Let's Walk Across Japan, Together
Join me as I walk 500 km along the Tōkaidō in November, 2020
I’d like for us to take a walk together.
A global, distributed, walk across Japan, together, during a year when it’s impossible to do so in person.
And I’d like for our walk together to become a book.1
Here’s the proposal: I’m starting a daily, time-boxed newsletter called Pachinko Road that will run from November 3 to November 30. That’s when I’ll walk some 500km along the historic Tōkaidō highway between Tokyo and Kyoto.
Your email address will only be used for this newsletter. On December 1, I’ll delete the list. You can opt-out at any moment with a single click. Sign up here (or here if the form isn’t appearing for you below):
Each day I’ll send out one photograph and a 200-words-or-fewer missive. It’s meant to be visual, short and punchy. A Low Impact ™ email. Something you’ll be happy to peek at. 2
Each day I’ll ask you for a short (think: tweet-sized) anonymous response, if you feel up for it. Just a sentence or two responding to what I sent: How you’re feeling, what you experienced on that day. Maybe even a photo of where you are in the moment you get the email. Up to you.
These responses will be captured in a spreadsheet, away from my eyes.
When I complete the walk, I’ll take a peek at them all.
Some of your messages I’ll respond to with larger essays; I’d like to take the bulk of them (sans anything too unsavory) and put them into something shaped like a book.
This is a strange year. Many of you are itching to travel. I thought this might be a way for us to collectively respond to these circumstances.
The Tōkaidō should make for an interesting and varied stroll. I’ve walked bits in the past, but this will be my first time walking all of it.
Some form of the road itself has been in use since well before the Edo era. But it really came into its own from the 1600s on. Novels have been written about it. Poets have walked it, rhapsodized about it. It connected Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo) during the sankin-kōtai era of governance. Checkpoints along the way helped keep guns out of the capital, and women and children from escaping west. (Let’s just say: It was a weird, if peaceful, time.)
Post-Meji era, this road served as a baseline for more modern conveyances than just foot traffic. The eponymous Shinkansen route runs along it. As does most of Highway 1.
Today: It’s a big mix of forest, rural, suburban, and urban walking.
As we walk it, we’ll encounter farms, mountain paths, and — naturally — pachinko gambling parlors. In fact, we’ll get to delight in long strips of dire road with nothing but chain shops and pachinko.
I wrote about these strips in my book, Kissa by Kissa:
I loved the sprawl. It made you contend with how a portion of the world is just one continuous big-box store. But on Pachinko Road, it all had a slightly Japanese twist: Costco look-alikes in bizarro-world English or covered in kanji, dime-a-dozen tonkatsu pork cutlet restaurants with piglet mascots, chain udon noodle and curry shops you can find in any Japanese prefecture and, yes, pachinko parlors – those loud, smoke-filled vertiginous gambling warehouses so alluring, so Sirenic, they necessitate warning signs throughout their parking lots. Warnings that implore parents not to leave their infants in their cars as they play, hypnotized for hours by small metal balls. This was the belt of Japanese road I had now been walking for days. A belt where parents accidentally roasted their children.
What I like about these strips is they represent a version of who/what we are today. By walking the Tōkaidō we are doing something subversive, perhaps even idiotic — this is, largely, not a road meant for walking; most of it is car-optimized. But — by walking, we are forced to contend with the sprawl, to observe it up close and in slow motion. Something rarely achieved in car or on bike. We’ll get to look at all that mess — beautiful and rancid — together.
(Of course, there will be plenty of bucolic, rice-paddy-rural time as well.)
The SMS Experiment
Last year, I ran a test version of this daily-newsletter experiment when I walked across Japan on the Nakasendō highway. The Nakasendō is a kind of sister highway of the Tōkaidō. Last year’s experiment used SMS as the delivery vector. It was fun! But also a little clunky — sometimes the photos didn’t arrive. Sometimes the texts arrived out of order. It was expensive (SMSes aren’t cheap to send). I made just one copy. But that book — the object — that came out of the responses … it blew me away. It carried with it this surreal sense of walking with a group of invisible folks in tow. It’s a shame that only I have the book. So I’d like — from the outset — for this one to be openly collaborative, with the intention of going to press as a SPECIAL PROJECTS edition.
I’m a stickler when it comes to long walks and internet connectivity. I’m not a luddite. I love technology. But I think it should be deployed with strong and clear intention. So when I do walks like this, I try to whittle my tech exposure down to the bare essentials.
This is why I’ll keep your responses off to the side. I won’t see them while I walk because I want to be in the walk, fully present for just the walk, for what’s in front of me. I won’t have access to Instagram or Twitter or Facebook. I’m blocking all media on my phone and computer — no news. Just me and the road. I figure old farmers and kissa owners I meet along the way will fill me in on any critically important happenings in the world. 3
Last year, in setting up the SMS experiment, I wrote the following:
The crux of the project is threefold:
- I’m curious about using the network to publish without being used by it.
- I’m curious about fleeting, non-permanent online gatherings.
- I’m curious about drawing “edges” around walks.
There are many great reasons to go on a long walk. And I subscribe to and am excited about them all. But I also see a walk as a framework onto which you can hang little experiments, tests, trials.
The Pachinko Road newsletter is yet another experiment.
What do I mean by “use the network to publish without being used by it?” On most services — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc — in order to publish something you must stare into the maw of its timeline, resist whatever the algorithm has queued up for you, and then, if you’ve remembered what you were going to publish, publish.
One of the many sub-goals of this walk is to completely eliminate “intermittent variable rewards.” I’m primarily walking alone, with fairly strict set of technological tenets.
For the entirety of the walk I’ve decided not to touch — let alone be within earshot of — the Homeric sirens of a platform like Instagram or YouTube or Twitter. I don’t want the din of breathless news headlines popping up on my phone. I’m just too wimpy. I’ll get sucked in.
I want to be in the place in which I’m walking, and that place only, without any desire for those strange digital pellets of recognition, feedback, or delicious, delicious content.
And so I’ll have few apps on my phone, and will use Freedom to block websites.
Last year’s long walk experiment was a grand success. That off-network time was crucial to my experience of the walk. I feel like I formed a deeper relationship with, and connection to, the people of Japan, the country I call home. I wrote up parts of the experience for WIRED: “The Glorious, Almost-Disconnected Boredom of My Walk in Japan”.
My original plan was to do this walk in the spring of 2020, but then COVID happened, and the world stopped. Instead, I made a different book, one I’m fiercely proud of. But now it’s fall, the humidity has dropped, the heat dissipated, and we’re left with crisp blue skies and extra-long golden-hour sunsets.
I always thought the famed Japanese haiku poet, Matsuo Basho’s Oku no Hosomichi (1689) had the most epic of starts. He begins: “The months and days are travelers of eternity. Just like the years that come and go. For those who live their lives on boats, or lead horses towards old age, their lives are travel, their journeys are home.”
So, come, join me on an adventure. Let’s make that journey our home.
Maybe. Obviously, contingent on a million little things, but the general thrust, the vector of intent is a book, SP 2 or SP 3. ↩︎
I think the newsletter push these last few years has been wonderful. But one of the corollaries of having a bunch of smart folks excited about a medium is they tend to write long (me included!). 5,000 word screeds galore! Personally, I pass over more newsletter emails now than I did in the past. It’s simply overwhelming. So Pachinko Road is, in some ways, a direct response to that: Make it light and easy. ↩︎
You know, like, the state of superpower democracies, or if aliens land in Devon, or if ancient Roman ghosts manifest in the Colosseum, or if Apple releases a laptop with their own chip, et cetera, et cetera. ↩︎