An improbable journey by a Japanese visitor chronicling his adventures on social media has captured the country’s imagination.
At a gas station near Bethungra, three people squabbled over who would buy him lunch. At a train station in Junee, a bearded man offered him shelter. And in small towns along Australia’s back roads, encounters with strangers have led to offers of hot showers and warm beds; beer and burgers; and heartfelt, even tearful, conversations, conducted mostly via Google Translate.
Ryokei Mifune, who goes by Uni, is a little over two weeks into a journey of more than 2,000 miles on a nonmotorized child’s scooter, which he estimates may take six months. He is cutting across from Melbourne to Sydney and then following the coast to Cairns, from the mainland’s southernmost airport to its northernmost one.
A striking figure on dusty secondary routes, Uni, 23, has surprised more than a few drivers: a slight Japanese man in a traditional “kasa” straw hat and flimsy sandals, with an inexpensive guitar strapped to his back, pushing along on his scooter.
The experience has already been grueling. Sweat pours down his face, the sun scorches his skin and the rough ground has shredded his feet. Almost everything has been harder than anticipated.
That might be why, as far as he knows, he is the only person to have attempted anything comparable. “I like that no one has done it; I thought it would be a good challenge,” said Uni, whose nickname from childhood means “sea urchin.” He added: “If I were copying something someone else had already accomplished, it wouldn’t be any fun.”
In Japan, Uni trained as a carpenter then worked a series of odd jobs, including at a gambling parlor and in a pet shop. His passion, other than for adventure, is making short videos, which he posts to social media to chronicle his progress.
A few days into his journey, those updates, often mentioning encounters with welcoming Australians, began to go viral. To Uni’s surprise, local news stories followed, catching the attention of people eager to open their homes — and hearts — to him.
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On Tuesday, Leigh Swansborough, 51, and her friend Joy Law, 75, combed the back route from Wagga Wagga, where they live, to Cootamundra, Uni’s next destination, hoping to catch sight of him.
They thought they had failed, Ms. Law said, until they turned back toward Wagga Wagga. “There was a big red motorbike parked at the door of the service station shop,” she said. “I just flicked my eyes to the right, and there’s this tiny, little, insignificant, looks-like-it’s-owned-by-a-5-year-old-child scooter.”
Ms. Swansborough, a lifelong adventurer, had recently returned after 10 months in Iran, where she had crossed the country on foot, astounded by the generosity of those she met. Here was a chance to pay that forward, she said: “He’s put himself in a situation where he doesn’t know anyone, but he’s putting his trust and faith in Australia.”
Learning that Uni intended to spend the night camping in a public park in an area known for crime, Ms. Law insisted on paying for a hotel room for him in the next town, then sent him on his way.
Uni’s journey might be politely described as under-researched.
“I don’t think I prepared anything in particular for this trip,” he said, laughing. “If I think too much, it’ll just complicate things and it’ll be hard to take a step forward, so I thought: If I jump straight in with no Plan B, I’ll somehow figure things out.”
In 2021, over 10 months, he completed a similar, less ambitious journey, visiting all 47 prefectures in Japan over the course of 10 months on a similar scooter. “I had zero yen in my pockets when I left, but I sold handmade friendship bracelets for 100 yen each,” he said. “But this is Australia, a bigger journey, so I do have my debit card with me.”
He speaks little English, and his destination was chosen virtually at random. “I didn’t care about what country I wanted to go to — I just wanted to get out of Japan to somewhere I hadn’t been.” On Google Maps, Australia looked large, he recalled. “So I thought it might be an adventure.”
That gung-ho mentality — and a lackadaisical charm — have been crucial on an odyssey that, almost since arrival, has been bumpy.
Even finding a way to leave Melbourne Airport, ringed by highways, on his scooter was challenging, he said. Camping in a public park in Melbourne, he was startled awake by an automatic sprinkler system he mistook for a wild animal. He has been surprised by Australia’s vast network of freeways, which have often sent him onto the country’s gravel back roads, to the detriment of his ride’s flimsy wheels.
His scooter, made for a child and costing around $100, was chosen mostly for its pleasing teal color. (He carries 12 spare ball bearings in case repairs are needed.) Before strangers started to buy him meals, he intended to survive mostly on white bread, occasionally supplementing it with peanut butter when, as he put it, “my taste buds were getting a little lonely.”
And his insubstantial footwear, which he had hoped would let his feet breathe, has already led to the loss of a toenail.
“When I walk on the road, I can feel the rocks,” he said. “My skin is peeling so much, my feet hurt so badly.”
But he soldiers on, bolstered by the kindness of the people he meets.
“I think by being in the newspapers, less people see me as suspicious, which I appreciate,” he said. “On the highway today, I scooted past two police cars, but no one said a word, and when I passed an ambulance, they clapped out the window and even cheered me on by turning on their siren for a second.”
In comments on Uni’s Instagram posts, people often offer him a place to sleep or urge him to get in touch when he reaches their town. He has already spent a few nights at the homes of hospitable strangers.
“He’s this little, tiny person, with this big smile and a great sense of humor,” Ms. Law said. “The police in Melbourne asked him if he had a helmet, and he said yes, a Japanese one. And he meant his straw hat.” She added, “He gives me hope for the future.”
“Everyone in Australia is rooting for him,” Ms. Swansborough said. “He’s living his dream, and he’ll make it — by the seat of his pants.”