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Japanese travel guide in NZ wants local starry sky listed as UNESCO heritage site

Hideyuki Ozawa

TEKAPO, New Zealand -- After working at a travel agency in Japan for four years, Hideyuki Ozawa quit his job and set off on a journey around the world. When he was 31, he took a job at a company here in Tekapo, a quiet town with a population of around 300 on New Zealand's South Island.

    "You can see a faint shadow from the starlight," Ozawa says. "And the Milky Way is crystal clear, giving you the feeling that you're floating in the midst of the galaxy."

    Early on in Tekapo, Ozawa was taking Japanese tour participants to see glacial lakes once a week. But he began a side job with his wife, taking clients to the best sites in town for star-gazing.

    Originally from Honjo, Saitama Prefecture, Ozawa, now 58, operates his own travel agency, Earth & Sky, with around 40 employees. At night, he serves as a driver-guide and takes tourists to observatories, where they can look at the stars with their own eyes and through telescopes. His company's tours bring in some 200,000 people annually to Tekapo from around the world.

    When plans for a massive development project emerged in the small town in 2000, Ozawa was the only person who, at a public hearing, expressed disagreement with the project and asked, "Don't we have the option to do nothing?"

    "The local residents took the star-filled sky for granted, so it didn't occur to them to protect it," Ozawa says. "It was because I was a Japanese person who had experienced the reckless development projects of Japan's 'bubble' economy that I was able to say what I said."

    The development plans ultimately fell through because of a lackluster economy, and at Ozawa's prompting, local residents, the municipal government, and observatory officials created a forum in which they could discuss the protection of the starry sky.

    The International Dark-Sky Association, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization fighting light pollution, recognized Tekapo as a Dark-Sky Reserve in 2012. Ozawa, meanwhile, dreams of having Tekapo's starry sky listed as a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site.

    "When I look at the stars, I feel one with the universe," Ozawa says. "I want to protect the world's greatest starry sky."

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