‘Sell’ Japanese culture with walks

For Craig Mod, a 41-year-old American living in Japan, walking in Japan is at least his job: the foundation of his work. He aims to take a week-long walk twice a year, everything planned in advance, sleeps reservations and write about it. More than 30,000 people worldwide follow his free newsletters. More than a thousand support him financially with a subscription ($ 100 a year), which in turn gives them discounts on the beautifully produced books he creates, which are available for sale through his site and which are currently his main source of income.

Mods walks have special themes. At the end of last year, he went, and specifically visited hairdressers along the way, in ten smaller, what he called “boring” cities (hundreds of thousands of inhabitants) on all four major islands of Japan. He has not made a book about it yet, he is lagging behind; he still has material for four books.

For his latest book Kissa af Kissa (2020) he walked more than 1,000 kilometers on Nakasendo, the hiking trail built in the early seventeenth century over the central mountains. And then with special attention to tea cafes from the middle of the twentieth century (Kissing) and pizza toast they serve there: centimeter-thick slices of toasted white bread topped with tomato sauce, melted cheese and whatever else may lie on a pizza. Pizza toast was his comfort food when he was only 19 years old in Japan, and not yet used to noodles and natto (slimy, fermented soybeans).

Why did he actually go to Japan? “Back then, I was not really interested in Japan,” he says as we speak via video link one afternoon, this morning to me. “It was more that I wanted to leave the states. I had a strong urge not to be in the US. I was adopted and I think that experience can affect what you feel connected to. I never really felt connected to the city I grew up in. ” It was a poor working-class neighborhood in Hartford, Connecticut (between New York and Boston).

When he was 14, he says, he went to school in Spain: Madrid, Barcelona, ​​the coast. ‘Just like that while there was not much money. And I was totally overwhelmed. Through everything, the history, the architecture, the feeling of love on the street, people kissing in public … Suddenly I realized how small the world was where I came from. And when I had the chance to study abroad when I was 19, I thought: Europe is very easy, I also look like a European, let me go somewhere where it is harder, where I can speak the language, I do not know. ”

So that was Japan. “I lived with a host family in Shibuya. I had never heard of Shibuya. “It is one of the most famous and busiest neighborhoods in Tokyo, home to an often photographed cross with five zebra crossings.” I was so excited to discover everything. ”


He loved walking around Tokyo from the start. “I often went late at night, lured by the sounds. You can walk through the back streets of Tokyo and feel like you are almost sitting in the living room with families. The building constructions are not very good, you also hear everything that happens to your neighbors. I immediately found the intimacy, the closeness to life fascinating. ”

Still, it took years before he made his first long multi-day hike in Japan. He recounts his extraordinary life in a nutshell: “I had no intentions of graduating from college because in the early 1990s, as a 13- or 14-year-old, I had established contacts in Silicon Valley through underground artists I knew. from the Internet. When I was 17, 18, I took some very well paid internships. I earned more than my mother. ” He therefore planned to live and work in Silicon Valley after a year in Japan, but exactly that year, 2000, the internet bubble burst. So after that year, he completed his computer science studies in the United States and immediately moved back to Japan.

There he continued his studies (Japanese language and culture), did consulting work and ran small investment funds. Until one of his friends, Japan expert John McBride, asked him on a ‘research hike’ in 2013 to put together a Kumano Kodo hike. Kumano Kodo is a collection of ancient pilgrimage trails on Kii, the largest peninsula in the southern part of Japan’s largest island, Honshu.

“That was when I first realized,” says Mod, “that Japan is full of hiking trails that have been in use for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. I thought it was so fascinating that you can still walk such paths, with stone markings that should actually be in museums! ” The trails, along with the sacred sites they pass through, have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2004.

At the time, Mod was looking for a work-related reason to live in Japan. That reason was to go. He even invited people to join, such as designer / photographer Dan Rubin, with whom he wrote the book Koya Bound: Eight days on Kumano Kodo (2016) made. He began to see walking as “platforms to facilitate certain forms of creative work.”

Meetings along the way that he likes to write about are important to him. He talks about it in an almost religious way: “Meeting people is a form of self-renewal. The corporeality and rhythm of the walk bring me into a meditative state of renewal; every day feels like a new opportunity to become a better version of myself. With people I meet along the way, I feel the almost aesthetic challenge of thinking: where is their beauty and their poetry, how can I lift them? ”

Picture of the book Kissa af Kissa from Craig Mod.
Picture of the book Kissa af Kissa from Craig Mod.

What helps in those conversations is that he local also gives an interesting story because he does something special. He walks, not only the beautiful, popular parts of the old routes, but also the stretches where there are now endless rows of pachinko arcades or storage sheds; Japan can also be very ugly. “But sometimes there is a small shed with a hairdresser in it, and then you knock on the door and you get a story about their great-grandfather who started the company and how people should wear the big mirror that hangs there. on his back a hundred miles to get him there. You know no one ever walks the ugly part of the route, so if you do, people who live there might like it. ”

Twenty to forty miles a day

During his long walks, Mod constantly tries to push his limits: “How full can you make your days with the walk as a base, how full of creative work, what is the maximum? And how long can you keep it up? ” On a month-long walk, he will walk 20 to 40 kilometers every day, talk to people along the way “in a way that makes me feel rich and content, and as if I have contributed something to their lives”, take pictures, record audio, make videos and send its newsletter subscribers a report.

This means that after his daily “nine to five” walk, he spends four to six hours every day editing photos and videos, uploading videos, writing and editing an essay a day, and formatting it in a special newsletter software. “In the meantime, wash your clothes, find out exactly where dinner is, try to fit it in … And that day after day after day. It feels to me like I’m learning to understand what I’m doing. am able, creatively. I am learning to understand how I function under these limitations. Much of what I have published during my walks I have written in a state of total exhaustion, at eleven o’clock in the evening and thinking: I do not know once, if I have anything left in me. But some of these essays have become basic pieces in a book. ”

In 2008, Internet guru, Wired founder and author Kevin Kelly wrote that in order to live well as a creative person, you only need a thousand fans. A thousand fans willing to give you a hundred dollars a year. That’s the model Mod follows, he says. He lives off his ‘members’ and his books; he is now working on a new book about the Kii Peninsula. “I do not sell financial information, no life hacks, no health information,” he says. “You can easily recruit members with such things. I sell culture, it’s much harder. ”

But he sells Japanese culture – and it has fans, Mod agrees. “Japan has retained a unique identity in this globalizing world. Whatever you sell, put the word ‘Japan’ on it and it’s instantly easier to sell.”

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