Hikers in front of Japan AlpsIt seems like the world’s oldest cliché to say that travel can be “transformative”—but I can personally attest to the truth of that assertion. The “seed” of my own travel-related transformation was tiny, and its period of dormancy long, but eventually it germinated into a personal passion that has become an ongoing source of wonder and pleasure in my life.

Around 25 years ago, my wife Carla and I signed on with Wilderness Travel for an active trip to Japan. Kate Ulberg was our guide. Even then we had traveled extensively, but nothing quite prepared us for the range of scenic and cultural delights we were to experience through Kate’s expert guidance and local knowledge: dramatic landscapes and charming ryokan lodgings; stimulating Kyoto and soothing ofuro baths; amazing cuisine and fascinating customs; and so very much more.

By comparison to such marvels, my “seed” of eventual transformation seemed almost trivial at the time. Over a gourmet dinner one evening, Kate challenged our happy group of guests to each write a haiku poem in the traditional Japanese format of three lines with, respectively, five, seven and five syllables, and to share our literary gems the following night. As it happens, the next day we ascended Mt. Fuji, and one of our fellow travelers, Robert Reed, made it to the top well ahead of the pack; so his haiku offering that evening went something like this:

oh great Fuji-san
mountain of legend and lore—
I ate you for lunch!

Much merriment ensued. But then we moved on to the next course and other weightier matters.

Only 10 years later, when I happened to be playing around with some attempts at poetic expression, did my WT Japan haiku experience come back to me once again. As my amateur stabs at free verse got shorter and shorter—as well as more and more nature-based—it occurred to me that my poetry was “evolving” back to something akin to haiku but without the strict syllable count. (I later learned that haiku poems in English need not conform to a 5-7-5 structure since English syllables and Japanese word-sounds are not comparable in duration.) Just for fun, I submitted a number of these “poems” to Modern Haiku magazine and, lo and behold, one of them was accepted for publication! Naturally I felt thrilled, but also a bit perplexed since the selected poem was one I had considered a strange but intriguing outlier, only thrown in at the last moment. Right then and there I resolved to learn more about this thing called haiku.

Fast-forward 15 years to the present and I find myself co-editor of The Heron’s Nest, a highly esteemed online and print haiku journal with readers and contributors from all around the world. My own haiku (the plural as well as singular term) have been widely published during these last fifteen years and have received more than 150 awards in international competitions, including 20 first-place finishes—more than for any other North American, present or past. One of those contest wins came with a trip back to Japan to accept the grand prize at an official awards ceremony in Kumamoto on the island of Kyushu—an unforgettable experience and honor.

But the very best thing about the practice of haiku is that it enables me to experience the world each and every day with fresh eyes and renewed appreciation—something approaching, perhaps, what the theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement.” And that has been transformative.

Recently I read that Kate Ulberg was named by Travel + Leisure as one of “10 Fascinating People You Can Travel With in 2017” (a richly deserved honor) and that she had designed and will lead an exciting new Wilderness Travel excursion this autumn called “The Road to the North: Bashō and Beyond,” inspired by the most famous pilgrimage of Japan’s most venerated haiku master. Sign up at once – it just might transform your life!

-Photo and text by WT adventurer Scott Mason, Temples, Treasures, and Teahouses

-Read a selection of Scott’s haiku at “The Haiku Foundation”

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