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Of Roaming And Of Stillness

An encounter with Jiro Sakamoto

· Adventure

It was a clear spring day in Amsterdam when I first met Jiro. A lazy atmosphere filled the air; people were drinking beer on the grass. Jiro had that reserved air I often observe in Japanese people. I asked him where he had come from and he gave his head a shake nonchalantly saying, “Ah, I cycled over from Rome!” Stunned with surprise I could only hold my glass of red wine and look on. In my memories he is always that sort of person - softly, quietly doing astonishing things.

Life will always surprise you if only you give it a chance

I always thought Jiro would have been a daredevil as a child. I imagined him when being told to write about his dreams using his small child’s hands to write down “to travel the world” stroke by careful stroke. It was only later that I found the opposite was true. He grew up in Fukuoka and came from a typical Japanese family. He joined the Japanese Self-Defense Force at 18 and at the time still held deeply traditional beliefs - a man should be strong, full of fortitude, live to protect his country and family. Like the older Japanese generation, he thought one’s first job should be for life; to misstep, to make a wrong choice was unforgivable.

In the Self-Defense Force, he was stationed in various places across Japan: Hiroshima, Okinawa, Yokohama. One year, while in Okinawa, he met a Japanese traveler. It was at that meeting that the first seeds of travel were planted in his heart. For the first time he thought of “traveling” and of “roaming the world.”Not long after on his first break, he went to Taiwan. Although he couldn’t speak the language, the warmth of the Taiwanese made a deep impression on him. In ten days he was immersed in a strange place and strange language, eating foods he never thought he could eat, feeling the warmth and kindness of strangers, meeting travelers from across the world, and experiencing things he never thought possible.

He had had his first taste of travelling, and for the first time realised that life comes in many forms. Life will always surprise you if only you give it a chance. A year later he decided to leave his job and go on a working holiday in Canada. He worked in Vancouver restaurant running around an oily kitchen, drowning his hands in sinks brimming with dishwasher soap bubbles, using his spare time to learn new English words. Then he left to work at a holiday resort Yellowknife in the Arctic circle. It was only a few years ago that he’d thought he’d be a soldier for life. But then here he was driving visitors through the snow in a dogsled, chasing the glow of the Northern lights.

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After working hard for some time he decided to used the money he had saved up to travel across Canada. But just as he was getting his bags ready the 311 earthquake struck Japan. Unprecedented numbers of people were killed. Thousands of miles away from home he wanted to help but did not know how. In the end he donated every bit of his travel money to the earthquake relief effort, deciding instead to hitchhike across Canada. He would stand by roadsides, thumb sticking up straight. With each stopping car he would run dragging his huge backpack to the driver. He came face-to-face with stranger after stranger. “Hi, I’m Jiro,” he would begin. “I’m from Japan and my country is reeling from a massive disaster. I’ve donated all my money so now I have to hitchhike across Canada. If you give me a lift it would be like you giving money for earthquake relief. Could you please?” I’m guessing his honest expression and respectful face moved quite a few people and so, relying on drivers “willing to help Japan”, he crossed the whole of Canada without spending a cent.

I listened mesmerised by Jiro’s story, unaware that the cups in our hands had been drunk till empty. Just as he took up the teapot to refill my cup I casually asked, “What happened next?” He slowly poured steaming tea into my cup then leisurely said, “Then I went to Mexico to learn Spanish.” At that I couldn’t stop myself from laughing.

1005 days of wandering

In the following days, Jiro lived out of a backpack, walking the endless lands of Latin America. He rubbed shoulders with locals in the busy streets of Mexico, watched the sun rise from behind the huge statues of Easter Island, trekked the world’s second-highest peak in the Andes. He didn’t stop, as if life’s days were meant to be lived this way, as if his curiosity for the unknown would never be satisfied. After Latin America, he continued on to Europe starting a new chapter in life. The idea of “going home” had never come up. He stared at the kotatsu in his home saying, “I think you know what I mean? You’re a long-term traveler yourself. After a point you feel as if you will never truly return ‘home.” His eyes were slightly distant, and I could only guess at what he was thinking, but I think I understood what he was saying.

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Jiro made me think of one night. I think it was the night before I left Oslo. I bumped into some friends at a small bar by the river and we shared a drink. It was then that I realised how long I had been in that city, to have been able to bump into friends by chance. When I mentioned I was leaving the next day they replied with many well-wishes but no one was surprised. I think they thought my saying goodbye was only natural since we knew from the beginning that we would eventually part.

It was just approaching sunset in Oslo when I met my friends. But when I realized that the sky had darkened it was already one in the morning. I held my bag and said to my friends, “I’m going home,” and then left. I couldn’t stop thinking of all the times in the past few years that I’ve mentioned this to different people in different places. “I’m going home,” I say before returning to a serviced apartment. There are no photos from my childhood there, no worn stuffed elephant on the clothes shelf. Still I say to people, “I’m going home.” On that particular night Oslo was very quiet; I think most people were on holiday.

A traveler is like a shadow - a part of every place yet a part of no place. A traveler can only ever be a guest in another person’s life. He can never be sure of when he will arrive nor when he will leave. You know he will eventually say goodbye though you can never be sure when. Moreover a wanderer is not trapped by any society’s rules or morals and that is precisely why she can never return “home.” Her heart still belongs to one place, her roots were never broken, and her hometown still colors every fiber of her being. But when she realizes she doesn’t have to chase another person’s definition of happiness, that is the moment when she can never return home. She can never again allow someone else to tell her how to live her life, and that takes immense bravery.

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Jiro said nothing and I was thinking back to that night in Oslo. The thick silence became of bit too heavy, and just as I was thinking of starting up the conversation again, Jiro laughed and said, “After that, I ran off to a Santa-Claus-esque village in Finland to work. After all I had worked in the Arctic circle driving dogsleds for visitors!” I looked at him not sure whether to be surprised or to tell myself that this was just the sort of person he was. But then he continued, “I failed though. Even though I’d had a few interviews, nothing came out of them.” I think that unplanned gave his endlessly wandering feet thoughts a chance to pause for a moment. Or maybe, he’d already been away from his family for a long time. Either way after many conflicted thoughts and inner struggles, he decided to return home.

The long way home

The journey home was long and slow. Although a plane flight would have taken about 10 hours, he decided to take the trans-Siberian express train to reach China via Russia then take the ferry from Qingdao to Japan. It took him over a month. When his ship entered the harbor he stood on deck and watched the sunrise. After over one thousand days he saw the sunlight and lands of his hometown. At this point Jiro looked deeply moved, as if he couldn’t quite find the right words to describe how he felt at that moment. He could only point to a picture and say, “This was what I saw on that day. Can you imagine how I felt?”

Things were as he had thought they would be. Going back to Japan melding back into Japanese society felt strange at first. He counted off his fingers. From graduating from high school to joining the Self-Defense Force to traveling it had already been about 9 years since he had lived with his family. And so he returned to his family home and decided to help with his family’s construction business.

Although unaccustomed at the beginning eventually he got used to life back in Japan. Then after about 5 months events unfolded like those in a movie. Jiro’s father suffered a work accident and passed away. His family’s business shut down. All this was said lightly to me, a stranger, yet I was shocked and pained. It was a story told in two simple sentences but it told of a profound experience the pain of which one may never be able to walk away from one’s entire life. I could only offer my sympathies and yet this was exactly what he did not need. In the end all I could do was let out a sharp breath and punch this story into my keyboard. It makes me feel a little ashamed.

Death’s blow made him think deeply. It’s trite but it’s true - death made him realise how we can never be sure when we will leave forever. Therefore if we have anything we want to accomplish in life, any goal we want to achieve, we should act now. His father’s passing pushed him on yet another journey - New Zealand - where he flagged down car after car, trekked across mountain after mountain, worked when his money ran out and stopped only briefly in places. Sometimes he left without saying goodbye. Like a bird that flies from North to South to escape winter, he brought the air from the Arctic Circle, the blueness from the Pacific, the snow from Siberia and the sunlit rays from Latin America into other’s lives. Some stories allowed brilliantly colourful flowers to blossom, some were planted deep in the soil of people’s hearts, and are waiting for spring.

When wandering becomes the most normal thing in the world, stillness is the hardest thing.

On the move day after day, year after year, sometimes with a goal, sometimes without, he had come to think that life could be lived in no other way. Over the thousands of days that I have travelled I can’t stop coming across people like Jiro. In these people I catch glimpses of myself. Last summer in Rome, I met an Australian driving a bus and exploring the world. The first thing he said to me was, “Could you listen to my story?"

To pour one’s heart out to a stranger is no easy thing. We sat on long benches near in the Spanish Quarter, drinking warm beer. He told me he could never return home. He said he had met a few genuine and nice people, but could never imagine staying behind for anyone. The feeling of not knowing where he would be the next day was intoxicating, he felt, but to have shared yesterday with someone was special, too. His heart was full of feelings and his head full of stories but he had never had the chance to distill those feelings and stories into something tangible. He said he was afraid- afraid that if he continued on like this, he would become rootless. I didn’t say anything, just listened, but there were quite a few times when I felt strong reactions to what he was saying.

Not long after a few of his friends from Rome walked towards us. One of them pointed to him and said loudly, “That’s him! My really cool friend! He’s already driven a bus traveling world for a few years!” I saw him nod his head a little embarrassedly. Maybe nobody noticed but in that moment his expression was indescribable, almost as if there were no words in any language that could capture the look he had. I felt like I had been slapped. That night we and his friends walked Rome till the sun rose because I knew that even if I went home I would only have been able to stare at the rafters till the morning.

I held my cup tightly searching for the right moment to share this encounter with Jiro. Then I felt there was no need to do so. Both of us in different places and at different times in our lives had come to realize one thing - when roaming the world becomes mundane the hardest challenge is being still. To slowly watch a cloud changing shape, to watch baby shoots sprouting, to feel the wind’s breath across one’s hair, or how a mouthful of ice water slips down one’s throat. To long for the people who have changed our lives and what we said to them, to think about the times when we were moved beyond words.

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In Europe, Jiro walked from the Pyrenees mountains in France to Spain’s Catholic church of San Diego on what people call the Santiago Pilgrimage route. The route is fully 800 kilometers long and on that road abruptly Jiro decided to return home. This time it wasn’t because of an unfortunate event. Rather he had found a reason for going back. He wanted to return to his grandmother’s old house where the pure, simple, old Japanese village lay surrounded by mountains and rivers, where tea farms stretched endlessly, where there was a Japanese-style house over a hundred years old, with a small vegetable garden in front, where one can hear the gurgling river flowing by.

Building a life with our past experiences is never enough, what we do is use our experiences to cultivate the life we want. Maybe, what Jiro’s father really wanted was not for him to go on another journey, but to learn the art of being still.

Re-imagining happiness

When Jiro told his family that he wanted to return to his grandmother’s village and live in the house she left behind everyone thought he was crazy. The house had been in need of repair for years. During the winter cold winds would blow into the house. Weeds grew all over the front garden; the house was really not livable. But Jiro still wanted to return to the village to restore the house. Now on top of the house’s own quirks, Jiro’s personality pervades the place. Many maps and photographs are pasted on the walls documenting the roads he has travelled; the front yard is much better kept now. In the day time he is often working in the his small vegetable garden. I remember one evening when I was in the kitchen making dinner, Jiro came by me, and carefully washed his soil-stained hands, saying, “people have a strong relationship with the soil, don’t they? For some reason, whenever my hands brush the soil when I’m working in the field, I feel very happy.” I felt his simple joy.

In the lightly cool evenings, travelers from around the world gathered in the living room drinking piping hot wine. When we asked Jiro what he wanted to do in this place he shook his head saying “ah, to tell the truth I’m still thinking things over. But whatever the case, I hope I can help out travelers just as I was helped before. Many people generously offered me their couch, took me to see the beautiful places of their homes, allowed me to fully experience how people lived their lives. I can only hope to show more people how beautiful this place is. That night many travelers, each from a different country, stayed at Jiro’s place, living the life of old Japan and helping to cook, clean and tend the vegetable garden in return.

The next morning, we went to the centre of Yame town. Many streets still retained their original looks like a historical film. After only a twenty minutes car journey wide tea farms unfurled before us in straight lines. We slowly climbed the mountain to the back of the shrine where the renowned Yame tea originated, sat at the mountain top, and listed to Jiro tell the story of his home.

After the earthquake Jiro said that many Japanese people’s thoughts toward happiness had changed. More and more people are leaving the cities and are no longer only chasing money or busily working at their jobs. They are choosing to slow down, to return to the countryside, or to move to quieter cities. For us we saw that to slow down life, even to be completely still, seemed to be the best way of cultivating happiness. Often, we too desperately grasp at acquisition, at achievement, without taking the time to question why.

Our conversation wound down at this chapter. I shut my laptop, poured hot water into the teapot, and meditatively watched the tea leaves unfurl. I sipped a mouthful of tea, took out pen and paper to write down those words that made such a deep impression on me. The stillness was wonderful.

Traveling to Kyushu, Japan? Visit Jiro at the Sky Tea House:
"Far away from typical tourist destinations perhaps it's the place you have been searching for"

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