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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Bicycles built for two

Nov. 14, 2017

Tandem bicycles are becoming a common sight in many tourist regions around Japan. But they aren't just for sightseers. They are also opening up new experiences for people with disabilities.

In Ehime Prefecture, tandem bikes offer a fun way to get around. A local non-profit organization holds an event once or twice a month, giving people a chance to try them out.

Many of the participants are disabled people who have never ridden a bicycle before. Here, those who are visually impaired or have difficulty walking can enjoy riding.

"I hope that they can all feel the joy of cycling," says Kaoru Tsuga, a representative for the organization. "They said they've never dreamed of doing something like this. I also hope that the experience will help them move a step forward."

Hayato Watanabe is in the first year of a secondary school for the physically challenged. He suffers from cerebral palsy and has difficulty walking. He uses a wheelchair.

When he comes home, he gets off his wheelchair and heads straight to the sofa to watch TV. After school, he often surfs the internet or plays video games.

"I hope that he plays something other than video games," says his mother Miyuki. "Or goes outdoors."

"If I could play outdoors, there's no problem," Hayato interjects. "But with my legs."

When he was in elementary school, Hayato used to willingly participate in school events. But gradually, it grew difficult for him to keep pace with the others, no matter how hard he tried. Now he tends to give up easily.

Miyuki understands how her son feels. But she still wishes he would take up challenges, without fear.

She applied for the tandem cycling event, hoping Hayato's life would improve by trying something new.

"I want him to take on challenges without worrying too much about the results," she says. "It's okay if he fails, he can consider what to do next later. I really hope he'd be able to look at things this way."

Hayato arrives with his mother at the event. He looks uncertain ahead of his first tandem bicycle experience.

"I'm not sure if I can really do it," he says.

Hayato's turn has come. He gets into a bicycle with an instructor.

"Is it scary?" asks his instructor. "Are you OK?"

"Let me take a deep breath," Hayato says. He does. "Yes, I'm alright now."

And off they go.

Hayato looks tense at first. But gradually, his expression changes.

"It feels like the wind is gathering around me," he says.

Hayato starts moving his legs as much as he can, trying to push the bike ahead by himself.

"I'm pedaling, too, though I'm not much of a help," he tells his instructor.

They make it to the end.

"Did you feel scared?"

"Yes, a bit," he says, smiling.

"Did something change inside you after the experience?" Miyuki asks her son.

"Before I got on the bike, I was really afraid because I thought I'd get hurt.

But once I tried, it wasn't so scary, so I'm relieved now."

"Was it more fun than scary?" Miyuki asks.

"Yes, it was," he says. "Now I feel it might not be so bad to try something new."

"What progress you've made!" his mother says.

Tandem cycling inspired Hayato to join his school's wheelchair soccer team. He also started to practice walking up the stairs on his own. He now believes things are worth trying, however difficult they may be.

The next time he goes to the tandem cycling event, he brings some friends.

No longer afraid, he gets on the bike and races his friends.

"Let's get past them!" he tells his instructor.

The event offers disabled people a chance to ride a bicycle, and help them take a step forward by trying something new.

Currently, 16 prefectures allow the use of tandem bicycles on public roads. As that number rises, more children will get to experience what Hayato has.