimens – canine brothers Taro and Jiro – have long been household names in Japan. Their story was the basis for the blockbuster film “Nankyoku Monogatari” (which gave birth to a dogsledding craze in Japan in the early ‘80s), and later for Disney’s “Eight Below.”

According to members of the Wakkanai-based group responsible for stewardship of the breed’s history, one purebred specimen remains alive in Japan: 14-year-old Hana, who belongs to retired champion musher Isami Abe, residing in Wakkanai. Hana’s brother Kuma recently passed away. A handful of purebred specimens also likely remain in Sakhalin Island’s Nekrasovka Village, under the care of Sergei Lyubykh, who was the last person to successfully breed Karafuto Ken. The remaining dogs are short-haired black-and-white variants of the breed; the long-haired blonde variant and the long-haired black-and-white variant (to which Taro and Jiro belonged) have long been extinct.

Asked how long he plans to continue mushing competitively, Hiroshi Hayashi explained that he no longer feels equal to training new sled dogs, but that he’ll continue mushing until his current team is no longer able. The dogs at his disposal are 6 years, 5 years, and 7 months old, respectively; Hayashi will likely be mushing well into his 70s.

Read more stories by Dreux Richard. -- Nigerian group celebrates 10th anniversary with masquerade in Ikebukuro -- Foreigners join weekly protest against nuclear energy: who they are and why they went -- 100 years after nationalist icon Nogi Maresuke committed ritual suicide

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