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Paul Christie: Exploring the heart of Japan on foot

by

Staff Writer

Name: Paul Christie
Age: 55
Nationality: British
Occupation: CEO of Walk Japan, a tour company specializing in Japan for 25 years
Likes: Kyōzon-kyōei (coexistence and coprosperity), oden, shinrinyoku (forest bathing), kyōdō sagyō (collaborative work)
Dislikes: Disrespect to others, self-centeredness


1. What is the appeal of a walking tour? Walking is great because we humans are designed to do it. It’s at a speed we can easily appreciate the world around us. It is also both sociable and intimate.

2. You studied Japanese at university in London. Why Japanese? I wanted to learn a language uncommon among the British. I also considered Chinese and Russian but settled on Japanese purely for economic reasons. Japan was in its bubble years. I thought that there would be plenty of work. I was right.

3. You came to Japan in 1987 and first lived in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture. What was it like? Now it’s a well-known tourist destination, but in those days I would see maybe one other white face in a week. When you’re young, it’s quite nice to have locals notice you: “Ah, Poru!”

4. What’s your favorite Japanese word or phrase? “Shippai wa seikō no moto” (“Failure is what brings success”).

5. Any notable past mistakes? Too many. One in my early days was using the word bakudan (bomb) when referring to the butsudan (family shrine) at a funeral much to the hilarity of everyone at the funeral of my homestay’s grandfather.

6. What led you to live where you live now — Ota village in Kitsuki, a city in Oita Prefecture on the Kunisaki Peninsula? I always wanted to return to the countryside after experiencing life in the big city. So at 40, I decided to pack up my life as a TV journalist in London. A friend from Kyushu recommended the Kunisaki Peninsula, which I had never heard of. After one visit I knew it was the place where I would spend the rest of my life.

7. Was it hard to blend into the local community? Not at all. I felt at home very quickly. I just mucked in with the locals cutting grass, helping in the fields and general going along with their lives.

8. Whom in Japan do you most admire? I admire the Japanese in general for their patience and strength to keep on going in difficult situations. I like the way they try to work with each other. It’s especially obvious in the countryside, but even in Tokyo, riding those rush-hour trains takes a lot of patience.

9. Have you ever considered leaving Japan? In the early ’90s I wanted to go home. But I realized the bits I liked and didn’t like about Japan were two sides of the same coin. You can’t split them. I realized that and it became so much easier.

10. Don’t you like big cities? I do. I really like Tokyo. I like going to the bars in Shinbashi — the customers are like family. But I really enjoy coming home. We’re minutes from Kunisaki Airport and surrounded by paddy fields, forests and lots of hotaru (fireflies). It’s bliss.

11. Tell us about your community project. It’s to revitalize the village of Ota. We cooperate with the locals and council to plant and harvest fields, produce shiitake mushrooms and look after the forests.

12. What’s your favorite trekking/walking course? The Kunisakihanto Minemichi Long Trail. The peninsula has a 1,300-year history as the origins of a Shinto-Buddhist religious center. Monks have been walking this beautiful peninsula since ancient times.

13. Is Japan cool? I think Japan and its people make for a very attractive country. It has a fascinating history, a vibrant culture and a society where warmth and humanity are always apparent. If this is cool, then yes, Japan certainly is.

14. What’s your ideal day off? Falling asleep on the sofa.

15. What gets under your skin? Self-centeredness — to just express whatever you’re thinking because it suits you, regardless of how it affects other people.

16. Does your character change when you speak Japanese? Yes, in one big way. Japanese doesn’t have many swear words while English has a plethora. I am much more polite when speaking in Japanese.

17. What’s the biggest joy in your tourism work? There’s nothing better than people saying, “This is more than I expected” at the end of the tour. Not just about the tour, but about Japan.

18. Any words of advice for young people? Listen to your heart, but listen to what older people say, too, because many of them started with the same feeling. You don’t have to agree with what they say, but if you’re clever enough you can judge why they’re saying what they’re saying.

19. Do you speak the Kyushu dialect? Very little, but I love the timbre of phrases like “occhoru?” (“Is so-and-so in?”) and “kobiru” (“to have a tea break”).

20. If someone wrote your biography, what do you think the title should be? “Coming Home.” Even before I knew Japan I had traits that work very well in Japan. So if you believe in the Buddhist thing of rebirth, maybe I have a previous existence as a Japanese person.

For more information on Walk Japan, visit walkjapan.com.