2024年 02月 29日

YuYu interview Kohei Owatari


Judging from your wide array of experiences including landscaping, real estate, and sea kayaking we can tell you have a very active lifestyle... so you must have been very active as a child?

I am the youngest of three brothers and I was born in the countryside of Hyogo-Ken. Farming was my family's side-business. Nothing in that area was changed by mankind, it was just the way nature made it. Speaking of playing, we didn't have much choice but to play in and around our natural surroundings. We were always running and playing around in the mountains, rivers, with the trees and grass...it was a great way to grow up. I knew since I was a child that I loved that lifestyle and it suited me very well. During that time I learned that people are shaped by their experiences with nature. When I was in high school, I was an amateur ham radio operator and I was very into it. I was communicating with people from all around the world, even with my poor English. This made me think ..."I want to go abroad!" Since I had a particular interest in tropical crops and fruit trees, I thought maybe Argentina or Costa Rica would be a good place for me to go. I dreamed of taking part in all the great natural wonders that this world has to offer.

—— Why did you choose to come to the United States?

Before I entered university, I was thinking about what I could study that would give me a chance to make my dreams a reality. When I was trying to decide I found out that the Tokyo University of Agriculture had a Department of International Agricultural Development. The university and that department put their agricultural knowledge to use throughout the world by helping various countries develop and by giving students an opportunity for practical training. After the 3rd year of studies, the university offered a program in which students would go on a training mission abroad for 1 year. I knew I had to be a part of this, so I did some research about the different training locations. When I was searching for tropical crops and saw "Avocado Ranch" I thought, "This is it! " I went right away and it ended up being in Bonsall in the North County, where I have lived for the past 19 years! During that 1 year training period, I was working on a 200-acre avocado and citrus ranch in the daytime and at night I was going to school and studying English. During that time at school I met a Japanese woman who had been living here and who eventually became my wife. So that's how I immigrated to the US (laughing).

—— So you made up your mind to make a living from landscaping here?

8 1 Yeah. I have long admired Mr. Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who is responsible for New York City's Central Park, and a pioneer in landscape architecture. He established what we now refer to as landscape architecture and warned modern America that "if society doesn't live in harmony with nature human life will not exist". I agree with his feelings that "a landscape architect is an expert that understands the true essence of people and nature." That's why being a landscape architect was my dream job. In addition to that, I thought it would be a good way to make a living too, since US houses and yards are so big. I believed that landscaping would be in high demand. So after my training I went back to Japan to finish school. Upon graduating I began working for a landscaping firm and stayed there for 2 years, because that company specialized in traditional Japanese gardens. We did a lot of work for the Royal Family, taking care of their royal grounds. During that time I learned all of the Japanese landscaping skills I could, which are known throughout the world as the most difficult to master. That was a big plus for me in my life. After 2 years of working for them, I quit, got married, and returned to the US. The people from the avocado ranch I met 3 years before were so happy to see me again. So I started my life in the US, fortunate to have the wonderful opportunity to rent a big house with an enormous yard for only $200 a month.

—— So as a landscaper, how was your American life? It seems like you were involved in many types of work...

I was in my late twenties then. I was young and wasn't afraid of anything. I didn't know the right way to go about doing things, but I put an ad in the Penny Saver right away anyway, and tried to get orders. From the very beginning, I never relied on anyone and I did everything by myself...I believe in that kind of independence even today. From this can-do attitude I developed a strength and spirit that never gives up.
Just about 5 years after I started my landscaping business things were going well and that's the time I started to get interested in real estate. I had the idea to do it along with my landscaping business. In this way I thought I could provide my clients with the best possible living environment. At that time there was an unprecedented housing-boom, so in reality it was a great time for that business, but after I got my real estate license it wasn't like I thought it would be. I didn't really get any work. For the first 2 years my annual income was only about $2,500 and that left us in a terrible economic situation. During that time, we only ate white rice and cabbage with soy sauce. Things were tough. Around the 3rd year my income started to pick up and I thought everything was going to be okay, but in February of 1991, I was involved in a terrible car accident that almost took my life. So I had to abandon the real estate business.
Before all this, however, back in 1984 I got my helicopter pilot's license, which grew out of my hobby of hang-gliding. From that came the opportunity to become an airship pilot for about 2 years, starting in1991. Soon after that I started yet another business, one which grew out of my experiences kayaking in Baja California. My idea was to provide personalized kayak adventure tours in Baja California, Canada and Greenland. In addition to the adventure tours, I went back to my original line of work, landscaping. Currently, I'm continuing to run both my landscaping and adventure tour businesses.

—— Maybe only in America we have the freedom to turn our hobbies into a profession, what is your business strategy?

The open climate in America suits me very well and gives me a chance to pursue my hobbies without constraint. I've been living in this foreign country and foreign culture for close to twenty years and I've never felt out of place. When you can devote yourself to interests you really care about, that is fulfilling. In Japan it is very difficult to be able to do that. Well, I'm still far from making a living from my hobbies and things are always tight (laughing). Hobbies cost money and I'm not the kind of person who tries very hard to make money, I think I create for my wife sometimes because I'm always spending money (laughing). However, my parents raised me to be true-to-myself and that's the way I've lived my life. Even in land scaping, I wouldn't be satisfied with making "cookie-cutter" designs. I prefer to take my time and find out what my clients want. Then, I carefully put my creative talents to work for both of us, to do something we can both be proud of and that gives us a feeling of satisfaction. Working in this fashion, you can imagine there is only so much I can do in one year. However, little by little, I believe I'm building a trust and reputation with my clients for the future.

—— So can you tell us about one of your sea kayaking adventures?

There have been so many I can 't even count them all. I remember once, in Baja California, there was gust of wind that capsized my companions' kayaks...we thought they had no chance, but luckily for all of us a fishing boat came to their rescue and saved them. Another time I remember meeting a whale ... it surfaced directly underneath me and capsized me. Even today I still tell that story. Not many people in the world have ever had an experience like that...standing on the back of a whale (laughing). To interact with nature is to confront dangerous situations, they usually come hand in hand. That is the very essence of nature. On the road of life it's the same...you don't know what is in store, but when your standing on the edge of a cliff, I think it's an opportunity for you to grow. When faced with a challenging situation you have to calmly look at it and move forward and you may find the challenge brings out more in you than you thought you had.

—— What are your future ambitions in the field of landscaping?

8 2 Until now, I’ve never relied on anyone and got here by myself, but recently I’ve realized there's a limit to what one person can do. In 1997 "Architectural Digest", one of the world's most prestigious design magazines, highlighted one of my gardens in their pages. I have also been interviewed by KUSI TV (Channel 51 or cable 9) along with various other newspapers and magazines. So from all this as a landscaper I built my reputation and gained more credibility.
So in September of this year, I took another big step by expanding Water and Stone and hiring around 20 staff members. Of course my goal is to put this company on the right track and at some point in the future after the business is running smoothly, I'd like to set out on another adventure to see the world...yeah I can't stand still for too long.

Kohei Owatari ・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・

Kohei Owatari is the President of Water and Stone. He was born in Kanzaki, Hyogo-Ken on January 14, 1956. He graduated from the Tokyo University of Agriculture in 1981 and in 1982 he came to the US and started a landscaping business a half a year later. In addition to that, he has been involved in a wide variety of ventures including real estate, a helicopter and airship pilot, and running his own sea kayak adventure tours. In September 2002, he incorporated Water and Stone and expanded it. His hobbies include sea kayaking, hiking, photography, plant collecting, piloting etc. He lives in North County's Valley Center, with his wife Michiko and 15 yr. old daughter Luna. You can learn more about his landscaping by visiting www.koheiowatari.com.

(12-1-2002 issue)