A few days before I left Thailand for two weeks in Japan, I read a passage from Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert’s book on creativity, about the difference between passion and curiosity. She suggests that instead of sitting around ‘waiting for passion to strike’, we can start by simply following whatever sparks our interest:
‘See where curiosity will lead you next. Then follow the next clue, and the next. Remember, it doesn’t have to be a voice in the desert; it’s just a harmless little scavenger hunt. Following that scavenger hunt of curiosity can lead you to amazing, unexpected places. It may even eventually lead to your passion – albeit through a strange, untraceable passageway of back alleys, underground caves, and secret doors.’
I think it’s easy to get stuck in your quest for that one true passion and miss the little clues along the way. The small ideas you could pursue just for fun, just to keep your creativity alive. A poem that takes shape at the back of your mind on a train. An unexpectedly beautiful scene hiding on a detour, waiting to be painted or photographed.
By looking at my first week in Japan as a scavenger hunt, I have come across treasures I would never have found if I had been following a strict plan. Memories that are worth the lost work hours and abandoned schedules many times over.
If I hadn’t followed my curiosity, I would never have gotten lost among the old streets of Nara or kept a very staggering first conversation in Japanese with the friendly man who called my guesthouse and walked me all the way there. I would never have laughed naked with the local women in Naramachi while figuring out the customs of a Sentō, a public Japanese bath house. I would never have boarded an evening train to another part of the town to interview a photographer who takes some of the most magical pictures I have seen.
I would never have ended up in Tondabayashi-Jinaimachi, a conveniently located pinprick on the map that turned out to be a beautiful little town filled with old houses and quirky shops and almost empty of tourists. I would never have gotten to know Chikayo, who struggled for years to find a house and get the permits needed but never gave up on her dream to open her own traditional guesthouse, or met her friend Michiyo, an amazing paper-cutting artist who is fighting the decline in her craft.
I would never have checked into a Shingon temple or explored the massive graveyard on the mystical mountain of Koya-san. I would never have boarded a train to a village in the valley below the next morning to spend twenty minutes using body language to explain to a postman and a shopkeeper that I wanted to walk the old seven-hour pilgrimage route back up the mountain, before finally thanking them and walking away with a hand-drawn map and the echo of their nervous laughter. I would never have taken a beautiful detour to enjoy my lunch instead of wallowing in disappointment when I abandoned my hike a few kilometres up the path after passing three warning signs for bears.
And right now I am sitting in a freezing old farmhouse in a Japanese village with my jacket and hat and scarf on writing this blog post in the middle of the night because I grasped that spark of interest instead of going to sleep like I should and forgetting all about it tomorrow. Some rules are worth breaking.
Where is your curiosity calling you today? Follow it and see where it leads you next.