Why Do We Travel: Destinationless Travels or One of the 100 Waterfalls of Japan?

My mother once told me that I like every place I travel to. I remember feeling a little offended and quickly defending myself (as daughters tend to do): “No, it is not true. I did not like Portugal!”. (Sorry Portugal – you are indeed an interesting country but it was the wrong time, wrong place. Also, I love both Spain and Morocco so passionately that I probably could not make room in my heart for another country that felt like the fusion of the two.)

But my mother was right (as mothers tend to be) and yet only partially (no further comments). I do not like every place that I travel to but I enjoy every single one of my travels. I had never been back from a (personal) trip and thought that I wished I had not gone on that trip.

In my relatively calm and intentionally ordinary life, the gift of being able to enjoy traveling to a degree that the joy is almost entirely independent from the destination and to get an immense dose of adrenaline rush out of it feels like a superpower to me. A superpower that I can turn on almost anytime to feel excited, inspired, hopeful, happy, and/or content. A power so vital in my life that I am also always afraid of losing.

Hiker walking through mountains in New Zealand along Routeburn Track

A friend from home with whom I had always good long chats about traveling, particularly solo traveling and odd destinations, once told me that as he got older, he started enjoying his solo travels a lot less. This was coming from someone who could at one time perfectly relate to why I decided to spend my summer vacation on a remote Arctic island alone when I lived in a country where millions visit each summer for its beautiful beaches and seaside towns. I remember feeling a little shocked but also scared that the same might someday happen to me. I love traveling with friends and family but I call those trips “vacations” rather than “travels”. One is good for your soul but the latter is good both for your soul and your sanity.

So when I turned 40, a little more than a year after I moved to Japan, I kept wondering if the “old” age of 40, along with thinner hair (check), difficulty in losing weight (check), drier skin (check), would cause me something else – the joy of traveling. As if someday I would wake up, pick up my luggage to leave for the train station/airport, and then suddenly say – “Nah, Netflix is better”.

Good news, there seems to be life after 40. Now approaching 43, I am happy to report that the joy of traveling is still here (and even my hair feels much thicker than it did on the day after my 40th birthday) and somehow feels even more powerful than before.

A bird flying over rainbow in Lofoten Islands

Why do we travel?

While the joy of traveling did not magically disappear as soon as I turned 40, my new age still triggered some major changes in terms of the role of travel in my life. Thanks to some wonderful editors generously opening the door to a non-native writer, I started doing a lot of “traveling for pay“. In a span of a little over a year, I went on 12 different trips to various parts of Japan and wrote about those places to introduce foreign visitors to the lesser-known parts of the country.

This shift introduced the concept of travel into my life with a whole new purpose. For one thing, it became one of the relatively reliable means to financially support myself. But travel also became “work” and as most works are condemned to be, it became a mentally draining activity. Paid travels also made me embrace my personal travels even more passionately, almost like a lifeline, whenever I found the opportunity.

Cannon Beach - Oregon

Working with tourism offices allowed me to take a closer look at the concept of traveling as an industry. I had many opportunities to engage with the destination representatives and hear their perspectives on what makes their destination special. When it was my turn to share my perspective, the disparity was sometimes too evident, not even allowing me to pretend. There were also many occasions when I felt very enthusiastic about a destination, even more than the people tasked to promote it.

More importantly, writing for an unknown yet substantially larger audience than my blog pushed me to find a balance between my subjective opinions and expectations about a destination and what may objectively interest people when visiting the places that I was assigned to write about. This eventually brought me back, many times, to the eternal question of why we travel.

This is a question that I did not think it would be possible to delve into even deeper after all those years of soul searching (when you quit your full-time lawyering job at age 37 to create more room in your life for traveling, one needs to have their own, maybe foolish but self-satisfying, answers to the question of why we travel).

Who does not want to see one of the 100 most beautiful waterfalls of Japan with a flow rate below 25 m3?

The question is relatively easier to answer from a Japanese perspective. As one Japanese friend apologetically noted during a work trip to Laos to explain why the country is not popular among Japanese travelers: Japan is a country where the love for landmarks is strong. If there is no landmark, one will – literally – be created.

I am no longer surprised when I see the itinerary for a travel assignment that includes a stop at one of the 100 best waterfalls in Japan. Not one of the top 10 or even 20 but one of the best 100 waterfalls in one single and a relatively small country. And sometimes when you visit the place, you find out that the waterfall is not even necessarily one of the 100 most beautiful waterfalls in Japan but one of the 100 most beautiful waterfalls in Japan with a water flow rate below a certain threshold. For me, there is no better way to underline the ordinariness of that waterfall. But no, that is not how things work in Japan. That title alone is enough to attract a surprisingly high number of domestic visitors.

The lists also work for travel-related goal-setting purposes in Japan – one of the most cherished activities in the country. The popularity of hiking tourism in the country is owed not only to the beautiful mountains and forests that occupy 70% of the country`s land but also to the 100 famous mountains of Japan (hyakumeizan – 日本百名山) list put together by the alpinist Kyuya Fukada in 1964 to list his favorite mountains. It is not an official list but serves as a strong motivation for many outdoor travelers in the country.

Why I travel

We all have our own very valid answers to the question of why we travel. Answers that change with time or even with each trip.

Sometimes, maybe not a landmark, but a specific destination is the sole purpose. Places like Norway, New Zealand, and Switzerland, are so exceptionally beautiful that – even in the absence of all the other wonders of traveling – I would still want to visit those places just to experience and see their beauties with my own eyes.

Venice - Italy

But more often than not, the destination feels like nothing more than a very defendable excuse just to get on the road.

Thomas Mann, my favorite author, wrote the following in Death in Venice – “he needed a breather, a change of air, some spontaneity, idleness, and new blood, to make the summer endurable and fruitful. A trip-that would do it. Not too far, not all the way to the tigers. A night in a sleeping car and a “siesta” of three or four weeks at some cosmopolitan resort in the charming south…“.

I travel to chase a specific feeling

Like Gustav Aschenbach, the protagonist of Death in Venice, I also often find myself looking for a specific feeling before I embark on a trip. In those cases, the feeling that I am after dictates the destination that I will be visiting. Over the years, I unintentionally developed a list in my mind matching the destinations with the mood/feeling that I am after. If I am in a deeply worrying state of mind, a 2-3 day hiking trip in Kyushu will help me to move beyond that stage. If I feel bored and stuck, I can always rely on Kyoto for some long walks that require little planning and that will eventually unleash my mind. If I feel depressed and need some kind of shock factor to get out of the situation, I can only hope to find the time and money to visit places like Lofoten Islands with life changing scenery. But since those two things, abundance of money and time, rarely co-exist, daydreaming will often have to do it.

Strangely enough, even the intentional act of not visiting a specific place can work to evoke a specific feeling. In Land`s End, one of the finest travelogs that I have recently read, Michael Cunningham talks about places that we know the existence of but intentionally never visit – “I believe every city and town should contain at least one remote spot, preferably a beautiful and mysterious one, that you see but never visit“. Sometimes, the mystery of a place that we never visited may be enough to get the feeling that we are after.

I travel to walk

Traveling gives me endless opportunities to walk. Sure, I live in Tokyo – one of the most walkable cities in the world, if not the most (but definitely among one of the 100,000 most walkable cities in the world where the official language is Japanese). And I walk a lot in Tokyo. But no matter what I do, walking in the city where I live still feels like commuting, not exploring. On the other hand, when I am in a different place, even errand-focused walks feel explorative in their own strange way. Everything feels attention-worthy. Even if there is nothing along the way to catch my attention, my own mind feels like a more exciting place to be in – a place where only exciting thoughts are allowed and there is no room to worry.

I for years tried very hard to revive that exploratory feeling that I feel during my travels in the city where I live. The two cities where I have lived for the longest periods of time in my life are Istanbul and Tokyo. They are both home to endless sites (and walking opportunities) that one cannot possibly cover in a lifetime. And I still walk in both cities extensively. I sure get a lot of benefits (mental and physical) from those walks. And they even evoke strong sentiments, often in the form of a deep sense of gratitude. Gratitude for living in a place where a daily walk takes me through some of the most influential historical sites in the world or living in one of the largest, busiest yet magically least anxiety-inducing cities in the world (probably not hard to guess which one is which even if you have been to neither one of these two cities). But at the end of the day, gratitude makes me feel content whereas the explosive joy brought on by exploring another place on foot makes me feel energized, alert, and visibly happy.


I travel to enjoy the lack of permanency

I am slightly obsessed with the temporariness of everything (no, I am not a Buddhist, and yes, I am not married).

I love the temporariness inevitably brought on by the physical act of traveling so much that I could never relate to the Airbnb mania. An accommodation option that comes with the promise of “feeling like a local” and “feeling at home”, serving as the antidote to that – dreaded – feeling of being a visitor or a tourist – that the hotels impose on us.

Similar to the nature of the relationship between the hotel and the visitors, the temporariness is what defines our relationship with our destinations. We owe nothing to the place that we are visiting (other than being a reasonable and non-destructive traveler), no commitments, and no promises. Our sole purpose is to explore that place, enjoy it, do our best to like or even love it, and then leave before it asks us for anything in return. What is not to like about it?

Traveling makes me more receptive towards awe-inspiring moments

Traveling creates plenty of opportunities for awe-inspiring moments. While our usual surroundings also often offer plenty of wow moments, I feel more open to finding or more deeply appreciating those moments during my travels.

There is not even a need to experience or see something exceptional, unordinary, or jaw-dropping. Even the smallest things serve the purpose.

In a recent trip to Sadogashima Island located off the coast of Niigata, that wow moment came during a bus ride with the fleeting sight of a very basic, concrete, and empty bus stop perfectly positioned right by the blue ocean with nothing in between. A spot too beautiful for a bus stop, and a bus stop too lonely to enjoy its lucky spot. But at that specific moment with the sunset slowly dominating the ocean, it felt like one of the most magical sights that I have seen. Honestly, I came across objectively more beautiful sceneries during my stay in Sado Island but that one fleeting moment and that one quick scene is what stayed with me.

I travel to think more purposefully

I am an over-thinker and definitely an over-worrier. But I owe a lot to Japan for providing me with a daily life that took away many of the exterior factors triggering my anxieties and creating room to focus on more meaningful things.

Traveling does the same for me. It serves as this magical platform that allows me to think about everything going on around me or in my life in a more meaningful, more creative, and a little less cowardly way. The change of location and the movement unleashes my mind in a way that my personal eureka moments happen almost exclusively when I am traveling.

I am soon leaving for a 4-day hiking trip in the Japanese Alps. I wonder if I will come back from the trip with any new eureka moments, or new explanations on why I travel but I am certainly hoping for many more mornings when I will choose to pick up my luggage and turn off the Netflix.