It was 1993, the beginning of the Clinton years. The Wall had come down and Yeltsin had gone up onto the tank. No longer impeded by a curtain of iron, there were now fifteen new “FSU” states strung along the old Silk Road joining China and Europe. It seemed more open than any time in recent memory. So two buddies from Queens New York took a chance. Inspired by The Travels of Marco Polo, the famous 13th century travelogue, Denis Belliveau and Francis O’Donnell spent the next two years going 25,000 miles overland in an attempt to retrace the steps of Marco Polo from Venice to China and back. Their adventure is covered in the 2008 documentary In the Footsteps of Marco Polo. I watched this documentary last weekend on the recommendation of an old friend (who I actually travelled to Chinese Turkestan with many years ago) and had a wide grin on my face the whole time. I thought to myself, “I would love to do this!”
Not everyone would have that reaction. Adventure travel inherently involves some sort of danger or risk — it requires the traveller to step outside of her comfort zone. Whether climbing remote mountains, or paddling jungle rivers, adventure travel is about striving for a rush. I am not really the physical type, so I don’t chase the “climber’s high.” Rather, my particular fascination is with other cultures. There is something exciting about being in an unfamiliar surroundings where even the most basic daily problems are a challenge to solve. I realized I get a rush from the feelings of culture shock. Rather than the extreme mountaineer’s “climber’s high” I crave a “culture high.”
The two main characters of In the Footsteps are total characters who do some crazy things and meet some very crazy people along the way. The show is a whirlwind of locales, but I felt gratified to recognize a few things I have seen with my own eyes: the animal market in Kashgar, the Taj hotel in Mumbai, the prodigious peaks of the Pamir plateau, and anti-US demonstrations in Iran.
The Arashiyama bamboo grove is one of those must-go places when you visit. Located in the west of the city, at the foot of Mount Arashiyama, it is a major tourist area offering all the amenities you would expect of a trip to the “ancient” capital (including Rilakkuma pancakes!). Likely the most photographed sight in the district is that path through the bamboo forest. Many people even pay $30+ for the privilege to be pulled through the grove on a rickshaw!
I was stunned after a few days living on the remote island of Ikijima to learn that farmers hate bamboo. It grows very quickly and is difficult to remove — an invasive species that can ruin a field. I had no idea. Back in Kyoto people write poetry about the stuff!
Another local guy here on the island is married to a woman originally from Kyoto. She used to work in a high-end department store selling fancy watches. He told me about the first time he went to Kyoto to visit her family. They took him around the city to see the sights, and finally to Arashiyama. He was shocked when they walked him through that bamboo grove, wistful and yet proud in that Kyoto manner. He was flabbergasted that they were so pleased with their highly manicured weeds.
The urban-rural divide defines our modern era. Bridging this is one of the reasons we moved to Iki in the first place. Living here is like simultaneously living in Japan’s past and future — a real eye-opener that I am still processing. Some of the lessons I have learned on Iki, and many more besides, are found in a new book from Camphor Press: Inaka: Portraits of Life in Rural Japan. I had the opportunity to read the book and write a review for Writers in Kyoto that you can check out here. I share a few more lessons from remote island-living in that piece. Check it out, and if you are interested, get the book!
Today is our 1 Year Anniversary of moving to the remote island of Ikijima. (More on Why Iki here →)
We have enjoyed clear blue water, white sand beaches, stunning sunrises, windy days, typhoons, unexpected snow, cancelled flights and boats, new friends, tough days at Japanese school, trips to the mainland, and much more.
Just north of the hypocenter where the atomic bomb exploded over Nagasaki is a commemorative park honouring victims of mass destruction. Walkways wend through trimmed lawns dotted with sculptures gifted from nations around the world in a mournful solidarity. The piece that caps the display is of a powerful man, one hand pointing up at the threat of the bomb while the other is stretched out in tranquil peace. He sits in a partially meditative pose, but with one leg up, ready to leap into action to help humanity. This ten meter tall statue was created by Kitamura Seibo, a renowned artist, at the age of 70.
Seibo is a curious figure and prolific artist who lived until the age of 102. You can see him spryly climbing up the statue and his fantastic moustache in this short NHK profile on him. I have seen his pieces in Nagasaki City but also in Shimabara City including some temples and Shimabara Castle.
I wrote a review of the recently published English translation of Nakamura Tetsu’s book Providence Was with Us: How a Japanese Doctor Turned the Afghan Desert Green. You can read the review on BooksOnAsia.net here, but I just wanted to say a few more things on a more personal note about this book.
I knew about Dr Nakamura peripherally since he is just such a famous person in Japan. I could recognize his face (and his pakol) and knew that he was building canals in Afghanistan. I had no idea how much more he did there and in Pakistan until I read Providence Was with Us. The book really touched me. I drove across Kyushu to see his memorial before I wrote the book review.
Dr Nakamura is a hero here in Japan, and also in Afghanistan — maybe moreso there. He has very admirable qualities, which come across readily in the book. But the thing that struck me the most is how much he thought about his impact on the world, and strategically made choices to increase that impact. He started out as a psychologist, but by listening carefully to needs on the ground he transitioned to a medical doctor, and finally to a civil engineer, staying up late into the night studying books on well-digging, irrigation, and canal design.
During my (what seems bi-annual at this point) mid-life crises (yes, plural) I grapple with the question of impact, too. We probably all do. Nakamura is special because he was able to analyze and actually execute on it, making a massive impact. In this he is an example for use all. The interesting thing, is he was able to do it by keeping things simple and focusing on the needs around him.
In reading more about Nakamura’s life, probably the biggest lesson I drew was to listen. Quit trying to run around and “be useful.” Often you just end up a nuisance. Stay still and listen carefully. I suppose that is why it is called a “calling.”
Last weekend was the first time I left Ikijima for four months. But it isn’t like we have been spending the whole time huddled in our house against the snowpocalypse. The weather was really crappy, and we did have a couple of weeks where coronavirus flared up on the island for the first time since April (56 cases in total during Dec and Jan, everyone got better), but I still got out and made some videos that I would like to share with you now.
Most of these videos are 4K and/or 60fps, so you might want to watch them on fullscreen to get the full effect.
You can drive from one end of Ikijima to the other in about twenty minutes. The narrow roads twist either along the coastline, between fishing villages, or bend back upon themselves into the hills, connecting farms in the interior. I don’t think there is a road on this island that is more than two lanes. Many are single, meaning you need to keep your eyes on the roadside mirrors to watch for oncoming traffic around the corner. I estimate about 90 percent of the vehicles on the island are kei cars.
So, after four months of not going anywhere I was a little freaked at the thought of driving a few hours across Kyushu in a seven seater van!
A recent episode Japan By River Cruise (Woke Dad Japan) featured Daniel Yoder, one of the hosts of the Konnichiwa Podcast (コニポ). They spoke about the challenges of raising kids in Japan as foreigners. It’s a fun episode, and I can identify with a lot. One of the challenges they spoke of was their kids’ language abilities. My kids’ (aged 8 and 11) situation is different to theirs since we are a family who has been back and forth between Canada and Japan. But the episode made me reflect on how my thinking on child language acquisition has evolved over the years. Generally, it has gone through three stages: bilingualism, heritage language, plurilingualism.
I detailed my BuJo approach in the last post. That is the quickest part of the routine. You could just keep a BuJo and gain lots of benefit. Since I wanted to also boost my creativity and productivity I adopted the two other practices.