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Journal: Emerging Themes

Note: This Journal entry was written on September 26, 2001, as I walked on the Old Tokaido. Take a look at that day's Logbook for more.


If I were to write a book about my experiences here, it would not be organized chronologically. Instead, I would find the themes, the threads, that run through this adventure, and write chapters centered around those themes.

Here are a few of the themes I've noticed so far:

Travel and Transportation: It seems obvious: when you're on a trip, travel and transportation would be a theme. But one thing I'm noticing is the layers of travel. This road is officially 400 years old (although there are places where people traveled here prehistorically), and there are places where you can see that age. But I have stood in the yard of an old building, or on a temple's grounds, and listened to a truck rumble by to my left as the shinkansen (bullet train) hisses past on my right. Some of my guidebooks quote other guidebooks from 300 years ago. The barrier stations I've passed are reminders of the restrictions on travel in another age. There's a lot to say about the differences between a one-month walk and a 2-1/2 hour train ride!

Weather and Landforms: A related theme: when one walks, one is much more sensitive to sunshine and rain, and to the shape of the land. A gentle slope that a car wouldn't even notice can take on new meaning when it's walked, especially if it's a couple of kilometers long. Then there are the people going by with their windows rolled up--meaning their air conditioning is on--while I sweat along. Having shaved my head, I feel the air more than I used to--perhaps a biological phenomenon, but with spiritual impact.

Religion: There's no escaping it. Every rock, every tree seems to have significance. Joseph Campbell talks about "land-nama": the naming and claiming of a land for one's gods. It's been going on here literally since time immemorial. That tree has a straw rope around it; this rock has a Buddha inscribed on it; that pond over there is known to be inhabited by a dragon. Not to mention the hundreds and hundreds of temples and shrines, and the thousands of little road-side shrines. Place names reflect the gods' presence; so do the little customs and gestures of every-day life.

Militarism: By decree, Japan has no "army" per se. It has a "Self Defense Force," designed only to repel invasion. But you can't swing a kendo stick without hitting a castle here. Armor and weaponry are on display everywhere. In a sense, the history of every nation can be told through its wars, but I think Japan is unique in its emphasis on fighting. Quick: name three martial arts that originated in Europe. Now think "judo, karate, aikido." For a pacifist country, there's been a whole lotta fightin' goin' on.

D=RT: It's a standard formula: Distance equals Rate times Time. Example:
R=60 miles per hour
T=30 minutes (0.5 hours)
D=30 miles (60 x 0.5)
I live by this law. My rate of speed is fairly fixed: 4 kilometers per hour of actual walking (though it generally takes me an hour and fifteen minutes after stopping for a drink, a picture, a map-check, etc.). Interestingly, the ichirizukas that I pass are based on this principle. They are placed 1 ri apart. And a ri is defined as "the distance a man can walk in one hour"--standardized at 3.9 kilometers. SO the number of hours I walk in a day determines how far I get. If I stop for a museum, or for lunch, or for a long, interesting conversation, I will cover less ground. (I'm getting used to this slowly, and learning to enjoy the ride instead of being so destination-oriented.)

Parochialism: Everybody's got it: my village is better than your village. But it becomes obvious as you walk from one place to the next. People are intimately familiar with "their" places, and relatively ignorant about those "belonging" to others. Remember all those ferry crossings I've made? Travelers made them; transportation professionals made them; but a farmer could live next to a river all his life and never have reason to cross it. Chie at Hamanako Youth Hostel told me that to this day there are clear differences in dialect on opposite sides of large rivers like the Oi.

Humanity: I used to live in my car. Oh, not as a homeless guy. I had a house and a job. But like any good Angeleno, I never walked. So I seldom saw people other than those I worked with or lived with or did business with. In Tokyo, on the other hand, I had eye contact with more strangers in a day than I had in L.A. in a month! And that trend continues as I walk. A walker sees people where they live. Yesterday I walked through a park twice. The first time through, kids were playing ball. On one side of the park, three old ladies sat, chatting. Later--after dark--I walked through the same place, and a couple of high school lovers were there smooching. I get smiled at by old men and old ladies, "hello'd" by kids, questioned by men my age on bicycles. I am awash in humanity.


These are just a few of the themes that I've seen arising so far. I'm sure there'll be more.

Posted September 30, 2019

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