Walking Across Japan
In light of technology’s increasing pervasiveness in our lives, there’s been a growing amount of discussion concerning how we can disconnect from it, or at least, better manage its influence in our lives. Craig Mod found a fairly dramatic way to do so: he took a six-week, 620-mile walk across Japan.
While he didn’t completely abandon technology — for example, he used a GPS app on his phone to help him follow a historical route for his journey — Mod did use some fairly clever ways to stay connected and share his journey with others without relying on social media tools like Instagram.
I wanted to share my walk too, but without getting caught up in the small loops of contemporary sharing platforms. So here’s where my rules limiting output came into play. Unlike Bird, I wasn’t exploring parts of Japan hitherto unseen by non-Japanese eyes, so a series of lengthy letters to friends didn’t quite make sense. Instead I riffed off the terseness of SMS messaging to share the psychological and physiological experience of the actual walking. Using a custom-built SMS tool, I sent out a daily text and one photo to an unknown number of recipients. One rule of the system was that I didn’t know who had subscribed. The subscribers joined by texting “walk” to a number I wrote on my website and in my newsletters. I’m pretty sure the daily update went out to hundreds, if not thousands of people, but I could not see them.
My second piece of digital output was audio-based. Each day, around 9:45 am, I found a unique space nearby where I was walking, took out my little Sony recorder, plugged in a microphone preamp, and then plugged in my binaural microphones. The microphones sit in my ears, sucking in sound like audio microscopes, so it just looks like I’m listening to music. But I’m not; I’m recording high-fidelity audio.
I would record for about 15 minutes, and at the end of the day, right after pushing out my SMS, publish to a podcast called SW945. Binaural audio is like virtual reality audio. Put some headphones on, close your eyes, and you are hearing what I heard, with the same sense of 3D spatiality. For me, the recording process was a little beat — 15 minutes of meditation each morning. It forced me to think about the sounds of the day. I recorded in front of temples, standing next to rice paddies full of croaking frogs, in screaming pachinko parlors, bowling alleys, cafes, hotel lobbies. Anywhere that seemed to typify that day, that moment, that chunk of the road. I’d close my eyes and marvel at the sheer volume and specificity of sound around me.
While we hear a constant (and not untrue) refrain of how technology makes us more detached and disconnected, Mod’s use of technology allowed him to be more present (e.g., “the daily SMS became a forcing function that deepened my experience of the walk, made me more aware of how painful or joyful or crushingly boring the days were”). It’s a good reminder that technology should be a tool, and we its masters. Or as Mod puts it, “[b]eing able to share in somewhat real time and not be pulled out of the moment was just an issue of tools and framing.”
(If you’re feeling particularly nerdy, Mod has written more about his SMS-based publishing platform and how it allowed him to “[use] the network to publish without being used by it.”)
Another interesting facet of Mod’s article is his discovery of the joy of boredom during his walk. But rather than being soul-crushing, this boredom proved to be freeing and enlightening — something that seems anathema in our “always on/connected/entertained” age (emphasis mine):
Let me make it clear: I was luxuriously, all-consumingly bored for most of the day. The road was often dreary and repetitive. But as trite as it may sound, within this boredom, I tried to cultivate kindness and patience. A continuous walk is powerful because every day you can choose to be a new person. You flit between towns. You don’t really exist. And so this is who I decided to be: a fully present, disgustingly kind hello machine. I said hello to bent-over grandmothers and their grandchildren playing in rice paddies. I said hello to business folk about to hop into their Suzuki Jimny jeeps, to Portuguese workers on break from car factories, to men in traditional fundoshi underwear about to carry a portable shrine in a festival. I greeted shop owners cranking open their rusted awnings and a man selling chocolate-dipped bananas. I’d estimate a hello return rate of almost 98 percent. Folks looked up from their gardening or sweeping or bananas and flung a hello back, often reflexively but then, once their eyes caught up with their mouths and they saw I was not a local, not one of them, their faces shifted to delight.
I felt as if the walk itself was pulling that kindness from me, biochemically. The feedback cycle was exhilarating. It was banal. It was something I rarely felt when plugged in online: kind hellos begetting hellos, begetting more kindness.
In the context of a walk like this, “boredom” is a goal, the antipode of mindless connectivity, constant stimulation, anger and dissatisfaction. I put “boredom” in quotes because the boredom I’m talking about fosters a heightened sense of presence. To be “bored” is to be free of distraction.
My wife is currently reading Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, and it’s sparked conversation about how our family can better use technology without being used by it. Mod’s thoughts on, and unorthodox approaches to, technology dovetail nicely with those, and provide more food for thought. Furthermore, his approach to “boredom” as the opposite of “mindless connectivity, constant stimulation, anger and dissatisfaction” is something I want to impress on my kids, who — as is the wont of all children — consider boredom to be the. Absolute. Worst. (It’s an approach I’d like to foster in myself, as well.)
And of course, since Mod’s article is a lovely portrait of Japan — and especially of out-of-the-way places that are often overlooked in lieu of places like Tokyo and Kyoto — it sparks a not-insignificant amount of nostalgia and longing for the country. Our family spent several weeks in Japan back in 2009, and it’s a long-standing family dream/goal to return now that our kids are getting older and able to more fully appreciate the experience.