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Grandpa Braves Boars Bears and Bosozoku Biking Around Japan

Date Posted: 2001-03-16

Kenjiro Watabe, 68, is about to complete his adventure of biking around the whole of Japan. The venerable Watanabe had been laid off from a construction company that was hard hit by the bad economy. Instead of sitting around and doing nothing he decided to travel the country on an antique bicycle. His bicycle does not have a chain, has its pedals attached straight to the front wheel, and has a very small rear wheel. The bicycle, a nineteenth century design called a penny-farthing, originated in England.

Watabe said that it took him 120 days to travel through all of Japan's 47 prefectures. He biked about 100 km per day. Along the road, he saw a bear, was attacked by a monkey, and got into a car accident. However, he says, "So many people helped me, and I was always happy."

Although many Japanese men who are laid off from their job get very depressed, Watabe decided that since "I am still healthy, I want to do something so that I would be famous." His starting point was Osaka Castle in Osaka prefecture. It was the end of February last year when he left for his long and slow (10 km per hour) bicycle trip.

In less than 10 days after he left Osaka Castle, he collided with a car. The accident broke his backbone, and he had to stay in a hospital for a month. The doctor told him to forget about biking anymore. But his friends visiting him at the hospital and the nurses cheered him up, and he thought, "I have to keep on biking." He restarted his trip before he even fully recovered.

In Tottori prefecture, wild monkeys stole seven rice balls, which some policemen had given him. In Akita prefecture, he was menaced by wild boars. In Hokkaido, he saw a bear. He thought he would die that time, and got off his bike and climbed up a tree. While he was watching the bear from the 20 meter high tree, the bear ate 11 bananas he had had on his bicycle and left.

So many people helped him during his bike trip. One time a policeman secretly let him spend a night at a police station. In a tunnel, some trucks and police cars lighted up his way with their headlights. When he spent a night at a small train station in Hiroshima prefecture, bosozoku (hot-rodders) were riding their loud motorcycles near the station, and he scolded them to be quiet. Instead of getting mad, those young men brought a cup of instant noodle soup for him, because he showed them his old picture. In that picture, those young boys saw young Mr. Watabe on his motorcycle.

When he left from the Osaka castle, all he had was 10,000 in his pocket. He put up a flag saying, "Please donate money so I can travel all around Japan using this bicycle." He thought he would end up spending nights outside for most of the time during his trip. However, many of the new friends he made during his trip kindly let him spend a night at their houses, and in fact, he ended up spending most of the nights in private homes during the trip.

Every time he made a new friend, he asked for them to write a message to him. In his notebook, there are more than 500 names. He says "when I felt lonely in a long tunnel or laboring uphill, I read these messages to cheer me up." Okinawa became the last prefecture for him to visit before completing his trip. Here he helped to fix a leaking roof of a hotel. He was told by the hotel manager that "age does not matter as long are you've got the will." He says that was the phrase that made him most happy.

Now Watabe is back in Okinawa to start another 'Travel-around-Japan,' scheduled to start this month. Until then, he is staying at Hotel Okura in Nago City for free in exchange of his work.

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