Mio Yamada has a deep voice with a reassuringly matter-of-fact quality about it. She tells me that her day, like every day in Rwanda, is going to be spent troubleshooting. This is mostly what life is about for her at the moment: dealing with electricity blackouts, water getting cut off …This affects her business, running Kiseki, Rwanda’s first Japanese restaurant, but it’s also just everyday life.
“How to solve problems is always the main topic of the day” she says, when I ask what it’s like for her living in the Central African country.
“It’s completely different from Japan; you wouldn’t have these issues unless there’s been a huge disaster like an earthquake or a typhoon,” she says. “Everyday here is like (there’s just been) a big earthquake or typhoon, but I’ve already got used to it.”
Yamada and her family have been living in Rwanda since 2016, where she runs Kiseki as general manager, and also arranges cycle tours in Japan online. One of the main reasons that she and her three children live in Rwanda is her husband’s work — Kohei is a trader in metals — but Yamada’s interest in Africa goes back to when she was a student at Osaka University of Foreign Studies.
“I asked my tutor what would be interesting to study. I didn’t want to study English, French, Spanish, Chinese — those major languages (or places). I wanted to study something unique,” she recalls. “He said that no one studied Africa and from that point on I started being interested in the region.”
Just studying the continent in an academic environment wasn’t enough, though, and Yamada wanted a more direct way to connect with local people. She hit on the idea of a cycling tour and, after learning how to fix bikes, she got into shape by cycling 20, 50 or sometimes 100 kilometers a day. She also looked into how she could pay for the journey.
“I raised funding for the trip from friends. Yoshinoya, the fast-food restaurant chain and Otsuka Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd., who make the energy snacks Soyjoy and Calorie Mate,” she explains. “And by doing some fundraising events at the Ikeda Community Center, in my hometown. Ikeda City Council also supported me.”
Almost as an aside Yamada mentions something else she did in preparation: She spent two months cycling 6,000 kilometers from Osaka to Hokkaido, via Shikoku and Kyushu, “to convince my parents and other people that I could do it, and also get some media coverage to help with the fundraising.”
In the end, her bicycle trip through sub-Saharan Africa in 2004-05 took six months and covered 5,000 kilometers, from Kenya to South Africa. Nonchalantly, she says cycling through Japan and Africa was not that dissimilar.
“People were different, but somehow also the same. Some would think (what I was doing was) strange — why don’t I use a car, or train? Why is a girl cycling?,” she recalls. “People were curious. In Africa, more people came up and talked to me, asked me questions or touched me, but in Japan they just looked and said ‘Eeee?’ or ‘Aaaaa!’ Some people would talk to me and invite me to their house, give me some food — I think these people are the same anywhere.”
One of Yamada’s strongest memories from her journey is of the kindness of strangers.
“When I was cycling through Malawi my foot got infected. It swelled up to double its normal size and I went to hospital where the doctor said he would have to take the pus out. He quickly cut open my foot with a small knife, without any anaesthetic. It was so painful,” she recalls. “I stayed in the village there for 10 days, going to the hospital every day. The people in the village took really good care of me. They washed my clothes, changed my sheets, brought me mangoes, donuts, milk, encouraged me. … I was so nervous and lonely, but they helped me a lot.”
Yamada also remembers the extreme heat of the desolate Namib Desert, where the temperature can reach 50 degrees Celsius and she came across only one car in a 300-kilometer ride on an unpaved road to the Ai-Ais hot spring. The environment is so harsh there that Yamada didn’t see any wildlife, “There was nothing, not even flies,” she says.
Despite the potential hazards of such a journey, she never felt she was ever in real danger.
“It’s strange, if I went there now, maybe I’d be scared, but at that time I was too young to be scared,” she says. “I was confident, even though it was very tough, very hot.”
Sanguinely she adds, “It was not the worst desert I’ve cycled through, though. That was the Gobi Desert.”
Fifteen years later, cycling is still an important part of Yamada’s life, but now she puts more of her energy into getting other people on their bikes and introducing them to the sights of Japan and other countries.
“I arrange cycling events in Shikoku, Taiwan, Eritrea,” she explains. “This is more fun for me than cycling by myself; my motto is ‘bicycling connects the world.'”
This she fits around her work at Kiseki restaurant, which she and her husband opened in 2017 to give Rwandans the opportunity to experience the tastes of Japan.
As to whether Yamada has considered returning to her native country, she says she is not enticed by the thought of her life being defined by motherhood.
“My life is traveling, I don’t think it’s necessary to stay in one place forever. At the moment I prefer Rwanda, though, and the main reason is because it’s not easy raising children in Japan,” she explains. “If I was a housewife in Japan and I could concentrate on the home, maybe it wouldn’t be so difficult, but I have my passions, and I want to continue to work, and be social.
“In Africa there’s a saying ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ There is more sharing.”
Name: Mio Yamada
Profession: General manager of restaurant Kiseki, writer, president of Cogway cycle tour operator (cog-way.net)
Key moments in career:
2004-05 — Cycles 5,000 kilometers from Kenya to South Africa
2006 — Graduates from Osaka University of Foreign Studies with a degree in African Studies
2009 — Marries Kohei Yamada
2011 — Starts Cogway
2016 — Moves to Rwanda
2017 — Opens Kiseki, Rwanda’s first Japanese restaurant
What I like most about Rwanda: “Stress-free parenting, there’s helping hands always, no pressure on parents and kids, no isolation.”
What I miss most about Japan: “Onsen! (hot springs)”