Cyclist Michael Rice is an American expat who lives in Japan and is a host on “Cycle Around Japan,” one of the NHK World offerings that air on KLCS’ Create TV. We talked with Michael his life in living in Japan, how he got on the show, which literally cycles around Japan, showing viewers the beautiful scenery one can see, and how he ended up living in Japan in the first place.
Michael, I love the scenery as I watch you cycle around Japan. Have you filmed new episodes for the show since 2020?
Covid-19 really slowed us down, the last episode before Covid stopped everything was in February 2020 in Yakushima, and then after that it was hard to do anything. When we first started the show, it was only one show per season that we filmed – spring, summer, winter, fall but since the demand had gone up, we were planning to on every month before Covid hit (laughs).
So when did you start filming again?
We’ve done limited episodes, like when the restrictions would go down, we would try to squeeze one in before things got worse again, and the other thing we did, we did what we call a “selfie ride.” Before Covid-19 I had a gypsy life, I had my home in Tokyo but I was only there three or four days a month, I was constantly moving around, but Covid stopped everything. I moved to the national park where the ocean meets the mountains and I lived there after Covid began, so we filmed an episode there. But they couldn’t send a director, a cameraman; it was me with Go Pros, and other devices, to film myself. I had a bike buddy who lived 10 minutes away, so he could be the cameraman and follow me by bicycle to get the shot.
In 2022, it seems, you’re back?
Yeah, we’re trying to do one [show] a month now. Last night they came to my house at 11:30 pm to give me a Covid test before doing some shooting this weekend. (laughs) So, it’s still pretty restricted here, in Japan. I had gone home New Year’s before Covid and I went home in June for the first time in three years and I couldn’t believe how few people in American weren’t wearing masks in Kansas and Colorado.
You’re from Colorado?
The Kansas-Colorado border. I was born in the Kansas side. My mother gets upset sometimes when they say “born in Colorado” because I wasn’t born in Colorado. But that’s where I call home in America.
When you said you lived a “gypsy life,” is that because you’re cycling around Japan?
Yeah, I’m cycling around Japan all the time on, or off, the show; the show just gives me an opportunity to have them follow me around with the camera (laughs), and meeting people I wouldn’t meet normally, because they research and find people, it’s not just me running into people.
The producers do research for the show then?
I leave it all up to them. They do quite a lot of research and they’ll spend at least a week in the area without me, setting everything up and deciding which shots to take and meeting different people in the area and deciding who will be good for showing the world the best things about that place and the culture.
What are you doing when you’re not on the show?
Until a year before Covid, I was teaching university; I taught a dream-building course in English. It was a subject I made up. (laughs) How university students think about their lives and build their dreams, so I designed this whole course about leading them week by week understanding what they want to do with their lives optimally and how they can achieve that.
Did you quit that university job?
Yeah, but the only reason I quit was because I was so busy moving around. I was teaching three days a week, but reduced it one day a week, but still to be back in Tokyo, Yokohama, every Thursday; it was restrictive for filming and others things I was doing. I do Iron Man.
Is that lucrative?
No, (laughs) it uses a lot more money than it makes. I’ve done seven different world championships in various disciplines. I’ve done Iron Man twice, mountain biking championships, off-road triathlon world championships.
I was going to ask you about that; on the show you’re on road bikes.
Mountain biking was what I was sponsored professionally; for the last 13 years I haven’t done professional mountain biking. I still have the skills. For tomorrow’s shoot, I’m borrowing a different brand of bike to use for the shoot. I don’t even own a mountain bike.
What is your favorite ride and destination on the show?
I can’t pick one because there are so many incredible places in Japan. If I had to pick three – the first place where I moved to is Mt. Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. When Covid hit and I couldn’t move, I moved to the base there because I had the ocean to do Iron Man ocean-swim training and what I think of is the most beautiful national parks in Japan. Second, is where I’m going to be filming. I filmed Ishikawa prefecture and Toyama prefecture. We’re going to go back and do different parts – so all along the Sea of Japan coast, I like it much better than the Pacific Ocean. Incredible ocean views and the world’s best seafood. Whether cooked or raw, it’s all good.
When did you learn Japanese and what made you want to learn the language?
When I started university, I went to the University of Kansas, it was 700 km from my hometown. Very far. I came from a small town of only 2,000 people and about 10,000 cows. I didn’t have any opportunity to learn a foreign language or meet international people. The Kansas, Colorado border is as far from the ocean as you can get. I wanted to study things that were impossible to learn in my small town.
They had Japanese at the university?
Yeah. I wanted to learn the most difficult language I could. I wanted to learn about America’s enemy. At that time the political enemy was Russia, but the economic enemy was Japan. It was when Americans thought Japan was going to buy the entire country of America (laughs).
Was it around the same time you raced bicycles?
Yeah, for the environment; I realized humans were ruining the environment. It was pretty much proven back in 1989, when I started university, that humans were changing the climate in a bad way. So I sold my car, I sold my motorcycles and I bought a bicycle.
A mountain bike, Nishiki. So I started going everywhere around the campus and outside of the campus by bicycle.
How did you end up moving to Japan?
I went to Japan on an exchange program and I realized it was the perfect place to live a low carbon footprint, bicycle-only lifestyle.
What year was that?
When did you race mountain bikes?
I was never interested in racing because I’m not into competing with people, so I was just cycling for the environment, for my health and to see Japan.
You never raced bikes?
I started 10 years later; in 1999 I started racing in Japan. The second time I came to Japan was 1992 and I cycled the whole country by bicycle.
Was this show your idea?
It was my idea, but I never met the people who came up with the idea until they came up with the idea, so we had the same idea but separately. And when they contact me about doing the show, I was like, “This is what I’ve dreamed of doing.”
How did they know to find you?
Because I was a well-known Japanese-fluent bicyclist.
When you first arrived, did you plan on staying long-term? How was it when you first moved there, did you feel homesick?
When I did the entire country by bicycle in ‘92 that’s when I thought I decided I wanted to spend the rest of my life in Japan.
What made you stay in Japan and you never see yourself ever moving back to the U.S.?
Yeah. I can’t think of anything that’s better about living in America than in Japan. The cycling, the lower carbon footprint, the scenery. And of course, safety. I usually do not carry a lock with me in Japan, even in Tokyo.
Speaking of low carbon footprint, in Tokyo, just like anywhere, there is single use plastic to bring home your lettuce or fruit.
And Japan has an incredible packaging culture. If you give something more than a few hundred dollars, you’re supposed to wrap the money, even if it’s not a gift. If you’re buying something, you put money in an envelope, if it’s something that’s a lot of money.
When did you become connected to this show?
Maybe 2013 or 2014.
They just called you?
For the pilot episode, they had someone who wasn’t a high-level cyclist. He was a personality on TV, but then they realized they couldn’t get the beautiful footage without a high-level cyclist. So there was only one person whose done every episode – that is the cyclist who drives the motorbike that carries the cameraman.
You don’t do every episode?
I do about half of the episodes.
Is that because you can’t?
The schedule is often not open; actually the concept was never use the same person twice, but there aren’t very many high-level cyclists who speak Japanese fluently. I’ve been working on Japanese television for more 25 years, so I’m comfortable in front of the camera.
You did other things on TV?
Many commercials and movies and other TV things.
Do get feedback from around the world from this show?
Yeah, quite a few people find me on Facebook or Instagram after a broadcast.
They don’t air the show in Japan?
The plan was not to, but from about five years ago they started having Japanese subtitles and airing the show in Japan. And it became very popular and Japan’s biggest channel is airing it every Tuesday.
Do you know the other expats who are on the show? And do you know the other hosts or expat hosts on NHK World, like we interviewed Patrick, Rika and Yu?
No, because we do our things on location, so we don’t meet at NHK.
You don’t know the other cyclists on the show.
Many of the other cyclists are friends that I’ve introduced and some are cyclists I don’t know.
You don’t get to meet them.
No, like when the show won an award, they had a party. It was the first time I met the people who translate everything I say and the narrator.
What’s been the public feedback for you on the show?
“I didn’t realize Japan was so beautiful” and “I didn’t realize you could cycle without so many cars and people.”
There was this one episode where you were in the plum tree grove and you rode a road bike, I thought maybe you should have a gravel bike? Do you go off road much?
I run a bicycle brand in Japan, Chapter 2 bikes, and so we started making a gravel bike four years ago; since then I’ve been doing episodes with gravel bikes mostly.
We planned it as a road course, but the cameraman and I will find places, “Oh, this will be cool” and he’s running with a stabilizer and following me. If it’s somewhere the motorbike can’t go.
You have to wait for him?
Or if I ride uphill, we’re similar pace.
I was going to ask you if you are recognized in Japan.
Our show was designed for abroad only, but when they first showed it domestically, it was at 5 a.m. and suddenly I had these old people who were recognizing me, who were watching TV at 5 a.m.
You look like you’re having so much fun on these shows, it must be fulfilling to be able to know your raison d’etre?
Yeah, I had really serious depression when I was young, from age 13. I had very serious depression. When I was in university, I decided to kill myself. So, I decided if I’m going to give up my life, then don’t need to have any fear or hesitation about anything scary or deep, or adventurous. That’s when I dropped out of university for a half year and was a vagabond wandering around Japan for six months by bicycle. And ever since then I’ve given up any fears of trying something new, or of doing something dangerous, or of being happy. I think, before, I had a fear of being happy. If I was going to throw my life away, then I would give up that fear of being to happy.
What is the longest ride you’ve done and how do you prepare for such a ride?
One was from Kawasaki, which was next to Tokyo, to Sendai. It was 365 km. I did it in half of a day, 12 hours.
How do you prepare for that?
Riding and commuting 70 km a day for 20 years (laughs).
How do you prepare for long rides? Do you eat extra carbs?
My philosophy is that I always want to be in shape to do anything, so I don’t do any special preparation for races. I just have a lifestyle to keep me in my peak condition.
So you don’t have a special regiment?
For the environment, I mostly eat vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian, or things that are not destroying the environment. In Japan there’s a problem with deer and boars destroying the forest; I eat deer and boars because they’re destroying the forests in Japan. The natural predators have been wiped out by humans.
In the show, you bike for hours it seems. Are there tips on how to ride without cramps. Do you stretch before and after a long ride?
My master who taught me how use my chi is also a yogi, and I do yoga since 1998. I got so deeply into it that I put myself in a mental state where I don’t have to stretch. The only reason that you do stretching in yoga is to get rid of the hang-ups in your body so that your mind can go to its ultimate state because its not hung up on all of the physical constrictions of the body.
Any advice for someone moving to Japan or another country?
Become a child, act as childish as you can because adults are afraid to screw up, adults are afraid to try to new things, adults are afraid to absorb everything like a sponge. But children are designed to do those things that adults can’t. So when you move to a new culture, if you want to assimilate you have to become a child and not be afraid of things that adults are afraid of.
Cycle Around Japan airs Fridays at 7 AM and 2 PM on KLCS’ Create TV. Visit klcs.org/schedule to see the complete schedule. To learn more about the show visit the NKH World website: nhk.or.jp You can keep up with Michael Rice on his social media: Instagram (@mygratitudes) or Facebook (facebook.com/mygratitudes).