Looking down over Hirasawa post town, Nagano Prefecture
The jazz cafe was tiny, with a few polished wood tables, a record collection on display, and two beautiful speakers. The owner, in his 70s, wore a porkpie hat and a sleeve garter. I’d stumbled into this place during a long walk through a stretch of rural Japan. I had a coffee while listening to an original pressing of Miles Davis performing in Tokyo, and afterward, the owner looked me in the eye and said: "I want you to give me a present. I want you to tell me one thing you love about Japan."
I thought for a second, and unable to name just one, answered, with overly earnest awkwardness: the health care system, the lack of guns, the safety. I’m an American, so I suppose these things are on my mind. But I’ve also lived in Japan for nearly 20 years, and these qualities still impress me. When I walked into the jazz cafe, I had been walking for 25 days across the country and had never once worried about my safety. It's not that I feel especially unsafe when walking around the US, but I feel the constant hum of violence in the background. In contrast, on this walk in Japan everyone was courteous. Lovely, even. Sometimes a bit bossy, but never malicious. Did I have to sneak out of a barely functioning inn in the middle of the night because the room smelled overbearingly of urine? Sure. But what I saw around me were people who were taken care of—by their families, communities, government—a feeling which, in turn, made me feel hopeful in the biggest, most cosmic way of being hopeful.
The cafe owner smiled. I think he wanted me to say "The sushi." And so ignoring my socialist speech, he said "Now I will give you a present. Go to the toilet."
I balked. What kind of present was this?
He repeated his invitation, sternly, with an odd little smile: "I want you to use my toilet, and then you can leave."
He turned and gingerly slipped "We Are The World" out of its sleeve and placed it on the turntable.
I obeyed. I opened one door and then another, and a pure white light emerged from the tiny bathroom. I entered, and looked up. The ceiling was an improbable 25 feet above me with a glass ceiling. Sunlight flooded the room. The sink was black marble. And in the middle of the otherwise whitewashed space was a simple, beige toilet. It was the most ridiculously and gloriously presented toilet I had ever seen. Imperial. It was an imperial toilet.
In the background: "We are the ones to make a brighter day so, let’s start giving." This dude was good.
Cafe near Kusatsu, Shiga Prefecture
I was on an epic walk, 620 miles alone across Japan, over six weeks. I set out on this walk not knowing what I was getting into. I didn't know that I’d meet this guy or see his amazing toilet. But I did and, because I’m human, I wanted to share that serendipity. Look! A man who is almost 70 and has run a cafe almost every day since 1984 has built a toilet for the simple purpose of bedazzling his customers! But sharing today means using social platforms like Instagram or Twitter or Facebook. And once you open those apps and stare into the maw of an algorithmically curated timeline, you are pulled far, far away from the music and the toilet or wherever it is you may be at that moment.
I have configured servers, written code, built web pages, helped design products used by millions of people. I am firmly in the camp that believes technology is generally bending the world in a positive direction. Yet, for me, Twitter foments neurosis, Facebook sadness, Google News a sense of foreboding. Instagram turns me covetous. All of them make me want to do it—whatever "it" may be—for the likes, the comments. I can’t help but feel that I am the worst version of myself, being performative on a very short, very depressing timeline. A timeline of seconds.
These are complaints of my own making. But look—I’ve tried. I’ve pruned, and sliced back, and still find myself time and time again sucked in.
In 2008, the technologist Linda Stone coined the phrase "email apnea"—the holding of breath when we start to dig into our inboxes. I feel a version of that on many of the media platforms and social networks we've produced and influencer-ed: a mental hyperventilation, caught in tiny loops that seem to lead nowhere.
So, a month ago, when I started walking, I decided to conduct an experiment. Maybe even a protest. I wanted to test hypotheses. Our smartphones are incredible machines, and to throw them away entirely feels foolhardy. The idea was not to totally disconnect, but to test rational, metered uses of technology. I wanted to experience the walk as the walk, in all of its inevitably boring walkiness. To bask in serendipitous surrealism, not just as steps between reloading my streams. I wanted to experience time.
I’ve taken many walks in Japan, but this was a walk of a different scale. I left my house in a small town south of Tokyo shouldering a giant pack, walking poles, and wearing hiking boots. I wound my way up through Yokohama to the capital, and, from there, followed an old historic highway, snaking into valleys lush with spring blossoms and full-bloom cherry trees, abutted by the Central Japanese Alps of Nagano and Gifu prefectures, ending in Kyoto. In the end I walked a long way.
Woman burning weeds, Gifu Prefecture
Parking lot, Urawa, Saitama Prefecture
The longness of an activity is important. Hours or even days don’t really cut it when it comes to long. "Long" begins with weeks. Weeks of day-after-day long walking days, 30- or 40-kilometer days. Days that leave you wilted and aware of all the neglect your joints and muscles have endured during the last decade of sedentary YouTubing. And I fully recognize that weeks of walking isn’t long in the grand context of the Walk. That walk of pre-Homo hominins and later Homo erectus out of Africa and into Europe and Asia. Months and years and millennia are the scales of true long walks. That I concede.
But this road, the "Nakasendo"—or "inner mountain route"—is one of the longer historical walks in the country, and so offers a unique platform on which to cut your long-walk teeth. This road was at its height between the 15th and 19th centuries, during the Japanese Edo period. Long before America declared independence from the British, this unbroken road was a culturally rich circus littered with thousands of inns and tea houses, lacquerware craftsmen, comb stores, sake breweries, swordmakers, brothels, soba shops, temples, and shrines. Today, chunks of it have been appropriated for national highways and look like a suburban blightscape: pachinko gambling parlors, chain ramen shops, big-box drug stores. But most of the route takes a walker through rural towns and farming villages—less roaring circus, and more elderly care home. You feel, in ways both exciting and heartbreaking, that you are a last witness.
I set very strict rules for this walk. The first set of rules limited my inputs. I would use only a tiny sliver of the internet. In practice this meant going cold turkey on all social networks and most news and media sites. I used a piece of blocking software on my phone and laptop called Freedom. I created a blocklist in Freedom and named it "THE PHONE IS A TOOL YOU DUMMY." It prevented me from opening The New York Times app or Twitter or Facebook, virtual spaces all too easy to fall back into when approximately three seconds of boredom enter your frame.
My phone ceased to be a teleportation machine and became, instead, a context machine. Since Freedom allows selective blocking, I kept access to websites—Nakasendo Way, Wikipedia, some Japanese blogs—that gave me historical background about the old post towns I walked through. Most important, my phone guided me. I loaded a GPX route file into an app called Gaia GPS. It contains the historical Nakasendo road overlaid on top of a contemporary map. This app and route file helped me locate the old road when signs and markers had all but disappeared. Using reference materials and old guidebooks, I plotted my own markers for historically significant buildings like the inns—honjin—for the highest-ranking feudal lords and their retainers, as well as the ancient mile markers—ichirizuka—which once upon a time were giant mounds of earth flanking the road, but today, are often just tiny stone monuments or faded placards. You’d miss them if you didn’t know when or where to look.
The result was that I was able to deviate from the historical route with greater freedom, knowing just where the original line lay. I could do this with essentially zero cognitive overhead, which is an advantage the ever-updating smartphone map has over a paper map.
Broken gate near Sekigahara, Gifu Prefecture
Man doing morning workout in park near Yokohama Station
Google Maps was also indispensable for context, helping me locate otherwise tough-to-find cafes called kissaten in the nooks of remote villages. (Just search for kissaten, and voila!) In those spots, I’ve had some meaningful encounters, like a conversation with a nearly 80-year-old tomato farmer about Trump (he brought it up) and that bathroom I’ll never forget. Unlike my often overly optimistic guidebooks, Google Maps provided rational estimates of walking time to my next inn, so I knew how much time I had to dillydally.
My rules extended beyond the internet to other sorts of mental transportation. I promised myself not to listen to books on tape or podcasts. But during grueling stretches where the route followed a highway and tractor-trailers careened inches away from my face, I broke this rule. And as I left Sekigahara—the site of a battle in 1600 that effectively unified Japan, and set in motion everything that made the road I have been walking possible—I couldn’t resist a four-hour episode of Hardcore History on modern Japan, which essentially begins in that very place.
But otherwise there was the walk, silence, and the grand, pervasive boredom of it all.
Farm just outside of Shiojiri Post Town
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.
Tomato farmer, Shiojiri, Nagano Prefecture
Vegetable farmer, Saitama Prefecture
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.
As the days added up, I began to notice strange patterns that, had my nose been in my phone, or my head filled with a podcast, I don’t think I would have seen. Small signs, all of the same design—white and yellow text on a black background—began to appear. Little messages about "hearts" and "heads" and "eternal life." Small things, but in aggregate they formed a kind of invisible chain of Christian messaging. You can find similar hidden Christian messaging in temple carvings from the 16th and 17th centuries, when the religion was banned. I noticed that no matter how depopulated a village may have been, there were no fewer than three barbers or hairdressers. I became aware that there was a period of house construction in the 1990s that leaned heavily on the design element of classical statues in small gardens; tiny naked Davids were suddenly everywhere. Every few kilometers there was another playground that looked as if no child had touched it in decades.
I don’t desire to be a hermit. Sharing experiences feels like an essential part of human identity. In 1878, Isabella Bird wrote Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, a hilarious, incisive, cutting travelogue that was constructed largely from letters she sent home from Japan.
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.
The recipients could respond, but I’ve yet to see what they said. Those responses have been collected in a print-on-demand book that's waiting for me when I get back home. My intent is then to respond to the responses in aggregate, long after the walk is finished.
The goal of this convoluted system is to use the network without being used by it. And the purpose of time-shifted conversation is to share the walk without being pulled away from it. I could use a tool like Instagram to approximate this, but I’d have to fight with its algorithm and avoid looking at the timeline. I am not superhuman. I would look at the notifications, the likes, and comments. Reply to them. Become intoxicated by the chemicals released by the tiny loops. Invariably this process would make me think about that audience and how they would be reacting to the next text and photo. I would have lost the purity of the experience. And yet, with global network connectivity, there’s no reason to not also broadcast, in part, in real time. To both consider the experience and share it with immediacy. 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. Being able to share in somewhat real time and not be pulled out of the moment was just an issue of tools and framing.
Construction worker, Tokyo
Prefab house construction near Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture
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.
Man watering garden, Isobe, Gunma Prefecture
My hope was that others could "listen along" to the walk. Someone emailed and said that, on a recent long-haul flight, they had put in noise-canceling headphones, covered their head with a blanket, and listened to the walk for five hours. This made me unreasonably happy.
Both the SMS and podcast publishing systems are "open" systems, with no single controlling entity like a Facebook or Twitter. And they are "quiet" systems, in that production and consumption spaces are separated. You don’t have to enter a timeline of consumption in order to produce.
On an average day, I walked about eight hours, produced my two output streams, ate, bathed, laundered my sweaty gear, packed, unpacked, and repacked. Checked my equipment, bandaged feet, iced knees, and attempted to get a minimum of eight hours of sleep. About a week into the walk, I told an old woman about my schedule and she asked me, "Is this an ascetic practice?" I laughed in the moment, but then for weeks as I walked, I turned her question over and over in my mind. The grueling pace. The boredom. The pain. And then doing it over again the next day. It certainly starts to sound like an ascetic practice. Webster’s 1913 Dictionary—which happens to be my default dictionary on my laptop (yes, I know that's weird)—defines an ascetic as "one who devoted himself to a solitary and contemplative life, characterized by devotion, extreme self-denial, and self-mortification; a hermit; a recluse; hence, one who practices extreme rigor and self-denial in religious things."
Is this kind of walk for the purity of walking religious? Each day, I passed many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, where I issued daily prayers as a form of simple nondenominational thankfulness. I recognize what a strange gift and incredible privilege it is to take the time to do a walk like this. And the disconnection from online chaos and the creating of space to think, to be present, does feel somewhat religious, even if it’s a religion of contemporary woe: to stop being a ding-dong who can’t pull his eyes away from Twitter.
The walk is just physically rigorous enough, and the disconnection just extreme enough, to create a flywheel of habit breakage. The first week of the walk I reached for news and social networks multiple times a day, only to have Freedom slap me down. I was frustrated and low on patience, and only later realized this was probably a minor form of withdrawal.
Around 10 days in, after the skin had peeled off my pinkie toes and my shoulders started to heal and accept their fate, I found that my general musculature acclimated to the daily grind. Walking shifted from a laborious act of biomechanics, to something that simply happened. This sounds crazy, but it was as if walking became part of my autonomic nervous system, like breathing. With stronger leg and gluteus muscles, the world felt like an extremely high resolution simulation, and I was merely a floating consciousness, bobbing between rice paddies and up and down mountains saying hello to anything that moved. Everything still hurt at the end of the day, but the movement was effortless, and sometimes I found myself yelping with joy, alone in the woods, at the beauty and smoothness of it all. It was around this time that the information urge faded.
Each day, I scheduled an hour where Freedom turned off, a kind of safety valve. When I finally peeked, during the second week, to see if any urgent messages had snuck in, the Twitter and Instagram timelines felt appealing, but no longer felt critical to slurp up in tiny, infinite loops.
Of course, the long walk was not "normal" life. Imperial toilets aren’t your everyday toilet. You may never say hello to three dozen strangers in a single day. But one chief purpose for this kind of monastic walking is to literally pound into your body, step after step, the positive habits that can be found only through repetition. To create a physiological template of stillness, or kindness, or focus that you can then attempt to bring back to the "real" world. Stillness is then no longer an idea, but a muscular configuration. Sure, you may be a "floating consciousness" between the rice fields, but how patient are you back in the office with frustrating coworkers?
It’s this back and forth that most interests me—flip-flopping from that place of great quietude that comes from a long walk, to the chaos of inputs that awaits you back in the "real world" in a chair. Given time, I will once again be nonsensically addicted to Twitter. And given time, I will absolutely go on yet another long walk. My hope is that the walks win out in the end.