Miyako and Katsumi welcomed me back into their home with their customary good humour. Though 77 now, they both have a far better memory than I do. We reminisced about them teaching me chopsticks with a set designed for toddlers, and laughed at the debacle when I had to eat a fried egg with chopsticks...
In some ways their life looks so foreign to mine (strange food, illegible writing, space age toilets with heated seats and magical sprays and sound effects), yet our lives had far more in common. The two little girls were half bubbly, half shy; their dad was tired from work but still had to deal with an evening conference call; Miyako bustled and fussed in the kitchen while Katsumi slipped wearily away from the dining table for a whisky in front of the baseball on TV, motioning for me to join him on the sofa.
Despite the language struggle and the chopsticks and my inelegant shovelling of food it felt exactly the same as a billion other happy family evenings across the world. The world is smaller than it appears. At times the sense of ‘sonder’ was almost overwhelming – that occasional realisation that every single person is living a life as rich and tangled as your own. We were all experiencing this exact moment, but in unique ways. So many fears and hopes and stories. Sonder comes on strong when I travel, drifting into lives I could not have imagined, shaking hands with people I never knew existed. And now here we were all together, our lives all containing this hour.
The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
A sense of endless possibility, and with that the realisation that every single person is living a life as rich and tangled as my own.
All of us experiencing this exact moment, but in unique ways.
So many fears and hopes and dreams, our lives all containing this busy hour.
There are a million stories that I will never know, more of everything than I could ever fully explore or understand.
In many ways Japan is the most foreign, unusual culture that I know - it is rich, developed, educated and so on. But is is also so very different to everything I consider 'normal' in my world. Yet I felt at home in the hills and forests of Tohoku. Perhaps I always do when I'm out on my bike. And Japan is a fantastic country for cycle tourists. Exploring by bicycle is the best way I know for trying to make sense of places, indulging my curiosity and taking me to beautiful places far from the tourist’s map, like the bright yellow rice fields around Mount Bandai or a magnificent waterfall up winding, wooded, rural valleys. Riding the back roads of Tohoku, through Akiu, I felt the language of 'welcome', even without being able to speak the language.
Also in Tohoku is the Michinoku Coastal Trail - Japan’s newest 1000+km hiking trail along the Pacific Coast. If you're on the lookout for a fascinating, little-known, long-distance challenge then this would be worth considering. Here's a summary from the Michinoku Coastal Trail's website: "In ancient times, Japan’s north-eastern Tohoku region was known as ‘Michinoku’ – meaning ‘the end of the road’.
As one of Japan’s more remote and less developed regions, Tohoku is known for its untamed nature and rugged landscapes, worlds away from the bright lights and tourism hubs of Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto.
A land steeped in history, mythology, and folklore, Tohoku has retained its own identity over the centuries; from its charming and (at times, indecipherable) dialect to its ancient traditions and tales, occupying a unique space in the Japanese archipelago.
And while the tourism boom continues to grip Japan, fewer than 2% of foreign travellers make their way to Tohoku (data as of March 2019), making it the ideal get-away for an authentic, off-the-beaten-path experience."
I am increasingly convinced that the secret to exploration is curiosity. If you learn to look with fresh eyes at the world - to pay attention - and listen carefully to the sounds of nature you will discover new wonders all around you. And a simple way (but not easy) way to make that happen is do something like launch out onto a long coastal trail that you have never heard of before, but are willing to go and explore and be surprised.
By Alastair Humphrey