Walk, Eat, Draw: Sketching Japan

An Art Journey on the Japanese Island of Hirado

Haga Yama.

My eyes followed the gesture of his wrinkled finger, upward squinting eyes, out the window, through the village, skimming over roofs and trees. And then the mountain shape. A proud mountain, partly covered in shimmering forest; alternating with yellowing areas, caps of grass.

Haga Yama.

He repeated himself. This translates to “bald mountain” in english. A joke amongst the locals - as part of the mountain was grass, it actually resembled a balding head from a distance. I nodded in appreciation, thinking it looks like the man pointing at it. Balding on top.

* * *

It was mid-afternoon and I had just arrived in this little town an hour before. A tiny village on a tiny island off the coast of Nagasaki, accessed across a replica Golden Gate bridge, permeated with dense forestation and spotted with remote fishing villages.

I had been living in Osaka, a ragged life in a squalid romance. Painting theatre backgrounds and murals, teaching in various English schools, traversing from from job to job on my beat up scooter. Poverty’s fingers rested on my shoulders each week but somehow I managed to get by.

And now, suddenly, I was here. In the middle of nowhere and I wanted to be nowhere. I wanted nothing.

Walk, eat, draw

Drawing pictures has never lost its magic for me. There are moments when drawing that you feel so very close to the world. Interconnected. That tree can feel as connected to you as your own arm. It is a wonderful feeling.

Wandering through forests, navigating hidden pathways… it was a joyous celebration of exploration. To climb high and look down at villages, to sit and draw. Listening to thousands of bamboo rattle in the wind with closed eyes. Watching the clouds wrestle their way across the horizon, that magical line that divides heaven and earth. Nothing else existed, time was absent, and I would sit, and look and draw.

In this escape was the ultimate gift — a space to focus. I was required to do nothing and so I reduced my goals to what was essential.

Walk, eat, draw.

Every day I would get up, eat breakfast and walk around. Explore and draw. That’s it.

And then repeat the next day. Life was good, simplicity holding hands with beauty. The dance of peace.


A book of Vincent Van Gogh’s drawings from a sale in Osaka. This was the only book I brought with me.

Vincent’s spirit was so intensely embedded in these drawings, that even in this cheap facsimile his presence was contagious. Crossing time and space, faithful Vincent became my silent mentor. An enormous well of inspiration from this unexpected pleasure: my hidden well. Ironic that I was in Japan, the land that taught and inspired him so many moons ago.

In his life, the Dutchman who would walk tirelessly, creating art from the world around him. This was a lesson in looking and endurance.

And of course, drawing.

The days rolled in a slow cadence, the edges blurring. The neon of Osaka seeped away into a haze of distant memory while the local trees befriended me. The sun would tap me on my shoulder when it’s time to wake and the moon would whisper me to sleep. The pages kept turning. Mountains, fields, villages. Rocks, grass, trees. Black and white, with a lot of hatching and short, frantic mark-making.

Vincent was watching.

* * *

The night falls in a quick, sharp descent at this time of year. Winter was setting, and the only way to get warm at night was to immerse yourself in a hot Japanese bath. We would eat and chat the night away. Food was plentiful and neighbours would drop by.

And the promise of tomorrow would linger.

* * *

A late afternoon. The neighbours just dropped off some fish and I was drinking green tea.

The grandma was preparing me food and watching a samurai drama at the same time. She liked sweets and I asked her about Nagasaki, the war — the moment. She remembers the moment. She was in an underground bridge or tunnel, and could still recall the noise and the shaking and the fear. It was scary and she didn’t know what was happening.

There is a history to this place if you look hard enough. Three houses down, I could see the front door was built for people from a different age, a much shorter people. Some houses were abandoned, reclaimed by insistent vegetation. I tried to imagine who lived there before.

* * *

And then it was time to go. I forgot the clock but the clock didn’t forget me. It’s very fair like that, it doesn’t forget anyone.

The last drawing. One last one, one more. I still had some pages spare, I felt panic when faced with the end. And so I ran out of the house, into the streets, trying to savour and preserve the moment in futility.

That fishing boat, that house I always wanted to draw… I sat next to the river and started drawing it. Time was running out and I furiously threw down lines and tones across the page, trying hard to remember those last details. But we had to leave.

Soon enough I was in the car, violently threading through the places I treaded ever so softly. It was like a nectar was smashed on the pavement after savouring a thousand sips.

The scenery blurred in mad movement. The trees were silent in agreement. Haga Yama looked away, to the East China Sea.

Sadness permeated the moment and then the moment itself was gone. I never finished the last drawing.

Walk, eat, draw

I can’t remember how long I stayed there. It could have been two weeks, maybe four or one. It doesn’t matter. Little did I know, this experience created a pattern that persists in my life till this day.

Walk, eat, draw.

And so we move. Everything moves. And like everything in life, that little village becomes a memory. The people on that trip have moved onto different lives and I’ll probably end up resembling haga yama someday.

But, for a brief moment in a little fishing village off the coast of Nagasaki, I learnt something. About looking, drawing and walking. About the importance of finding a space to find yourself. Years later, I would apply this experience to many other places, from New York City to New Delhi, Manila to Amsterdam. Though the location changes, the rule stays the same:

Walk, eat, draw.

And smile.