Unicycles are not for the faint-hearted

Over the last couple of months I’ve watched with admiration as the ichi-nen sei’s at my visiting school have been learning to ride unicycles (ichi rinsha). Since 1989 unicycling has been part of the elementary PE curriculum, so many Japanese people under-30s can unicycle! Teachers encourage the students to practice from the start of elementary school, aged 5 or 6, and many children quickly master the balancing act. So every Tuesday I have been observing and encouraging the children who are learning to ride. It’s a humbling experience to see the perseverance of these children, especially for one little boy. Here’s his story.

Mid November – Week 1

I’ve seen a remarkable improvement as three of the girls could ride the length of the gym by holding hands and cycling together. But, there is one boy who hasn’t taken to unicycle riding so naturally and is repeatedly face-planting the gym floor! He gets about one meter from the wall and then falls horrifically to the floor! Yet his determination to ride the unicycle overcomes his pain and any ensuing embarrassment. Respect to him!


Week 2

Now there are just two girls unicycling at break time, the other one got bored and has moved on to playing badminton with the ni nen seis. The two girls peddle wildly across the gym with massive grins on their faces; both veering for my attention. Smiling at them and shouting ‘Jouzu!‘, I went to towards the boy who is still face-flooring it and decide to be his supportive arm for the break. I say the few encouragements I know in Japanese and try to get him to pedal the two metres between the wall and me. He always lands with a crash. The girls circle around us and say a few ‘Ganbatte’s to the boy before making another loop of the gym.

I desperately want the boy to improve because I know how much he wants to unicycle with his friends. If I was in his shoes I’d have given up by now and taken up a less dangerous activity. Skipping was my forte when I was his age, an activity that is a lot less hazardous!

I told him to look up and to keep his back straight, but this is easier said than done. What amazes me is that he doesn’t seem a tiny bit bothered by falling over, even though his knees must be black-and-blue by the end of the week.

IMG_0281Week 3

Hurrah! The boy could now make three metres without falling off. His determination is inspiring. He had obviously practised everyday. I left him to continue practising while the two girls on the unicycles play chase with me around the gym. They went so quickly they could nearly catch me, even when I was running!

Week 4

While playing chase with the girls again I noticed that there were no other unicyclists in the busy gym. After the girls showed off their new circus skill to me, cycling around in tight circles, I went to find the little boy.

I found him sat by the gymnast poles with a sling around his arm. I asked him how he did it and he gestured to me that he fell down after jumping in PE class. It’s such a pity because he was just getting the hang of the unicycle! This day he sat glumly on the PE mats and watched all the other kids play around him. I turned the mats into a throne and made sure no other kids got to sit on the throne but him. Boy, he deserved to be cheered up!

Mid December – Week 5

Instead of unicycling, the whole school took part in Christmas activities. Everyone from the bewildered-looking kindergarten kids to the cool junior high students met in the gym to play games, sing songs and light a candle. I thought we might have been going outside as everyone had come dressed in their coats, but no it was just because it was freezing inside. I was glad to have a little more warmth from my Santa apron and hat! After a few games, we made a big circle and everyone was given a candle. The Japanese version of Jingle bells was played, which ironically no one knew the words to, so me and a few JHS students sang along to in English. After that we got to blow out the candle and make a wish. I looked at the little boy, and you can guess my wish…

Thankfully he has full use of his arm so will be practising again next year.

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