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Yuki Muraoka noticed an uptick in the number of recreational anglers visiting his favorite fishing haunts in Tokyo over the past year. Whether alone or with family, those equipped with rods and reels would flock to popular spots along canals flowing into Tokyo Bay and rivers running through the city, such as the Sumida and Arakawa.

“Some bridge pilings see a gathering of over a dozen fishers at a time,” says the sculptor, who took up fishing eight years ago. “If you take a stroll by a river, even at night, you’ll likely see anglers. I’ve also met beginners on their first fishing expeditions.”

While Muraoka has largely been avoiding traveling long distances amid stay-at-home requests, he says there are still plenty of urban fishing spots to frequent.

“Next month I’m planning to go out on a boat to catch red sea bream in Tokyo Bay,” he says.

More people in Japan are being lured in by fishing and boating as the outdoor activities’ social distancing and mental health benefits appeal to those looking for fresh air during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The number of visitors to Original Maker Umizuri Koen, a sea fishing park in the coastal city of Ichihara, Chiba Prefecture, has grown by around 10% compared with a regular year, says Akio Sudo, the director of the facility. The park features a wharf with guardrails extending into the water, as well as restaurants and shops that sell or rent fishing gear.

“During weekdays it’s mostly older people and on weekends there are many families with kids. Catches this time of the year include gizzard shad, black sea bream and sea bass,” he says.

“We’re expecting big crowds during Golden Week,” Sudo adds, referring to the national holidays in late April and early May.

Sales of fishing gear are also robust. In its earnings report, Shimano Inc., a leading maker of bicycle components and fishing tackle, saw revenue for the 2020 financial year grow 4.1% year-on-year to ¥378 billion. Fueled by interest in outdoor leisure activities amid the pandemic, it forecast a 20.5% increase in sales for 2021.

According to Marketandresearch.biz, the global market for sports fishing equipment is on an upward trend, projected to reach $14.95 billion (around ¥1.64 trillion) by 2025 from $13.17 billion in 2019. Meanwhile Researchandmarkets.com estimated the global market for pleasure boats at $35 billion in 2020 and forecast that figure to reach $45.9 billion by 2027.

“The number of those acquiring boating licenses also soared in 2020,” says Masao Fujii, director of the promotion office at the Japan Marine Industry Association. The figure hit 69,000 for the first time in 15 years, according to data from the Japan Marine Recreation Association, compared with 58,000 in 2019.

“It appears that those holed up in their homes are using their spare time to seek boating licenses,” he says.

Yamaha Motor Co.'s AX220 is one of the firm's most recent pleasure boat models. | COURTESY OF YAMAHA MOTOR CO.
Yamaha Motor Co.’s AX220 is one of the firm’s most recent pleasure boat models. | COURTESY OF YAMAHA MOTOR CO.

Boat club memberships also reached a record high of 4,800 in 2020. And while sales of new boats dipped slightly to 12,000 in 2020 from 13,000 the year before due to shortages of vessels, the used boat market saw sales grow 7% to 95,000 in 2020, according to the Japan Craft Inspection Organization.

“We’re quite surprised at these figures, since we were bracing for a blow. Looking ahead, we’d like to cultivate new boating fans, not just individuals and small groups but also large parties,” Fujii says. Meanwhile the Japan International Boat Show, the largest exhibition in the Japanese marine industry calendar, is set to kick off Thursday.

Yamaha Motor Co., a manufacturer of motorcycles, boats and outboard motors, will be one of the companies hosting booths at the annual event. Takumi Nomoto, a spokesperson for the company, says interest in marine leisure activities is growing as people seek the great outdoors to avoid crowded and closed spaces.

While the company’s revenue for its marine business fell to ¥328.3 billion last year from ¥350.1 billion in 2019, the decrease was smaller than expected, Nomoto says, and was largely due to production being unable to catch up with a surge in demand in the latter half of the year. This year, the firm is forecasting that sales will climb back up to ¥364 billion.

“The United States and other developed economies in Europe and elsewhere are also seeing strong demand for recreational fishing and boating,” Nomoto says.

The National Marine Manufacturers Association, the leading trade association representing boat, marine engine and accessory manufacturers in the U.S., said boat sales reached a 13-year-high last year as more Americans took to the water to escape pandemic stress.

“Restrictions on international air travel seems to be fueling the trend,” Nomoto says.

Katsumasa Taniguchi, the owner of Marine Stage, a dive shop in Wakayama Prefecture, says hordes of divers who couldn’t travel to overseas dive sites have been visiting his facility over the past year. “Many ended up becoming repeat customers.”

And while the number of visitors fell during the recently lifted state of emergency covering Tokyo and 10 other prefectures, he says reservations for the Golden Week holidays are growing. “I think we’ll be very busy this summer if there aren’t any new virus-induced travel restrictions set in motion.”

Kazuhito Inoue, a Tokyo-based art dealer who frequents the waters around Mikomoto Island, a rocky, uninhabited island off the southern coast of the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture, says diving is the perfect pandemic sport. “Diving in the ocean is the ultimate social distancing activity.”

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