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WHAT'S COOL IN JAPAN
Since around 10 years ago, more and more Japanese kids have been riding unicycles. At elementary schools and middle schools, you can see kids riding them around during recess or as a club activity. Some kids are really devoted; in 1992, a Kobe middle schooler named Akira Matsushima, who was 15 years old at the time, rode across North America on an oversized unicycle called the Big Wheel, covering a distance of about 5,400 kilometers, or 3,355 miles.
Unicycling first became a common sight back in 1989, when Japan's Ministry of Education made it a part of the physical education curriculum for third and fourth graders. Now nearly all the nation's elementary schools have unicycles. Many schools offer unicycling classes and encourage kids to join unicycling clubs, not just because unicycles are fun but also because they help develop a sense of balance. Almost any elementary-school-age kid can learn to ride in just a week, and can become an expert after a few months of practice.
Now that unicycles have caught on, unicycle marathons and other unicycling competitions are sprouting up all over the country. And each year for the past five years, the Japan Unicycling Association has held an official contest in the Kansai area, where unicyclists are ranked from levels 1 through 10 according to their skills.
Japan has even produced some world-class unicyclists. Several Japanese unicyclists turned in super performances at the Ninth International Unicycling Convention, also known as UNICON IX, held in Bottrop, Germany, in August 1998. This contest, held every other year, is the largest event of its kind in the world, attracting about 300 competitors from 20 countries. Mio Ueta, a 12-year-old from Shizuoka Prefecture, beat out all of her rivals to become the girls' world champion in her very first appearance. Miyuki Koyama, a 19-year-old young woman from Kyoto, earned nine medals, while Daiki Izumida, a 19-year-old young man from Tokyo, earned eight.
Photo: World champion Mio Ueta practices her riding. (Asahi Shogakusei Shimbun)