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Saturday, June 12, 2004

JAPAN LITE

The one-man national yacht movement


On my planet, the U.S., people change things at the grassroots level. In Japan, the root of the blade is often an "obaa-san" or "ojii-san," a single person out to change things. You can find these individuals all over Japan, conjuring up their own ways of making a difference in this country. I ran into such a person just the other day as I was cruising in a yacht along the coast of Kyushu.

We had pulled into Shibushi Bay in Kagoshima Prefecture, the southernmost on Kyushu. Meeting us at the port was the root of the blade, Kunihiko Tsuchiya. Mr. Tsuchiya lives on Shibushi Bay, a huge bay on the Pacific Ocean that brews perfect winds for sailing and is big enough to hold yacht races. He was dressed in khakis, a safari vest and a Chinese wicker helmet. He looked more like he was off to shoot an ad for Banana Republic than change the yachting world.

"This I am preparing as a guest berth for visiting yachts," he said, pointing to the pontoon dock where the yacht I came in was tied up. Shibushi Bay usually deals only with cargo ships, but Tsuchiya-san hopes to make the bay more yacht-friendly. If there are enough visiting yachts, he hopes the government will fund the guest berth. This is the beginning of the Shibushi Marina of the future.

"Come to my house for sushi," he said. "Are you sure it's OK?" I asked. "No problem, I live in a warehouse." I laughed at his joke and accepted his offer.

At 57, Mr. Tsuchiya is finally living out his dream of turning Shibushi Bay into a budding yacht capital in Japan. Only problem is, there's only one yacht in the harbor at the moment. But he is undeterred. Build boats and they will come! We are standing in his house full of half-built dinghies. The first floor holds a wooden boat he is covering in fiberglass. The second floor holds the cabin of another boat he is working on. The 13-foot (4-meter) dinghy outside is the model for some 20 such boats he will build. I've heard of people living on boats, but this was the first time I had met anyone who lived with them, among them, around them and between them. Tsuchiya-san managed to add a tatami room, a bath and install a boat toilet, so he can live quite comfortably. I wouldn't be surprised if he had a wave machine to listen to while sleeping.

"Japanese yachting is 50 years behind other developed countries," he said. "Yachting started in order to compete at the racing level, thus yachting started at the top with competition, rather than at the bottom level as a family sport that everyone could enjoy." Tsuchiya-san is a mild-mannered man who speaks in continuous sentences that roll off his tongue with no punctuation. Yachting in Japan still remains a sport of the skilled few, rather than one accessible to the average person through schools, clubs and programs. This is what he is out to change. Using his dinghies to launch his ideas, Tsuchiya-san offers a free hands-on sailing school for students from elementary school through high school, where they can learn how to sail and care for a boat. Kuni Kraft is his one-man boat building business and his home.

Like many people in Japan, Tsuchiya-san is finally old enough to appreciate the countryside and now wishes young people would too. "This land is untouched, pristine!" he said, throwing up his hands. He dreams of rush-hour traffic into the countryside from the cities, the main island, even Taiwan on weekends, each happy family trailering their own dinghy out to Shibushi Bay. And don't think for a minute that he will not make this happen. I expect they'll have to put in a highway to Shibushi with large signs herding traffic to the bay with special single "dinghy only" lanes.

If you have an interest in yachting or the development of the sport, contact Mr. Tsuchiya at 994-77-1676. Get "Amy's Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won't tell you" at the One Dollar Bookstore at www.mooooshop.com/MooooBooks/order/index.htm


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