The 16th-century castle town of Kanazawa was supposed to be a gem. As soon as my train from Tokyo glided into the station, I dashed to Kenroku-en, touted as one of Japan’s three most beautiful gardens, to photograph the winding streams and immaculately manicured pine trees.
Then off I sped to the samurai quarter of Nagamachi, with its clay walls and mysterious courtyards. The 18th-century Omi-cho market brimmed with the latest colourful catch from the Sea of Japan, as well as diners queuing up for kaisen don, a bowl of rice brimming with fresh sashimi and fish eggs.
But how could I waste time waiting in line when I had to run to a suburb to watch artisans hammer out decorative gold leaf, the city’s claim to fame? There was so much to see.
I was overwhelmed.
Travel used to be my panacea for boredom, sadness or whatever ailed me. Each trip left me inspired and invigorated. But lately I was finding myself anxious on the road (“Will I see everything I should?”) and regretful after trips (“What did I miss?”). I was having a traveller’s version of this millennium’s epidemic, FOMO: fear of missing out.
Each of us has only so many days on this planet. Can we really blame ourselves for wanting to do as much as we can manage?
In the journal Computers in Human Behavior, University of Oxford behavioural scientist Andrew Przybylski blames social media for the “pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent.” Stunning shots of, say, wild elephants in Thailand on your friend’s Instagram feed can jolt you with wanderlust, and the double-edged sword of social media means you, in turn, can be the envy of that friend when you post about a Golden Triangle cave he missed.
How could I have fallen so low? I remembered the time I found myself in a bar with final-year MBA students who were trying to impress one another. “You haven’t experienced Machu Picchu unless you’ve walked the whole Inca Trail,” said one, to which another responded, “Well, you really haven’t hiked until you’ve done Kili.” Then another, for the win: “I’m planning to do Everest before graduation.”
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Odysseus didn’t do Thrinacia any more than Charles Darwin did the Galápagos. And I bet you never would have caught Jack Kerouac, martini in hand, starting a story with “When I did Mexico City . . .”
Completing a number of tasks, no matter how rarefied or Herculean, doesn’t entitle us to stake a claim with such finality. Yet people do it all the time because of a sense of urgency. The real race isn’t against other travellers; it’s against the clock. We’re lucky to live in an era when a jet can whisk us from a coffee farm in Kona to the splendour of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia. We can swim with manta rays in the Maldives, then catch a show in London’s West End later that weekend. Each of us has only so many days on this planet. Can we really blame ourselves for wanting to see, touch, taste and do as much as we can manage?
I knew I would get no Facebook likes, but this moment of beauty reminded me why I keep hitting the road.
No wonder the idea of a bucket list caught on like wildfire and travellers began compiling their own 1,000 places to see. The trouble is, there’s something about lists that can turn the most exciting adventure into a chore. That’s where I went wrong in Japan. With my overeager plan, I ended up reducing a vibrant, endlessly discoverable place into a soulless to-do list.
Luckily, I found my salvation there as well. While I was scurrying from Kanazawa’s modern art museum to the geisha district of Higashi Chaya, a sudden rainstorm forced me to take refuge. Without an umbrella, I huddled under a stone arch. The small shrine it marked wasn’t on my map, and there was no signage to tell me the name. I watched the temple’s red flags flutter as a small fountain murmured its story. Pine needles collected raindrops, each watery pearl a universe unto itself.
I knew I would get no bragging rights or Facebook likes, but this moment of calm, unanticipated beauty reminded me why I’m compelled to keep hitting the road. The rain eventually stopped, leaving the air full of sweet petrichor. I would miss my next appointment. I wasn’t in a hurry.
Your Journey Begins Here
Where will you take your time next?
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