Urbino Project 2011

Multimedia Journalism in Italy

Cuisine     Culture     Life     Occupations     Student Life    

Around the World By Bike

By Jennifer Stafford

Keiichi Iwasaki bikes into a town, performs his magic tricks, then rides on to his next stop. He’s traveling around the entire globe on a 3-speed bicycle.

URBINO, Italy- Keiichi Iwasaki went to college and then earned a master’s degree in Chemistry. Like many other young Japanese, he longed to see the world. But not in the usual way.

“I thought that if I use airplane it’s too fast so I can’t see nothing,” he says in the broken English he learned growing up in his native Japan. “But bicycling is much better to see the world.”

So he set out on an unpretentious three-speed bike, with only two dollars in his pocket and “a dream to see the world.” Ten years later, at age 38, he arrived in the Renaissance hill town of Urbino.

Although he lives simply, carrying only what he can tie to the back of a small bicycle, no one would call Keiichi Iwasaki dull.  He departed from his home in Guma, Japan, in 2001 on what he thought would be a three-year journey. Now, a decade later, Iwasaki continues circumnavigating the globe, like a 21st century Magellan with a monk-like contentment.

“There are so many kinds of people,” he says. “Different in culture, language, color of eyes, hair, skin. Different but in one point of view we’re still the same. We are human.”

Unlike most travelers, neither time nor direction dictates Iwasaki’s itinerary. His nomadic tendencies – in balance with an overall goal of circling the planet – have propelled him in zigzags across the map. But it’s within these imprecise, impulsive detours that Iwasaki has stumbled upon the most memorable experiences of his journey, including an unexpected romance in the city of love – Paris.

Before this expedition, Iwasaki was working for his father as an air conditioning engineer. Unsatisfied, Iwasaki grew restless with the small rural town he called home. “Life is so short and there are many things I want to see,” he said. With the support of his parents and older sister, Iwasaki spontaneously shoved a few belongings into a small backpack and hit the road.

After testing the waters for a year, he decided to leave Japan. In 2002 he took a ferry to South Korea and began pedaling his way across China.

His favorite memory? After a long pause he began to describe his adventures in the foothills of Nepal. “When I passed Nepal I saw the Mount Everest and I thought, is it possible?”

From the top of the world, well that is a beautiful place.

In Nepal, he eagerly put down his kickstand and set up a temporary home where he practiced mountaineering until qualified for the expedition team. After a yearlong diversion, Iwasaki’s adventure was stamped a success. On May 31, 2005, he reached the summit of Mount Everest.

“From the top of the world, well that is a beautiful place.”

From Nepal, Iwasaki made his was across India and Middle East, stopping in Pakistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey. By 2007 he crossed into Eastern Europe.

After arriving at any of his various destinations, Iwasaki sets up the small tent and stove he carries on the back of his bicycle and settles in for the night. His days are simple, but they are not ordinary. In the morning he leisurely makes a fire and a cup of coffee and sets out for work.

Each new place he visits could fear him as a swindler, a mysterious stranger in town, bemusing young children and dazzling the minds of strangers passing on the street for money. Magic has been a hobby since Iwasaki’s high school days, but has become the main funding for his travels. But he isn’t pushy about panhandling, and he obviously isn’t getting rich.

His presence brings an odd juxtaposition in the Piazza del Repubblica, as this Japanese cyclist has one of the few bicycles here in this city of steep cobblestone streets.

Using the same chopsticks he eats with and a small deck of cards, Iwasaki performs simple but captivating tricks in the main square of Urbino, hoping onlookers will spare a small contribution.

Aside from magic, Iwasaki has periodically taken a break from the road, working in various hostels throughout his trip. It was while working at a hostel in Budapest, Hungary, that his terrestrial navigation again veered off course when a strikingly beautiful Japanese woman walked in and asked for a room.

Here stood a man who had spontaneously bicycled half way across the globe and fearlessly scaled a nearly 30,000 foot ice covered cliff, but became utterly humbled by a slender, quiet woman who barely stood five feet tall.

Yuka Otsuka had also been cycling across Europe, making her way through Berlin, Amsterdam, and Holland and was on her way back to Japan when she met Iwasaki. Taken with this woman, Iwasaki immediately asked her to join him. Until this point, failure had been an experience unfamiliar to Iwasaki. Yuka declined the invitation.

The two strangers exchanged e-mails and stayed in contact throughout the years.

It was not until the summer of 2009, nearly three years later, that the two would again meet.  Yuka was traveling through Europe again and agreed to meet Iwasaki in Paris.

This time Iwasaki did not come unprepared.  “I gave Yuka a bicycle as her birthday gift and asked her, join me, and come together by bicycle.” This time, she agreed.

The two strangers set off to Berlin and have been traveling together ever since.

Time and planning are more a figure of speech than concrete ideas to Iwasaki, but his latest rendition of planning was to head south from Urbino to Perugia, loop around to Venice and eventually, somehow, make his way into South Africa and finally to North America. “This should be about five years.”

He has passed 43 countries in the past 10 years and has no intention of stopping. His next trick will be crossing Atlantic Ocean on his way to America.

Slideshow

Video