Roger Cox: Japan trek a celebration of journey

What’s the point of going for a walk? Perhaps there doesn’t need to be a point. Perhaps there shouldn’t be one.

What’s the point of going for a walk? Perhaps there doesn’t need to be a point. Perhaps there shouldn’t be one.

In his book A Philosophy of Walking, the French academic Frédéric Gros suggests that pointless walking has its advantages. Walking up mountains, he argues, with the summit as a goal, is always doomed to be a “slightly impure” experience because the “narcissistic gratification” of the challenge detracts from “the simple joy of feeling your body in the most primitively natural activity.”

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There also seems to be a consensus among the wise old men of the trail that walking is an activity that somehow frees the mind and stimulates creativity. Thoreau reckoned that the moment his legs began to move, his thoughts “began to flow”; John Muir went for a wander and discovered that “going out… was really going in.”

All of which feeds into an intriguing project by two Edinburgh-based artists which recently took the form of an exhibition as part of the Fringe, and which will soon become the subject of a book.

In the summer of 2014, the visual artist Anya Gleizer and the poet Pablo Valcarce spent three months hiking more than 2,000km around Japan, following the route described by the 17th century poet Matsuo Basho in his travelogue, Narrow Road to the Deep North. Valcarce wrote poems, particularly haikus, Gleizer made paintings and drawings, and both kept detailed travel journals.

These battered diaries formed the centrepiece of In Basho’s Footsteps, the resulting exhibition at the Coburg House Gallery in Leith, which ran from 21-25 August. Displayed on their own plinth, alongside an equally trail-beaten copy of Narrow Road..., they felt almost like relics from a bygone age – fragile, irreplaceable and to be handled with extreme care. Arrayed around them on the walls were some of Valcarce’s haikus and a series of traditionally produced scroll paintings by Gleizer, made with assistance from experts in Japan. An intricate web of leaves was suspended from the ceiling, and visitors to the gallery were invited to sit inside while a sylvan video installation played just behind. The overall effect was soothing, meditative – a lot like going for a good walk, in fact.

I ask Valcarce about the inspiration for their journey, and in particular about the creative benefits of travelling on foot. “I think it’s a way of leaving yourself behind, of giving yourself to the road and to all of the uncertainty that comes with the road,” he says. “First of all that’s important for spiritual reasons but also for artistic reasons, and that’s something that Basho also had in mind I think.

“He always with his poetry tries to leave the subject behind and become one with the object. So instead of going to a pine tree and trying to write a poem about a pine tree you have to go with a fresh mind to a pine tree, being very humble, and know that you don’t know anything about the pine tree.

“You have to listen to the pine tree, listen to the subtle things that it’s telling you that you couldn’t know until you know, and then – maybe – that is when the art comes.

“You don’t go and look for the art – you’ve got to empty yourself and become one with the present moment, with what is around you.”

Although they were ostensibly re-walking Basho’s route, the duo were more concerned with following it in spirit than retracing it exactly. In the beginning, Valcarce says, they tried to stick to the original itinerary as closely as possible. “But then we started to realise that it’s much more important to be able to wander. Basho himself was going to places that other poets before him had written about, so it’s not like he just wandered, but he did let things happen, and I think with time we were able to start letting things happen too.”

On one occasion they got so relaxed they delegated navigational duties to a cat they met, which duly led them to a thousand year-old temple in the middle of a forest. “We ended up staying with the monks for a while and then with friends of the monks further north,” Valcarce says with an incredulous chuckle.

Basho himself sums up the philosophy of the whole enterprise pretty well when he writes, “I do not seek to walk in the paths of the wise men of old, I seek what they sought.”