Adventurer forges bond with nature, poet Basho

by Jun Hongo

Adventurer Mitsuro Oba discovered a different kind of unexplored terrain last summer, a decade after he trekked across Antarctica and became the first person in history to walk unaccompanied to both the North and South poles.

The renowned explorer was hiking with 26 other people along one of the paths trod by Edo Period poet Matsuo Basho in Yamagata Prefecture when the silence of the forest moved his soul. Inspired by the view and the silence, he wrote haiku for the first time in his life.

“I could feel the time around me moving slowly. I sensed the connotation of my words with my body and not with my brain,” the 54-year-old said during a recent interview. ” ‘Walk, so that mosquitoes, will not bite.’ I wrote that haiku in the Inuit language.”

The hike had been organized last June together with a group of residents from the town of Mogami. It followed the route that Basho walked more than three centuries ago and wrote his haiku. The hikers, including Chinese, Americans and French, spent the night in a house where Basho himself stayed.

Pleased with the unearthing of his new talent and the exquisiteness of the multilingual haiku that the other hikers presented, Oba decided to make the trek an annual affair and named it World Haiku Hike. This year’s event starts June 30.

The path will once again begin at the Shitomae-No-Seki border checkpoint in Naruko Onsen, Miyagi Prefecture, and finish in Sakaida, Yamagata Prefecture. The three-day hike will include up to 40 people, including 10 staff members.

“Civilization has made it difficult for us to bond with nature or to experience the passing of time and the presence of ourselves in the environment. I would like to provide such an occasion for the participants,” Oba said.

Listed in Guinness World Records as the first person to walk across both Antarctica and the Arctic icecap by himself, he has also traveled the icy coasts of Greenland, braved Siberia in winter and explored the Amazon jungle on a raft.

He has faced life-or-death situations, including encounters with polar bears and the risk of starvation in blizzards that lasted for days. During a trek to the North Pole, Oba wrote a will for his mother after he became certain he would starve to death in the snow. When a rescue plane found him, he was barely clinging to life.

In another brush with death, he lost all of his toes and two of his fingers to severe frostbite.

The adventurer says that in his travels, images of Japan and its four seasons would cross his mind, especially while walking in desolate lands surrounded by snow and ice. Freezing in his tent, he would reminisce about his younger days in Yamagata, where he plowed the land as a farmer until he was 29.

“I became acquainted with the sublimity of nature through my travels and remembered how beautiful Japan was,” he said. “That is one reason I inaugurated the Haiku Hike, to inform the younger generation of the beautiful Japanese scenery.”

The narrow roads along the mountains that Basho walked are far from adventurous compared with Oba’s past experiences, but he feels there are similarities between the poet’s path and the snowy trials he has faced.

“There is complete silence in both situations and one can hear the sounds of silence,” he explained.

He also said there is a connection between him and the poet, including that they both have hiked in nature, using their feet to search for their “identity.”

“We both walked with no specific goals and didn’t build or achieve anything in our travels. I simply felt something through my experiences and then returned home. So did Basho,” Oba said.

Keen to share the joys of nature with the younger generation, he established the Earth Academy Oba Mitsuro Adventure School six years ago in Yamagata Prefecture, where he instructs his students on organic farming techniques and organizes hiking experiences.

Through his travels and teaching, Oba has come to doubt the government’s recent decision to revise education laws in a bid to nurture love of country and homeland in children.

The adventurer said that decades ago, he visited a village after sailing up the Amazon River where children ran barefoot and ate bananas straight from the jungle. The families lived in wooden houses and slept in hammocks, eating what nature provided.

The sight evoked images and lifestyles of the countryside where Oba grew up.

“I have walked across many places during my travels and learned that mankind is kept alive because of nature’s greatness. I believe that hiking through nature and appreciating what it has to offer would make one realize the beauty of Japan so much better than teaching it in schools,” he said.

“Nature can teach you many things just by walking through it, and many of those things cannot be taught through textbooks.”

For related stories:

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Adventurer’s global trek to educate kids on environment