Photo/Illutration Norio Sato takes children from a day-care center on a rickshaw ride to celebrate the opening of the spring tourism season in the Hijiori Onsen resort in Okura, Yamagata Prefecture, on April 27, even though there is still snow on the ground. (Daisuke Tsujioka)

OKURA, Yamagata Prefecture--Norio Sato single-handedly revived the rickshaw tradition in this secluded Hijiori Onsen hot spring resort here in 1998 after a 90-year hiatus, and he's been pulling one ever since.

But what makes Sato’s feat particularly amazing is the fact he is 84 years old, and very likely the oldest rickshaw operator in Japan.

Sato has been involved in transportation all of his adult life. He formerly worked as a bus driver, and recalled how he tried a rickshaw for the first time during a trip to the Hida-Takayama region in Gifu Prefecture.

He immediately realized the contraption offered “a really comfortable rides” and was a boon to tourism.

After reaching mandatory retirement age, Sato, a resident of the Hijiori Onsen resort, decided to establish himself as a rickshaw puller with a set of wheels he purchased for 1.5 million yen ($11,700) with his retirement allowance.

“I wanted visitors to enjoy the quiet spa area,” Sato said.

And for the past quarter of a century, he has been ferrying sightseers all alone. But now he is finally contemplating retiring once and for all. In fact, he reckons this year will be probably his last.

Sato marked the opening of this year’s spring tourism season in Hijiori on April 27 by taking two children from the Hijiori Hoikujo daytime nursery on a rickshaw ride.

Before he set out, a prayer was offered for the safety of the rickshaw at the Hijiori Ideyukan spa facility.

As ryokan owners and residents applauded and shouted out words of encouragement, Sato picked up his pace as he ran down the street.

Like all resorts of its kind, the Hijiori Onsen is immediately recognizable as a spa region beloved by visitors seeking a cure for a range of ailments.

Sato’s nimble moves made spectators forget just how old he is and the effort it takes to pull the rickshaw, which had formerly been operated in the Ito Onsen zone in Shizuoka Prefecture, and weighs 80 kilograms. With two adults seated, Sato has to pull a total weight of around 200 kg.

Though the 400-meter paved street in the onsen resort poses no hardship, climbing a slope requires muscle power.

Sato found trotting at a decent clip offers the best way to provide a good ride. He makes it a habit to wander about town by walking briskly to remain in peak physical condition.

He takes spa visitors and tourists to a shrine patronized by onsen officials as well as other destinations to brief them on the history of the spa region, which is said to date back 1,200 years.

On occasion, he guides sightseers to the nearby Gensen Park and Hijiori Dam.

Sato has even appeared in a movie, naturally as a rickshaw puller, in “The Twilight Samurai” directed by Yoji Yamada.

In the movie’s last scene, actress Keiko Kishi is seated in the rickshaw Sato pulls on a farm road in what currently is the Haguromachi district of Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture. She plays the role of the protagonist’s daughter who is visiting a grave.

His passengers, with whom he enjoys a banter, are always astonished when they learn how old he is, Sato said.

“They always say, unbelievable!”

Sato is determined to continue working through the rest of the season to help revitalize Hijiori Onsen, which, like tourist destinations everywhere, has taken a heavy hit in visitor numbers due to the pandemic.

But Sato realizes it is now time to think about quitting.

“I have devoted myself to pulling a rickshaw this far,” said Sato. “This year marks the 25th anniversary of when I started my business, and this seems like a good time to end it. I would lose everything if I fell ill simply due to my advancing years.”

Sato is desperately hoping to find a young successor to pass on his skills and other tips, but so far no one has shown any interest.

This has left him wavering over whether to keep on working on his own.

Sato feels deep sorrow that the rickshaw service--an attraction of the spa area--will likely discontinue following his retirement.

“I will consider my affairs for next year after taking stock of my health,” he said.

The rickshaw season lasts until mid-November, when snow starts to fall. The fee for two passengers is 3,000 yen ($24) per hour. Reservations can be made at any ryokan in the onsen resort zone.