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July 19, 2024
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The Japanese Path to Harmony: Pico Iyer to Headline the Adventure Travel World Summit 2023

Pico Iyer

The Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) is thrilled to announce that renowned travel writer and best-selling author, Pico Iyer, will be a keynote speaker at the Adventure Travel World Summit held in Hokkaido, Japan, 11-14 September 2023. His closing plenary, “The Land of Wa,” will draw on his 36 years of being based in Western Japan and the three books he has written on the land and culture.

The theme of this year’s Summit – 調和 (Chōwa, or Harmony) –  is most often used to describe the collective spirit that moves people to think of others before themselves. While the word has layers of meaning, it is a reminder to look beyond our small selves and place higher value on the “We,” whether in community or the natural environment. Iyer’s talk will address how harmony binds together and uplifts people in his adopted home of Japan. Why do Japanese baseball players try not to win? How does Japanese society resemble a symphony orchestra? And how does this shed light on adventure travel in Hokkaido? As the event’s closing keynote speaker, Iyer will try to illuminate how and why Japan is deeply different from the world most of us know, and will invite delegates to take that inspiration and line of questioning home – wherever on the globe home may be.

Sharing complex cultural concepts with an international audience is no small feat, but Iyer is particularly well-equipped to do it. His work often brings together travel and philosophy, whether in his celebrated and popular work, “The Art of Stillness,” or his essays describing trips from Antarctica to North Korea and Easter Island to Tibet. He always tries to look beyond the obvious and never shies away from matters at the root of being human: the ways home takes on new meaning in our mobile world, the search for paradise in our imperfect lives, the longing to find what unites us amidst so much that divides— ideas that are familiar to all of us in some way, but too large and complex to offer easy answers.

Iyer last spoke at the Summit held in Swakopmund, Namibia from 26-31 October 2013, which was his first encounter with the ATTA community. Reflecting on that experience, he wrote that while he expected to meet an array of outdoor enthusiasts and adventure travelers, he did not expect people with “such boundless energy and warmth,” as he later put it. “And people with such rigor and conscience that they’re ready to question themselves, and the very nature of the travel we so love, and to look long and hard at the always difficult business of turning simple adventure into something useful, practical and lasting, not least for the people we visit.”

New Year's Message from Shannon Stowell
Shannon Stowell, CEO, ATTA

Ten years later, the adventure travel community looks forward to welcoming him once again. “Pico Iyer, beyond being an amazing travel writer and speaker, is a keen observer of the world at large,” said Shannon Stowell, CEO of ATTA. “Every interaction I’ve had with him, whether listening from the audience, reading his books, or in direct communication, I’ve been exposed to a broader and more gracious way of seeing the world. We’re thrilled to have him address the audience within the country he’s chosen to call home for the past three decades.”

Iyer left Midtown Manhattan for Japan in 1987, initially for a year, to see if, as he suspected, he might want to stay. In his 2008 essay, “The Writing Life,” Iyer described this desire to move to a country where “I would do what every other earnest foreigner did in Japan in those days, join a Zen temple and study the nature of nothingness. I would sit in front of the rock gardens and pen haiku, with the autumn moon rising above a rustic tea-house.”

Of course, reality was a bit different from his romantic expectations. He had to grow into the dream he’d fashioned for himself. As he wrote, “In the monastery, there was work involved, cooking and cleaning and raking and scraping. The hours of meditation were part of a strict military drill that included bowing and scraping, and not sleeping for days. It wasn’t an aesthetic domain at all; it looked, in fact, suspiciously like real life.”

As a travel writer, Iyer’s ability to observe and accept the complexity of the world is what makes his prose so memorable. Throughout his career, he has explored some of the world’s most remote and challenging destinations, from Yemen to Haiti, and his writing reflects a deep understanding of the transformative power of travel. Perhaps most notably, he pays as much attention to inward journeys as he does to the travel experience itself – his website even divides his body of work between “Inner World” and “Outer World.” 

In his recent best-selling book, “The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise,” Iyer draws on forty-eight years of travel, connecting the purpose of adventure to the pursuit of happiness to see what kind of paradise can be found in the middle of real life. More of a reflective set of parables than a travelogue, “The Half Known Life” takes us from Kashmir to Iran and from Varanasi to Jerusalem to explore our universal longing for a better world and life, in the midst of ideas and ideologies that too often tear us apart. 

Skipping the more obvious places of paradise he knows – from Bali and Tahiti to the Maldives and the Seychelles – Iyer goes to regions known for conflict and even war to see what kind of hope and inspiration can be found even in the most difficult places. “After years of travel, I’d begun to wonder what kind of paradise can ever be found in a world of increasing conflict – and whether the very search for it might not simply aggravate our differences,” he writes.

Through his reflections, Iyer offers a counterpoint to expectations of paradise. Instead, he highlights the complexity of the human condition and our tenacity when it comes to pursuing beauty, light, and joy. Paradise is, after all, conceptually not too distant from utopia, in the sense that both are more of a quest than a final destination. 

In challenging readers to deepen their understanding of both paradise and place, Iyer urges humility and offers a reminder that, even in today’s world of hyperconnectivity, we sometimes know less about other cultures than ever before. The longing for certainty and conclusion is always likely to be frustrated. “But the half known life is where so many of our possibilities lie. In the realm of worldly affairs it can be a tragedy that so many of us in our global neighborhood choose to see other places through screens, reducing fellow humans to two dimensions. On a deeper level, however, it’s everything half known, from love to faith to wonder and terror, that determines the course of our lives.” 

This thoughtful perspective on the world – and the “global neighborhood” he keeps charting – makes Iyer a natural fit within the ATTA community. Searching for paradise, after all, is perhaps not so different from striving for harmony, or seeking a broader understanding of the world to better understand ourselves. For many travelers, inner and outer journeys work in tandem. We all sense that movement is less important than being moved, seeing the sights less valuable than gaining new perspective. In his TED Talk, “The Art of Stillness,” Iyer succinctly captured what the adventure travel community almost certainly knows to be true:

“One of the first things you learn when you travel is that nowhere is magical unless you can bring the right eyes to it.”

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