OKURA, Yamagata Prefecture--In front of their inns in a secluded hot spring resort here, a rickshaw man will meet customers, offer them a footstool and usher them into the seats in the back of his carriage.

Eighty-one-year-old Norio Sato is in his 21st year into pulling a rickshaw at Hijiori Onsen, which is located at the foot of Mount Gassan, a holy place of mountain worship.

“Nobody lived in Hijiori 1,200 years ago,” Sato tells his passengers as he makes the rounds of sightseeing spots in the resort. “A visitor who came to pray at Mount Gassan spotted a hot spring here, whereupon this snowy village became inhabited.”

Okura village has about 3,300 residents.

His itinerary includes a visit to a shrine that is an object of faith by hot spring keepers and a stop at a former post office that was built in the early Showa Era (1926-1989).

Sato was born at Hijiori Onsen. His father operated a forestry and lumber business.

After his father died, Sato closed the family business and became a bus driver at the age of 30. He watched the gradual decline of his hometown over the next 30 years of his working life.

“I will be a new local character myself,” he said he thought at the time. “I will be a rickshaw man after retirement.”

Sato ordered a rickshaw and paid for it out of his retirement money.

His roster of customers included Yoji Yamada, the famed film director. Yamada took a liking to him and asked him to appear in “The Twilight Samurai,” his 2002 film.

Sato initially declined, saying it was unthinkable, but he was finally persuaded into accepting it. He played the role of a rickshaw man for actress Keiko Kishi, who appeared as the daughter of Iguchi Seibei, the main character, in the last scene.

“I was half embarrassed to watch the movie,” Sato said. “But I said to myself, now I can pull my carriage with my head high.”

In the winter, snow falls to a depth of more than 3 meters in Hijiori, so Sato operates his rickshaw only from April through November.

He is hired out by two or three groups of customers on a typical day. That amounts to a distance of about 560 kilometers traveled per year, or 11,200 km over 20 years.

Sato lives in a family of three with his wife and son.

“Pulling the rickshaw gives me physical training, which allows me to remain in good shape,” he said.