by Ian Lett
It is December 2018 and my dad Jurgen has come to visit. He is 80 and lives in rural Victoria, Australia. He made the 1,300 kilometre trip by car and plane on his own. He has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease resulting in shaking, but this has been managed with medication. He has early stages of dementia with some memory loss. So it was important for me to ask lots of questions about his life and particularly his travels around the world.
I asked Jurgen about his travels in Japan. In 1961 he rode his bike across all of Japan’s major islands, with a French man, Pierre, and another German, Franz. Over 6 months they traveled 10,000 kilometres, meeting many welcoming people. Friendships were formed that persist to this day and Jurgen kept in touch with many of his Japanese friends. As a child I remember the many Japanese students that stayed in our house, hosted through the Japan Australia Friendship Association (JAFA). Twenty five years later I visited one of these students, Satoru, at his home near Osaka, and was welcomed like family.
While visiting me in Adelaide Jurgen said to me, with a tear in his eye, I would love to get in touch with Franz and Pierre. “Okay” I said, “I’ll Google it”. A few moments later I asked Jurgen how to spell their names, and any other information which might identify them. Armed with this information, I started searching. I started with Pierre, as his surname, Piroche, was less common. There were few results, but one was a nursery in Canada, Piroche Plants. I also found a flyer for an art exhibition of work by Setsuko Piroche in British Columbia. I knew I was onto something. Pierre had married Setsuko after they had met on the cycling trip. (Jurgen was keen on her sister, but left after many sad farewells).
When I told Jurgen that I had found Pierre, he was stunned. He couldn’t believe that Pierre was still alive, as both Pierre and Franz had worked for a year in the blue asbestos mine at Wittenoom, in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Many of the workers and their families succumbed to respiratory failure due to asbestosis, and Jurgen thought his friends may have been fatally affected. So he was thrilled to be presented with not only details of Pierre’s whereabouts, but with contact details. He rang the number for the nursery and was connected to the receptionist. She asked Jurgen to hold the line. Then a voice came down the line, breathless and deliberate. It was Pierre, excited to be talking to his cycling mate. Pierre said he couldn’t talk for long as it was hard to talk. The asbestos had affected him.
When Jurgen said he would like to visit, Pierre invited him to come and stay. So Jurgen is planning a trip to Canada in May 2019. He will travel on his own, and will stay with Pierre and Setsuko in their house just out of Vancouver.
And that is why my next series of posts will be about Japan in 1961. I want Jurgen to take printed copies of these posts to give to Pierre. The rest of the story can wait. Like Jurgen, Pierre does not use a computer and does not have a smart phone. They grew up with print, and that is how they prefer to read. So the Japan posts will be printed and collated. And together, they can read about their adventures, half a century ago.