10,000-Mile Journey Across Europe


Lester Tanaka

By Christopher Kilkenny

Lester Tanaka wanted to share a piece of his past in his lecture on campus “Postcards from Abroad: Zen and the Art of Bicycle Touring 10,000 Miles Later.”

Tanaka, a College of Southern Nevada professor, came up with an incredible idea many years ago while working at the YMCA in Higashi-Osaka, Japan. He wanted to bike across Europe. He got the idea from taking kids from the Y on cycling trips, which sparked something in him. “I thought to myself, this was really cool. I can do this, but I can do this big time.”

At 26 years old, in 1981, Tanaka decided to cycle across Europe for sixteen months. He flew from Japan to Italy and started his 10,000-mile journey across the continent. He wasn’t an extreme cyclist so this was an unusual feat.

In preparation he packed his bike with gear, food and other necessities he carried tallying 110 pounds. He got his maps and set his route.

He traveled through southern Europe, up through Scandinavia and finished in Wales. He met many fascinating people along the way.

Tanaka shared one experience that really stood out to him. When he was crossing the border of Switzerland he arrived at a small bike shop called Velos Oberle. The shop owner was about to head out for lunch but stopped to invite him in. The owner spoke three languages, none of which were English.

Velos Oberle

Bike Shop Owner

“We chatted for 30 minutes believe it or not,” Tanaka reminisced. “It was just the two of us exchanging stories of where I’d been. I took my maps out and said, ‘I’ve been here and I went here.’ He didn’t understand a word I was saying and I didn’t understand anything that he said.” He managed to get his points across using facial expressions and hand gestures and amazingly enough, they became friends.

As Tanaka got ready to leave the man gave him a jersey from his shop. Tanaka was willing to pay for it but the owner refused. So he ran out to his bike and got his windbreaker from the YMCA from Osaka to give the man in exchange.

For months Tanaka wrote postcards to the shop owner whose wife understood English and could translate them.

Tanaka shared more stories during the event as students listened.

He climbed Mont Blanc in the French Alps and took a three-week intensive French class. He made his way through the Scandinavian region. He went from Stockholm, Sweden to Oslo and Bergen, Norway. The Scandinavian Peninsula was difficult to cycle but Tanaka got through it.

“There were parts where it was easy to travel but parts I had to go through tunnels,” Tanaka said. “They would be one-mile and two-miles long and would not have any shoulder lanes.”

Tanaka had to readjust routes to avoid the commercial trucks. He also switched to different paths and dirt roads. At times he pushed his bike through the snow.

YoungTanaka2The last leg of the trip was in Machynlleth, Wales. Once he finished his tour, he had to consider his next steps.

He had a conversation that sparked an interest for a company in Wales called Centre of Alternative Technology, an environmentally-sustainable company, which he wanted to check out. He toured the facility and thought to himself, “Oh, this is what I totally want to do.”

“When I was in high school my dream was to live off the grid: to be self-sufficient,” Tanaka said. So the new job at CAT working on farming, harvesting and new-energy technologies was perfect for him. He ended up working there for nine months with a modest pay but a priceless experience.

Tanaka shared these stories during his lecture to inspire students to travel abroad. He thinks it is important for students to get exposure to other people and perspectives to prepare them for the changing world. Students need a heightened appreciation for diversity and globalization, he notes.

“It was interesting and inspiring,” said CSN student Brandon McDonald, who attended the lecture. “I like the route he was taking and small little steps on the way. It opened up my eyes to how far he has traveled.”

CSN student Patricia Digan joined in on the lecture out of curiosity. “You don’t get to know anyone who does something like this.” She was amazed at Tanaka journey and the unique nature of this lecture series. Digan hopes to travel Europe someday.

At the end of the presentation, the last slide was called “Life Lessons Learned.” The bullet points on the slide included the following points: people are the same and different simultaneously, listen first, don’t assume you know anything, clear your mind, and smile and the world will smile back. These are the life lessons Tanaka took away from his journey that he will keep with him throughout his life.

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