Like many corporate samurai, Ken Aihara spends much of his life stuck behind a desk in an air-conditioned concrete bunker. So when his brother Masaomi suggested taking a break, he jumped at the chance. But instead of visiting a hot spring resort or driving to Japan's shrinking countryside - typical weekend pursuits for the burned-out Tokyo salaryman - the Aiharas opted to go fishing on a boat, with Masaomi wearing the captain's hat. 'I found I wasn't seeing my family enough so this gave us a chance to be together and talk,' explains Masaomi, 34, a care worker with the elderly. He persuaded brothers Ken, a 28-year-old insurance assessor, and Yoshitaka, 31, to come along on his third fishing trip after earning his boating licence last spring. 'The atmosphere is different out there,' he says, looking out over Tokyo Bay from a club on the Edogawa River. 'And the conversation is longer and better.' Once seen as a rich man's hobby, leisure boating is slowly filtering down the ranks to ordinary Japanese, thanks partly to falling docking prices, cheaper boats and custom-made rental deals. 'We see a steady increase in average customers, even salarymen,' says Akinori Ueda, spokesman for the Yokohama Bayside Marina, one of the largest of Japan's 40 leisure harbours, with enough capacity to hold more than 1,500 vessels. 'You couldn't imagine it a few years back.' Japan's salarymen have also been drawn to the sea by the efforts of companies like Yamaha Motor, the country's largest provider of marine leisure services. Yamaha runs dozens of 'Sea Style' rental clubs like this one, where membership costs about 3,500 yen (HK$221) and a boat for the day can be had for 15,000 yen. Throw in a tank of fuel and the price tag for the three Aiharas today comes to about 6,000 yen each - the cost of a decent sushi meal. 'It's pretty reasonable for a day on the ocean,' says Masaomi, who lives in landlocked Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo. 'I get to talk to my brothers and relax and fish at the same time.' For an extra 20,000 yen, the company will provide a pilot, leaving all hands free for fishing rods and bottles of cold beer. 'The advantage of that system is that the passengers can drink,' explains Yamaha spokeswoman Satoko Ogawa. 'Though, hopefully, not too much,' she says, smiling. Even the largest of seven boats at this club - a 25-footer that fits 10 people - can be navigated out of Tokyo Bay for about US$250. 'Many people have this image that marine leisure is for rich people,' says Teruyuki Ando, Yamaha's senior public relations manager. 'But we'd like to get the message out that ordinary people can join in. We want to make this hobby available to as many people as we can.' He predicts the membership of the company's rental clubs - currently at 11,000 - will grow by 50 per cent this year. Yamaha is aiming for 100,000 customers. Despite having more than 3,000 ports and one of the world's oldest maritime traditions, Japan lags well behind the US in boat ownership, according to the Japan Boating Industry Association, with just 350,000 leisure boats - one for every 300 Japanese people. While there are officially 3 million boat licence-holders (in a total population of about 127 million) the association believes many licences have expired. The cost of buying or hiring a boat has until recently kept most in the hands of middle-aged or retired men, but times are changing. A cruising boat for six to 10 people can now be bought for as little as 3 million yen, according to Yamaha - roughly the cost of a family car. And with Japan's shrinking fishing industry, many ports are hiring out boats to make up for lost income. Although the market is still dominated by the prosperous over-40s, particularly Japan's retiring baby boomers, average young boaters like Masaomi Aihara are increasingly coming on board, often with their families. 'We've noticed an increase in young licence-holders,' says an association spokesman. 'It's not an explosive growth but the trend is steady.' Aihara caught the boating bug from friends before deciding to splash out on a three-day licence course last year. At about 74,000 yen for two days of study and a day piloting the boat under instruction, he says the course is worth it. 'I now have the licence for five years.' He has since taken his wife and parents out but this is his first outing with both brothers. The rules are straightforward: customers must book a week in advance and then watch a safety video every time they take the boat out to sea, which includes instructions on what to do in an emergency. The boat must be back before dark and only the licence-holder is allowed to hold the key. Today Masaomi plans to take his brothers out to Tokyo's famed Rainbow Bridge, then back up the Sumida and Arakawa Rivers, a round trip of about five hours. 'I hope to catch some sea bass. Last time I netted four.'