Amami Oshima resort offers unique barrier-free experience

by Supriya Singh

Kyodo

A marine sports facility built exclusively to cater to people with disabilities is making waves as a place where wheelchair users can have the “zero gravity” experience of floating freely in the sea.

The all-inclusive, barrier-free facility located near a tranquil beach with crystalline coral reef waters in Kagoshima Prefecture is the first in Japan for wheelchair users who wish to scuba dive, snorkel or go boating.

Zero Gravity Seisui Villa founder Junichi Torihata, 66, said while the resort, on Amami Oshima Island, was not the only one in Japan able to host physically disabled guests, it placed special emphasis on maintaining the “dignity” of its visitors.

To that end, the resort has a boat with wheelchair access, as well as an elevator platform that allows people to descend directly into the water to a depth of 2 meters with a diver or companion swimmer.

Torihata said the idea of building the resort came to him while he was diving in 1988. He said he experienced a feeling of weightlessness that almost seemed like flying.

“People generally look at fish when they dive, but when I was once diving in 1988, I stopped breathing for a while and started moving my legs. I saw sunlight around 10 meters away, and it felt as if I was flying in the sky,” Torihata said.

That was when he got the idea of building a resort where people with disabilities, normally restricted in their movements, could experience the same feeling.

“It took me around 30 years to fulfill that dream because I needed a large sum of money. I couldn’t take out a loan, so I ran businesses and collected money for all these years,” he said.

The boat alone, with the elevator platform at its stern, cost ¥60 million ($550,000).

Harry Hakuei Kosato, who is responsible for marketing the facility, said the resort aims to have around 100 users per year, but admitted that goal is still a long way off.

“People do tell me that ‘Wow, what an idea,’ but that’s it,” Kosato said.

Zero Gravity, which cost ¥267.5 million, opened on April 1.

Paralympians Daisuke Uehara (ice sledge hockey), Megumi Mashiko (wheelchair basketball) and Raja Singh, Singapore’s chef de mission for the ASEAN Para Games in 2015, attended the facility’s opening ceremony on Monday.

Uehara serves as an ambassador and adviser for the resort, making suggestions such as using trainers to help guide swimmers into the water using a rope so they feel as free as possible in the water, according to Kosato.

The 34-year-old Uehara, who won the silver medal at the 2010 Paralympics, also takes care of the minutiae, such as figuring out the height of towel hangers in bathrooms and the best ways to treat people in cold water.

“It isn’t easy for physically disabled people, like myself, to go out with families and have a good time,” said Uehara. “I thought that it would be great if there was such a facility where people can have a good time with their families, not just doing water sports but just having fun.”

With the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics just around the corner, Kosato said he wants to make disabled people “feel just as welcome as able-bodied people.”

Zero Gravity, which is not run for profit, is currently looking for more sponsors.

The resort features a practice pool that can be used before entering the ocean.

A three-night visit costs ¥180,000, including airport transfers, accommodation, food, drinks, lessons for all the water sports including scuba diving, kayaking and snorkeling, and even fun activities like karaoke.