Having honed his equestrian skills in Europe for the past seven and a half years, 28-year-old Ryunosuke Kuroda is now hoping to represent Japan in the team dressage event at this summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
The Hyogo Prefecture-native, who currently resides in the Netherlands, quit university in 2012 so he could practice his riding skills in Germany, arguably the world’s most attractive destination for anyone affiliated with the sport of equestrian.
“I did kyūdō (Japanese archery) at school but then started riding horses in my late teens because of my mother. She did it as a hobby with her friends but as they started to focus more on golf, she had nobody to go with. Being a good son, I volunteered,” Kuroda says with a laugh. “Within six months I’d reached level 10 (in ability) as a rider, which was pretty fast. But then studies took over and I had to take a break from the sport.”
It was later, while on a trip to Germany with his parents in 2011 that Kuroda’s interest in horseriding was piqued again.
“I watched the World Championships for Young Dressage Horses in Verden,” he recalls. “That’s when I decided to take it up again.”
After that competition in Verden, Kuroda had an opportunity to speak to Yuko Kitai, a Japanese dressage rider who finished ninth in the team and 45th in the individual dressage events at the Beijing Games in 2008. She agreed to have a coaching session with Kuroda, who was still a teenager, and was impressed by his potential, suggesting that he move to Germany to try and take his riding skills to the next level.
Despite traveling a lot with his family as a child, Kuroda had never really had any desire to move abroad. He considered Japan to be “the most comfortable place in the world,” he says, adding that it had “the best food.” But after meeting Kitai, he started to change his mind about living overseas.
“Her words gave me lots of confidence and I started to think about living in Germany,” Kuroda says. “I discussed it with my parents and my mom told me I could go back to university when I was older, but horse riding, if I wanted to take it seriously, wasn’t something that would be easy to return to later in life.”
The year after meeting Kitai, it was also announced that Tokyo would host the 2020 Olympics.
“Japan’s not strong when it comes to equestrian sports so I thought that was something I could aim for if I had proper training,” Kuroda recalls. “That meant going abroad.”
By then 20 years old, Kuroda moved to Warendorf, a small town in North Rhine-Westphalia that’s known as Germany’s “horse capital.” As the location of the German Equestrian Federation, the nation’s ninth largest sports association, it’s also home to a famous stud farm and several stables.
Although it was a great place for Kuroda to train, and he appreciated the beauty of the area, particularly the well-preserved medieval town center, he admits that it was difficult to settle there.
“I was homesick,” he remembers. “Aside from training, it felt like there wasn’t much to do. Few people spoke English and at that time I could only manage greetings in German. Even going to McDonald’s was a struggle.”
Things changed, however after he moved to the port city of Hamburg in the summer of 2013.
“Being the country’s second-biggest city, it was much livelier and the harbor reminded me of Kobe (Hyogo Prefecture),” he says. “I also had a different mind-set. I’d gotten more used to living in Germany and spoke the language much better, making things easier.”
Though clearly enjoying his life in the city nicknamed Tor zur Welt (gateway to the world), Kuroda was determined to develop his riding skills further. When an opportunity arose for him to train in Bremen with Jonny Hilberath, head coach of the German dressage national team, he knew it was too good an offer to turn down. Upping sticks again, he headed to Bremen, a few hours from Hamburg, where he stayed for another two years before leaving Germany for the Netherlands in the autumn of 2018.
“Bremen was a delightful place to live. It had a warm atmosphere and I learned so much from my coach there. That said, when it comes to dressage, I think the most important thing is to have a good horse you can work well with,” Kuroda says. “Bellatre, a talented liver chestnut mare became available because her owner (Olympic silver medalist) Imke Bartels was pregnant. She reluctantly agreed to sell Bellatre and subsequently I moved to Hooge Mierde in the Netherlands because it’s important not to change a horse’s environment.”
It meant reacclimatizing to another small European town, but Kuroda settled in easily.
“Hooge Mierde is very clean and comfortable with a strong internet connection, which is essential (to me),” he says. ‘People speak English well and are friendly. I’ve found its’ like that wherever I’ve gone in the Netherlands.”
Coffee shops selling legal marijuana in the Netherlands, though, were surprising.
“I had this impression they would be dark and scary places,” he admits. “But from what I’ve seen they’re usually trendy and modern. Of course, being an athlete, I only look from the outside.”
Aside from several goods being heavily taxed, particularly gasoline, Kuroda seems happy with how things are going in his adopted country. With many Japanese restaurants around, he doesn’t miss domestic food as much as he once did and has worked on his own cooking skills. He recently taught a friend’s sister how to make soba for a Japanese gourmet competition. She finished second, he says, just missing out on a free trip to Tokyo.
He is hoping to be in Tokyo himself this summer for the Olympic team dressage competition. In June, three members plus one reserve will be chosen for the event.
“I’m not confident, but I will give my all to be there,” he says. “We (the Japan team) are unlikely to finish high up the rankings, but to be able to compete against the top nations like Germany, the Netherlands and Britain on such a big stage, that would be a wonderful experience.”