A poet as my guide

To be perfectly honest, I wasn't really looking for a learning experience.

I was simply hoping for a September vacation that would be a bit different, something to take me far away from my only-too-familiar daily routine.

So when I heard of a walking tour offered in the rural north of Japan, I was immediately charmed. I quickly warmed to images of myself strolling through rural lanes bordered by rice fields and sleeping on the tatami mats of centuries-old country inns.

But what I hardly expected was that my vacation would plunge me deep into a book, much less a book by a 17th-century haiku master.

This is, however, what happened. Instead of just walking, I walked and read and experienced the pleasure of learning.

In the end, my best lesson would be an enhanced sensitivity to the old Japan that

lingers just under the contemporary surface. Instead of feeling distant from the multitude of travelers who had explored these roads for centuries, I came to feel instead how much I was like them.

And at the same time, I experienced the enduring power of a good book.

Walking tours have become increasingly popular with American tourists over the course of the past 20 years or so. Groups now make walking culinary tours of the Italian Alps, hike among the boundary waters of Minnesota, or even trek across a swath of India.

And while the walking tour offers many advantages, perhaps the most important is its leisurely pace. Less ground is covered – but it is covered more thoroughly. People, places, and things inch, not speed, by. And as they do, they offer "teachable moments" at almost every step.

Of course, I probably should have guessed that my trip (offered by Esprit Travel & Tours of Los Angeles) had a literary dimension when, amid flight schedules and currency information, I received a reading list. It included "In Praise of Shadows" by 20th Century author Junichiro Tanizaki – an exploration of Japanese aesthetics – and "The Narrow Road to the Deep North" by Matsuo Basho.

Basho, who lived in the 1600s, is one of Japan's most famous haiku masters. He was also a compulsive traveler who found pleasure in wandering Japan's north. To some extent, we would follow his path.

Unlike Basho, of course, we did not walk dirt roads in straw sandals or scale mountains on horseback. Instead, we zipped by bullet train from Tokyo to Sendai, a northern city also visited by Basho. From there we moved by bus, local train, and foot through mountains and fields, and along Japan's Pacific coast.

Yet Japan's north is still sleepy and rural compared with the south, even as it was in the 1600s. Rice farms, fishermen's homes, Shinto shrines, and Buddhist temples still figure prominently in the landscape. And just as Basho had, we slept in the region's country inns and bathed in its traditional mineral hot-spring baths.

As we did, it became easy to envision Basho's Japan. He became our guide, reminding us how little really changes when it comes to some of the basic themes of human experience, and how closely Japan's rural north still hews to its roots.

One rainy morning, for example, we hiked through rice fields to a small Buddhist cemetery. There we paused as the tour leader spoke about the Buddhist concept of death and traditional Japanese death rites. We examined the monuments, several adorned with pictures of young men in World War II-era uniforms.

I flipped through my copy of Basho's book and found the page where he pauses on his journey at a lonely rural cemetery:

"I came to the pine woods called Sue-no-matsuyama, where I found a temple named Masshozan and a great number of tombstones scattered among the trees. It was a depressing sight indeed, for young or old, loved or loving, we must all go to such a place at the end of our lives."

That sense of melancholy would return later, as we walked a winding country road, watching women in sun bonnets harvest rice. While walking, we listened via Walkman (Esprit has technology allowing the tour leader to communicate through each hiker's Walkman) to a recounting of Japan's entry into World War II.

We heard about a people still largely cut off from the outside world, believing fiercely in the divinity of their emperor and the invincibility of their island nation. We heard of their intoxication with the idea of building an empire and a confidence bred of an era of affluence and success – a confidence that led only to disaster.

I reached once again for Basho. He had walked to Hiraizumi, where the Fujiwara family had ruled gloriously until they destroyed themselves through fighting. "It was here that the glory of the three generations of the Fujiwara family passed away like a snatch of an empty dream," wrote Basho as he viewed the ruined gates of their mansion. It was a fitting commentary on the end of Japan's prewar empire.

Basho's Japan became a touchstone for our understanding of the country's past and present. Early in the trip, we stopped at a gatekeeper's home near Narugo, where Basho had been a guest. We noted the way the building relied on beams to support the roof, encouraging more openness to nature – a feature central to classic Japanese architecture.

Characters encountered along the way also figured largely in our journey, as they did in Basho's. "It was a great pleasure to see the marvelous beauties of nature, rare scenes in the mountains or along the coast ... or better still, to meet people who had entirely devoted themselves to the search for artistic truth," he wrote.

We met artists, people dedicated to pursuing the traditional crafts practiced for generations. We talked with a potter, a master of lacquerware (which Basho called "somewhat uncouth gold-lacquer work"), and a maple-wood basket weaver. One woman was a 12th-generation maker of washi – a rich paper made from the pulp of mulberry trees. She invited us into her 300-year-old farmhouse, a building that reflected the shadowy conception of beauty praised by author Tanizaki.

We also met a Buddhist priest who invited us into his temple – echoing the experience of Basho, who often socialized with priests during his travels. We sat on the temple floor and were touched as the priest told of the spiritual journey that led him there, and of his efforts to be a force for good in his quiet rural community.

I thumbed Basho as I listened: "The tranquility of the priest's hermitage was such that it inspired, in the words of an ancient poet, 'a profound sense of meditation' in my heart." The region's spiritual roots, it seemed, were still available for discovery by today's traveler.

When it came time to record some of my impressions in writing, I found Basho had done even that. "The readers will find in my diary a random collection of what I have seen on the road," he wrote, "... an isolated house in the mountains, or a lonely inn surrounded by the moor, for example. I jotted down these records with the hope that they might provoke pleasant conversation among my readers and that they might be of some use to those who would travel the same way."

There was not much left for me to add.

We studied their home, they studied our language

We were students of their country and they were students of our language, so in a way it was a perfect match.

I was taking a 12-day walking tour of the rural north of Japan along with 16 other Americans. On Day 8, as we walked through the countryside near Japan's Pacific coast, the tour leader announced that we would stop at a Japanese public high school.

Most of the students in the class we visited were in their fourth year of English study, but they rarely saw foreigners in their small town and had few opportunities to practice the language.

Many of the kids were wide-eyed, and a few burst into wild giggles when they actually heard us speak English. The teacher quickly divided us into mixed Japanese-American teams and organized a lively game that required the Japanese to provide the Americans with basic information about Japan, and vice versa – all in English.

A few students simply couldn't get past their mirth when it came to speaking English, but most, as time passed, grew bolder about shaping questions and answers. Many times faces lit up with joy as we completed an actual conversational exchange in English.

Later, someone who met these students at the train station that afternoon told us they were abuzz with excitement over having met foreigners. We were feeling pretty great, too.

As one of our group members summed it up: "Those kids – their eyes were so bright."

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