There comes a point during many of my travels—usually when I’m huddled under an umbrella beneath a tree branch in a sheeting rain, or shivering at night on a remote mountain slope—when I wonder if I’m not completely out of my mind. It’s part of the experience, really: that moment when I realize that I could be resting in a warm lodging like smart travelers, enjoying hot tea and a cozy futon. My feet take literal pains to let me know how much they hate me, and I find myself hating them back. I long for a hot spring to soak in, or even just a shower, but the nearest public bath houses are either closed for the night or too far away, and in any case would only be a brief respite before I had to be on my way again.
It’s not like this all the time when I "travel wild," otherwise I wouldn’t do it. But on every journey, the “Oh my God, what am I doing” demon inevitably rears its head at least once.
But there are many things I love about wandering this way. Being alone with my thoughts. Sleeping under the stars. Experiencing the landscape as countless sojourners and pilgrims have throughout history. Having to be resourceful when the cold and the dark come on.
I never have a plan for where I will spend the night. Always I get by.
The Japanese word for this style of traveling is nojuku—sleeping outdoors, in the wild. Old poets spoke of kusamakura, using grass as one’s pillow, though in truth that was mainly just a poetic word to describe a long journey and rarely meant sleeping on grass literally. Still, the image itself is romantic, and the sentiment is close to my heart. It lets me imagine, as I lie under the night sky or recline on a mountain slope, that I’m sharing some common experience with wandering poets and pilgrims of old, even if that’s only half-true.
But to me, perhaps the greatest benefit of traveling nojuku-style is allowing the world itself to sink into my consciousness: the heat, the cold, the light, the dark, the myriad scents and vistas. My fiction draws extensively on the environment, history, and culture of Japan, and in bringing that world to life for my reader, I want to convey not merely the product of my imagination, but also of my memory—a world whose landscapes, sights, seasons, and moods I know from intimate, firsthand experience.
Even the rain and the storms have their wisdom, if you meet them as a disciple.
Last year I hiked through the Amakusa Islands and the Shimabara Peninsula of southern Japan; this spring I traveled to Osaka, Iga, and Nara. What sights and experiences awaited in the heartland of the ninja, among the Seven Powerful Temples of the ancient capital, and finally, on the Mountain of the Serpent God? Join me again over these next few weeks, and we’ll explore them all together.