Japan’s highest bridge bungy opens this spring in Ibaraki Prefecture. Outdoor Japan talks to Bungy Japan’s founder, Charles Odlin, about life on the edge in Japan.
When did you come to Japan and how did you get involved in bungy jumping?
I first came to Japan from New Zealand in 1994 on a working holiday visa. I worked for a winter in a pension in Kuruma-yama Kogen in southern Nagano.
In the spring I was looking around for something to do, and I found myself in Yamagata working on Japan’s first bridge bungy jump site in its first year of operation.
It was an exciting time as the concept of “Outdoor Tourism” in Japan was very new. It was about the same time rafting started in Minakami, and it felt as if we were pioneering something over here.
I still remember my very first bungy jump like it was yesterday – the fear and excitement before I jumped and the elation afterwards. As I was bouncing around under the bridge waiting to be lowered into the raft, I as much made up my mind this is what I wanted to do.
Why did you choose Minakami for Bungy Japan’s first bridge?
It was more than 10 years, and a long winding road, before we started bungy operations on the Suwakyou Bridge in Minakami. During those years, I had heard a lot about Minakami and the growing outdoor adventure tourism that was developing in the area, so it was always on the radar.
In 2005, we were invited to set up an operation as part of the Minakami Adventure Festival; it was a chance to prove ourselves with a short two-day event.
What do you look for when choosing a Bungy Jumping location?
Obviously, the height of the jump is important, but you also have to take into account access, infrastructure (car parking, toilets, etc.), operational logistics, how receptive are the locals to having the operation in their area and ideally what sort of tourism vision the local council has in place.
A place such as Minakami is perfect, as there is such a variety of other activities people can do, such as rafting, canyoning, mountain biking and paragliding. There are also a lot of great restaurants in the area and amazing onsen. It all makes for a great outdoor experience comparable to what you’ll find in Queenstown or Whistler. Building on our success, we were able to open a second site close by in Sarugakyo.
For some of our more remote sites, we look for places that will attract attention. In the case of Itsuki-mura, Kumamoto, which is as remote as you could possibly get in terms of public transport, we have been working closely with the local council and regional tourism board to use the opening of a bungy jump site to revitalize the local area and hopefully become a catalyst to create an outdoor tourism industry there.
There is a lot of hard work that needs to be done for us to ever achieve that goal, but it is an exciting challenge.
What have been some of the challenges to get approval to set up bungy operations in Japan?
It hasn’t been easy. In the beginning, the hardest part was there were no guidelines or playbook for what we were doing.
There were four Japanese words that came up over and over and are now right at the top of the page anytime I am working out a new plan or strategy: Zenrei (precedent), jisekki (proven success), jitsuryoku (proven ability) and shinrai (trust).
Setting a precedent was the hardest one for us. Although I had experience in both New Zealand and Japan and held a New Zealand Safety Standards Approved Jump Masters certificate, no-one had really done what we were proposing, which meant we were setting that precedent.
We had to believe what we were doing was going to work and slowly build that trust over time, be patient and persistent to keep things moving.
What’s your favorite bungy jump in New Zealand?
I am a bit biased because it is in my hometown of Auckland, and I worked there for three years, but my favorite jump in NZ has to be AJ Hackett Auckland Harbor Bridge Bungy. At 40 meters, it is one of the smaller jumps around, but there are a number of different jumps you can do. It is scary but not too intimidating. You have the option of dipping in the ocean, which is unique and, on the way back up, the view of the Waitamata Harbor and Auckland cityscape is awesome.
Any particularly memorable jumps in Japan?
In the summer of 2001, I was the Jump Master on an indoor bungy jump in a shopping mall in Odaiba for six weeks. It was a 30-meter jump, so not huge, but we just had enough side safety space to fit within NZ Safety Standards, so it was fairly tight.
People could watch from every level of the mall as you jumped, so every day we had hundreds of people watching and cheering every jumper. It was pretty special, and we made it on CNN World News, so that was cool too.
How many bridges do you have permanent or semi-permanent bungy platforms on?
We currently have three. Two in Gunma; the 42-meter bridge in Minakami and the 62-meter bridge in Sarugakyo. We opened our 100-meter Ryujin bridge site on March 1 this year.
Each site is unique and offers customers a different experience and challenge. To the best of my knowledge, New Zealand and Japan are the only two countries in the world that have at least three bungy jump sites with one more than 100 meters.
You sound excited about the new Ibaraki location.
Yes, we are very excited about the Ryujin Bungy site. At 100 meters, the height is the biggest selling point for this jump, but the bridge and location are impressive as well. It’s like a dream come true to be able to offer our customers a bungy jump experience like this in Japan.
You’ve been on the platform while so many people have taken the leap. Any jumps you have seen stand out?
That’s a tough question. I have witnessed so many jumps over the years – perhaps close to 100,000.
I have seen the toughest looking guy scream like a little girl, watched jumpers summon every ounce of courage and inner strength just to stand on the edge of the platform, then suck it up and pull off a great jump.
I had one poor soul on his bachelor party dressed in a superman outfit end up in the corner of the jump deck literally so paralyzed with fear that he couldn’t move a muscle for a good 10 minutes.
One thing I love about doing this job in Japan is the amazing array of costumes and effort our customers put into their jump costumes — celebrating a birthday, making a wedding video or just for fun.
Any celebrities come out to jump?
Every year we get a steady stream of celebrities and tarento. We’ve had members of girl bands AKB48 and MomoIro KuroZ, Comedian Yabe-san from NaiNai Saizu and also Dewi Fujin, to name a few.
What’s more dangerous, bungy jumping or eating raw fugu (puffer fish)?
That’s actually a good question, as I think there are more similarities than you might think. Both have a relatively high perceived risk and both have the potential to be fatal in the hands of someone who doesn’t know what they are doing. But, handled properly, identifying and taking the right precautions to minimize that risk through systems, procedures and training, then the actual risk drops close to zero.
Are there any special events throughout the year?
Two events we look forward to every year in Minakami are the Summer Splash weekend, usually in early September, and the Minakami Adventure Festival at the end of October.
The Ibaraki Bridge has three major events through the year: Koi–nobori, which runs from Golden Week through May 18, the Summer Lantern Festival during O-Bon in mid-August and the koyo (autumn leaves) festivities on weekends in mid-November when there are stalls selling food, local music and other fun stuff.