Why travel at all?

“Why do you want to go to yet another country?”  My Granddad asked me two years ago when I told him I wanted to move to Japan. It was not in an accusatory get a stable job here tone, but he was asking out of sheer bewilderment. He didn’t understand my desire to travel in the same way I didn’t understand his desire for an expensive car. He questioned me more, “When will you be satisfied, when will you have had enough experiences to be fulfilled?”

I have often thought back on my Granddad’s question, and wondered what I gain from travelling. Some people are just out there to get the ‘Been there, Done that’ T-shirt, others may just be at a loose end and have a bit of money to blow. For me, travelling can broaden a person’s mind and change them from the inside. Travelling gives you the freedom to be who you want to be and escape any expectations or social pressures to be someone else.

Changes

‘It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves… the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person.’ Alain de Botton

Before I left to go travelling for the first time, I was a Christian and a vegetarian. Ten countries and six months later I was neither a Christian, nor a vegetarian. It’s true to say that I wouldn’t have changed such fundamental beliefs, if I had not left the institutions and people who had inspired and strengthened by previous beliefs. It was the freedom to be away from my own culture that gave me the space to rethink my beliefs, and find a set of beliefs that I truly owned, not just had grown up in.

These changes can shock people who knew you as a different person before you left. They greet you as your old self, they have expectations of you as your pre-travelled self, and although you have had months to come to terms with the new You, for them it can be a shock. When I returned to church, my congregation welcomed me back with open arms, but when I explained to them why I wouldn’t be coming regularly, they replied to me, ‘We’ll pray for you.’ Perhaps those prayers aren’t going to waste, but I couldn’t say for sure.

Learning through travelling

At 17 years old, I was presented with university prospectuses and told to choose a course. I was bewildered. Because I had no clear aim of what career I wanted to have, I wanted to study the broadest humanities subject I could. A year later I was accepted on a course that covered Archaeology, Biological Anthropology and Social Anthropology in the first year. I learnt about our evolution from apes to Homo sapiens, to how we built civilisations and  the grand scopes of world history. For my second and third year, I specialised in Social Anthropology and this is where my real interest lies. Through this course I learnt about the variations in culture and beliefs throughout the world and what a beautiful and colourful patchwork quilt of peoples and cultures there are.

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My degree has given me with a grid as to hang my experience of the world on, and as a curious traveller, I see it as a means of learning about the world. Being able to visit the place where historical events actually took place is a luxury that comes with being able to travel, and so much more memorable than a text book.

A love for living

‘I set out for the desert in order to be made to feel small.’ Alain de Botton

I have never felt smaller than on the Mongolian steppe. Riding on a horse across an untrodden landscape, with nothing but a small bag for my belongings, and no settlements in view; I felt like a grain of sand in a desert, insignificant and fragile to forces bigger than myself.

Those natural forces were closer than I’d imagined, and the weary, ragged horse I was riding reared up, throwing me off backwards. I fell through the air in slow motion, hitting the ground with a tremendous thud. After a couple of seconds I realised that I was still alive, and when I tried to get up, all my limbs were working. Yet my life could’ve been different if I had landed less than a meter to the left, where a sharp-edged boulder lined the mountain pass. I remember thinking that the nearest hospital would’ve taken days to get to. Experiences where there is a ‘what if’ factor attached to it, jolt us back to life and give us a refreshed love for life. They can also give us bruises that last for months.

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Taking Journeys in Real Time

‘Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than a moving plane, ship or train.’ Alain de Botton

The Japanese bullet train travels at 246km per hour can take you from Tokyo to Osaka in less than two hours, but it saps the pleasure out of travelling. The world goes by in a blur. Compare this to the Trans-Siberian Railway whose trains saunters its way from Moscow to Vladivostok in weekly commutes. In September 2007, I spent seven days on the train from Moscow to Beijing. Those seven days seemed like longer; time seemed to slow down on it.

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During those slow days on the train, I’d fill up my plastic mug with hot, sweet coffee and take a seat by the window. Every so often we’d go past a village, where the houses looked small and poorly-built. Bundled-up women were digging patches of land and pulling up cabbages; both the women and the cabbages seemed oblivious to the cold.

When the train pulled into a station, we’d be met by these women who sold us homemade stews in plastic tubs. They must have known we were tired of eating pot noodles or the measly and overpriced restaurant-cart food. I spent seven days watching the world go by; through the Ural mountains, past majestic Lake Baikal and the green open steppes of Siberia, snaking through the eastern edge of the Gobi desert and finally into the tunnelled and terraced mountains of northern China. I can’t remember having any special waves of insight on this train, but as the train slowly chugged across the landscape, I felt the expanse of the world and somehow felt connected with it.

It’s a seven day journey that only takes six hours to cross by plane, but the difference is; the in-flight entertainment is better on the ground.

The balance between living in the moment and making memories

Memories are one of the long-lasting souvenirs of travel; when photographs have been lost, t-shirts worn out and trinkets gone missing. Memories are still there, waiting to be triggered by a smell, sight or passing thought. Yet, there is also an art to living in the presence.

Some people try to capture everything through photographs; they try to possess a moment. Before my recent travels to the Philippines, I bought a camcorder to film my vacation. Although it was my first time using a camcorder, I expected results worthy of a nature documentary; of sunrises across shimmering oceans, of morning mists caressing mountains and of local people naturally going about their daily life. I soon found it wasn’t that easy. I enjoyed recording because I knew I could share them with my family and we could relive our vacation many times over. But I was also aware that I was seeing things through a 3 inch screen, rather than in real life. I decided to film for only seconds and then take it in with my own eyes. It was 1000 times better.

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Photo courtesy of Martyn Bisset

Of course, I now have video footage of all the beautiful places we saw, but my memories are not limited to what I caught on camera. It is the five-year old girl dancing at a party, the boy sleeping on a Spanish veranda in the middle of the roundabout and the warmth of the water that will stay in my mind.

So is travelling worthwhile?

Travelling costs money, you don’t get a certificate at the end of it and I can see why some people question its worth. But I travel because I have an insatiable curiosity to see what’s out there, and just because I can. Travelling used only to be for explorers, then for the upper classes, but now young people in developed countries have the opportunity to go to a far-flung country at little expense and little difficulty. I’d ask why wouldn’t someone go if they have the time and the money?

 

Decision made

Every January on the JET programme you have to decide whether you want to re-contract for or not. If you prove you’re a great ALT, you can stay for up to five years. Most people stay for two or three. 

I had initially planned only to stay two years, but I have been enjoying my life here so much that I nearly signed on to stay a third year. The JET community, my friends and a stable pay, as well as another year to explore Japan and other Asian countries were all reasons to stay. However, on the other side were the frustrations of the job, the declining rate of the yen against the pound and my desire to spend more time with my family. It was a really tough decision that kept me awake many nights. But one snowy January night, my friend and I were talking about all the other places in the world we could go, all the other places we could work if we wanted to, and we both decided that we’d sign the Going Home form.

Every day I question my decision, but I know that the next adventure is just around the corner. And I still have six months to enjoy Japan and all the friends I’ve made here.

What I do when I return from Japan is another question. The thought of having no responsibilities is exciting and daunting at the same time. I could do a Masters, I could teach English in another country, or I could go travelling until my money runs out! Like they say, ‘the world is your oyster’, but when you don’t have any direction as to what to do, this can be a curse as well as a blessing. It all depends on your perspective.

Being surrounded my JETs who typically have a happy-go-lucky attitude to life, my career-driven self that was fuelled at university has taken a back-seat, and now all I want to do is enjoy my twenties and experience as much as the world as I can before I am succumbed to the usual desires to settle down.

I have no idea where I’ll be in a year’s time, although there are plenty of places I’d like to be. The travelling-bug is stirring inside of me, although it’s never really left me.

Where next?

Kodo: the heartbeat of the drum

Have you ever visited somewhere which totally enchants you? You know when a place has captivated you when you are leaving and you look back at the island, city or countryside and say to yourself “I will come back someday”. Yet at the same time, knowing that you may never get the opportunity again, and the memories you’ve made there will be forever romanticised in your mind.

Last summer, some friends and I visited Sado Shima, a small island in Niigata Prefecture, off the western coast of Northern Honshu. We were going for the Earth Festival to see the internationally renown taiko group Kodo play on their home island. It was by word of mouth that we heard about this festival, and it didn’t disappoint.

Taiko in Japanese refers to any kind of drum, but it is the performance of an ensemble of drummers playing for performances that taiko is now become known as. These drums had previously been used to motivate troops in warfare, to accompany Shinto dances and as a key component of Noh and kubuki theatre. In the 1950s a master taiko drummer named Daihachi Oguchi helped transform taiko from its traditional roots in shrines and a festivals to kumi-daiko, playing for the sake of performance. This energetic style of taiko took off in popularity and soon groups sprung up all over Japan. Nowadays children learn it in elementary school although the arcade game Taiko no Tatsujin is more popular than playing the real thing!

If you have heard of taiko before, you may be familiar with the group Kodo. They have toured the world, shaking stages and impressing audiences wherever they have played. They are a group who don’t do anything by halves.slide06

Only the best taiko drummers in Japan have a chance of becoming part of Kodo. Apprentices have to endure two years of rigorous training and practising to even audition to become a performer. The daily routine for members is gruelling, starting with a 10 km run, then the rest of the day spent drumming until they are too tired, or they have two many blisters-on-blisters to drum any more. It is not just their bodies that the forty men and the seven women of Kodo that are in training. Being part of Kodo is also a training of the mind to forgo selfish desires and to make decisions as part of a collective. Watch this video to find out more of the hardships apprentices go through to become part of Kodo.

Although playing taiko is no longer associated with religion, it does still possess a deeper meaning than just a musical performance. “Kodo” has two meanings, the first being “heartbeat” referring to how the taiko resembles a mother’s heartbeat as felt in the womb. The second reading is “children of the drum” that reflects Kodo’s desire to play the drums simply, with the heart of a child. Yet it is certainly not children you think of when you watch Kodo play.

The men of Kodo are the gladiators of drumming. Wearing just a fundoshi, a white loin-cloth, it is not just the rhythm of the drum that will impress you. The strength and stamina of these men is exhibited in various musical pieces, and they play the drum in various positions. In one piece, three men sit reclined on the stage with an odaiko drum between their legs and their toes curled around it. They play in this half-sat-up position for over ten minutes, their stomach muscles tightened, their buttocks clenched and their quads in tension, whilst their arms swing back and forth as they beat the drum. From the shouts of passion and pain that they make, you can be mistaken for thinking you are watching a primal ritual, not a drumming performance in the twenty-first century.Kodo-5-Epworth

Yet that piece was just a warm up. The real jaw-dropper was when two men stood on opposite sides of a two metre high and three metre long odaiko and played it like they were at war. With their backs arched, their legs apart and their arms above their heads, this type of drumming is so athletic it could become an Olympic sport.Kodo12_main1

As a member of the audience you can feel the deep rumble of the odaiko reverberate through your chest, and the beat is infectious. My friends and I found ourselves dancing with a crowd of energized fans, all wanting to be part of the performance, not just the audience.

After two nights of watching Kodo, my friends and I were enchanted by them. All we talked about was who our favourite player was, the man we met who was an ex-taiko player and sightings of their van going through the town. So we visited Kodo Village, where the group live and train for the months they are not on tour, to find out more about them. We learnt about the strict rules of being part of the ensemble; no television, radio, alcohol, cigarettes, or sex. Members also have to plant rice, cook and clean together. Their sole purpose it to give their whole selves to the community and the philosophy of Kodo; spreading the spirit of the drum.IMG_1405

It was when we were leaving on the ferry back to the mainland that we were treated to an unexpected performance from the Kodo performers. They had come to see some of their members off, who were leaving on the same ferry as us. They set up a few drums on the port, and as the ferry engines revved up, they began to play. This time, they were not in their traditional outfits but were wearing shorts and t-shirts. Nor were they performing for money, they were doing it for the love of playing. Band members from apprentices to directors took part in the impromptu farewell party. As they boat was making its way out of the port, I could still see the group playing and waving goodbye. And the Kodo members on the boat were still waving their shirts in the air, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had some tears in their eyes. From this farewell, it was clear that the group were very close to each other. Undoubtedly their monastic lifestyles and the long hours of practising their performances created deep friendships.DSCF1110IMG_1427

It was a privilege to see this group, and one I’d recommend to anyone. If you can visit the Earth Celebration Festival in August on Sado Shima you should visit other places on the island; beautiful beaches, century-old cedar forests and mountainous roads with vast ocean views. It’s definitely on the unspoilt, and underrated list of places to go in Japan, but one that has a lot of potential for becoming popular. Even if you just visit to watch Kodo, you may become enchanted with it. I did.DSCF1103

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A wild sea

In the distance over Sado

The Milky Way

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