by Kensatsukan Gaijin

Privacy is key in Japan. Not privacy like we think about it - privacy of space, for example. The bathroom in the little Inn where I'm staying is unisex, and I remember the first time I found a woman cleaning in the bathroom that me, and about 10 other men, were using. During my first flight in Japan, a woman next to me fell asleep on my shoulder. Privacy of thought and privacy of the moment, though, are sacred here. 


Although loudspeakers loudly advocate for candidates from roving trucks and posters adorn the streets for these office-seekers, you will never find a house with a "Vote Tanaka" sign, or a car with a "Don't blame me, I voted for Miyaki" sticker. One's personal political positions are considered quintessentially private, as private as your time at a restaurant or cafe - no one will come by and ask you how you are doing, or if you want something. If you want something, just yell. Seriously - I mean YELL. It's totally polite to do so. 


Japanese is one of the 3 hardest languages for Americans to learn, I’ve heard. For me, it’s true, for a few reasons. First, the writing system, grammar, and even fundamental sounds of the language are completely different than English. Second, practicing it is very difficult. But lastly, speaking Japanese also means understanding the Japanese way of approaching, comprehending, and expressing the world.


In weak moments, I let myself think that I more or less understand it. But a trip like this reinforces just how little I understand about how to communicate in Japanese. Japanese is like Jazz – you have to listen to the words that people are not saying.


Each day, along the path, it seems like I find a new friend to walk with. I start most days intending to walk alone, but inevitably some other pilgrim links up with me and we spend the day together. A lot of it is about pace – it’s hard to find someone who has the same walking speed. No one wants to be held back, but no one wants to be dead weight either. But the strange thing is that there has never been a time when someone has said “let’s walk together.” It just happens. 

My two companions for the day, debating about the next location. Not pictured: Me, happy to get a much-needed break from walking all day in the rain

My two companions for the day, debating about the next location. Not pictured: Me, happy to get a much-needed break from walking all day in the rain

Invisible, unspoken communications and connections are essential to Japanese. To communicate, you must be able to 空気くうきを読よむ – Kuuki o Yomero, “read the air.” That means reading subtle facial expressions, body language, or just words that aren’t being said. Japanese has more sounds per minute than English – a very fast language, at its fastest. But it also has long silences – long periods where no one says anything. In English we might fill that space with idle chatter. In Japan it is almost treasured.


The words people don’t say are crucial. I’ve been on this journey for almost 2 weeks and not one time has anyone ever asked me why I am doing it. I have also never asked anyone else that question, nor have I heard anyone asking that question of anyone. One morning at breakfast a fellow pilgrim wondered aloud why someone we had met the day before was walking. I instinctively responded: “Well, you certainly can’t ask her”, and he emphatically agreed. “Never ask”, he said. Of course, I’d already figured that out, but it was interesting to hear it said.


On the other hand, for example, Italians might be more forward, like the Italian guy I met in Minami who asked me why, if I had been walking for 2 weeks, I still had my fat gut hanging over my belt. He was not wrong. I’ve done about 134 miles over 10 days of walking, and most of what I have to show for it consists of well- bandaged feet.


My goodness keeping up with this man almost killed me. Not pictured: the fact that he was 62, carrying a pack, and kicking my ass.

The animated film Kimi no Na wa (君の名は) destroyed Japanese box-office records last year, and explored the idea of memory, experience, and connections between people. If you want to sit through a movie about a teenage boy and a girl who swap bodies, and then end up sobbing uncontrollably in a dark theater like a child, that’s the movie for you. But the idea of an invisible thread connecting people is a wonderful metaphor for the connection between pilgrims across space and time here on Shikoku. 

In a crude way, it’s like the first day of college again – you can walk up to anyone and talk to them. There are no social strata, no cliques, no fashions, no pretension. Everyone dresses the same, no one has a pre-set identity, and there are no divisions between walking pilgrims. We are all connected, although we all travel alone.