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Thursday, July 24, 2003

OUR PLANET EARTH

Making a BEE line for 'green living' throughout Japan


School's out for summer, and just about everyone seems to be on the road heading for the beach, the mountains or the mall. Chances are, though, many of those drivers will spend most of their time caught up in traffic.

News photo
Some of the riders on last summer's BEE trip through Japan. PHOTOS COURTESY OF ANDREW BELL

On Friday, Aug. 1, Andrew Bell will be hitting the road, too, but traffic jams will be the least of his worries as he heads for the hills, the ocean and everywhere in between. That's because Bell and a fellow group of riders will be spending their summer cycling from the northern tip of Hokkaido to the southern coast of Kyushu. Their trip will take six weeks, and when they dismount for the last time, they will have covered about 3,200 km.

Bell, a Canadian used to cooler climes, is not as concerned about the distance as he is about the weather. "It's getting hotter and hotter; I might melt this summer," he said with a laugh during a recent phone interview. That sense of humor will certainly come in handy on the road.

Weather aside, terrain will be one of the biggest challenges. "The rule in Japan is that anytime you leave the coast you're going uphill. I've done some touring here before and touring inland is beautiful, but it's difficult. Some of the forests are really beautiful, though, and I think they will motivate us through even some of the biggest hills," Bell said. The riders will be averaging about 100 km a day, a pace he thinks is manageable for reasonably healthy riders.

Personally, I would also be worried about trucks, typhoons, clashing personalities -- and saddle sores. But that's the difference a couple of decades and more experience makes -- he has the experience, I have the extra decades.

Bell is 23 years old and has just begun a two-year Master program in environmental engineering at Waseda. In February, he went on a three-week tour around Kyushu, so he knows the challenges of a long ride. Still, he is clearly enthusiastic about this trip.

The obvious question is: Why make such a journey?

News photo
BEE riders during a cleanup atop the Hakkoda range in Aomori Prefecture last summer.

"The purpose is to promote green living in Japan, and we're doing it in Japan simply because this is where we live. Of course, there is a lot of personal challenge, too, but I think riding the length of Japan is a great way to catch people's attention," Bell explained.

"We're coming to a point globally where we have realized that the way we live is not sustainable, and we're coming to the realization that as we consume so many resources we also have a responsibility to learn what our impacts are and learn to be sustainable," Bell said. "Education is one of the primary parts of that responsibility -- helping people realize what is sustainable and what isn't, and helping them learn how to do things more sustainably."

Bell and his team are not the first ones to take on Japan. The ride is an annual event, called Bicycle for Everyone's Earth, and according to the BEE Web site, it began in 1997 when a group of English teachers working on the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme rode from Wakkanai, Hokkaido, to Kagoshima, Kyushu. Each year since, others have taken up the challenge.

This year, four foreign riders plan to cover the full distance, and Bell said the group welcomes any and all riders. "We're more than happy to have anybody join us for any amount of time as long as they're interested in being ambassadors for the values that BEE is promoting," he said. "There's certainly a limit to how many people we can have and still be safe, but that hasn't become an issue yet."

Nevertheless, Bell and his team realize that raising awareness will take more than just cycling, so they have planned to hold talks at Patagonia outlets in Sapporo, Tokyo and Osaka, and will meet with youth groups en route. "We're also organizing clean-up activities along the way, which I think are a great way to do something while helping people recognize issues of waste and consumption," he said.

Patagonia has also given the team rainwear for the ride, as well as products to use as prizes at local events. Another company gave the team a "huge discount" on the trailers they will be pulling behind them, and several nongovernmental organizations are helping spread news of the ride and the planned events.

As part of his efforts to raise environmental awareness, Bell is most excited about getting others to ride. When the BEE team arrives in Tokyo, they will kick off a trial "community bike program" at a residence for foreign students. "We'll be taking bicycles that have become trash, and make them available to the student community," Bell explained.

"This is a take-off on the Yellow Bike program, a growing movement in the United States and Europe. It's really a simple activity, and in a larger community it removes the need for people to drive over short distances when it's just as easy to take a bicycle. We'll be transforming abandoned bicycles into ones that everyone living in the student house can use, and they'll be labeled as community bikes."

Bell has learned the hard way that the biggest obstacle to new ideas in Japan is lack of precedent. If something has never been done before, however insightful it might be, few people will risk trying something new. From school administrators to national bureaucrats, the mantra is the same: Innovation is fine, but not on my watch.

"Setting up anything new in Japan is tough," Bell admitted. "Originally, I wanted to do this at Waseda, but it was really hard to get support because it was a new idea. Luckily I live in a foreign students' house where the conservative doctrine isn't as strong. Also, they were quite willing because they wanted to get rid of unused bikes, which have become a big problem. I'm really excited that by doing this once, we can get people to understand it. Then in the future, because it's been done before, it will become easier to try elsewhere in Japan."

The BEE team is eager to hear from anyone with an idea or venue for an event along their route, and will be updating a diary on the BEE Web site so supporters can track their progress. For more information about the ride, the riders or their events, visit their Web site at: www.beejapan.org

To contact Andrew Bell, e-mail: teamleader@beejapan.org

Stephen Hesse welcomes readers' comments at: stevehesse@hotmail.com


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