A new way to Explore

From early last year, I began to watch and become interested in virtual Japanese walking tours. Previously, I had not given them much thought; preferring documentaries and polished travel series to get that insight in Japan that I craved. I reluctantly decided to give a walking video a chance after exhausting the small number of programs that was available to me. I now watch them several times a week. I’ve learnt that this is in fact a very different form of entertainment and one that provides a lot of value.

Walking tours in Japan provide a great form of escapism while also being quite relaxing and engaging simultaneously; most importantly however, they provide a window to the country in a way that documentaries and other travel vlogs cannot.

pexels ryutaro tsukata 5745870
Photo by Ryutaro Tsukata from Pexels

What are they?

At the risk of not doing these videos justice, I want to briefly explain this deceptively simple concept.

A walk tour/walking video/video walk and all other possible variations, involves a person who films a journey, the environment or place that they are in as they travel. They are filmed in a way that puts you in the shoes of the person filming, or their point of view (POV), and gives the sense that it is yourself walking the streets. They are usually one ongoing, unedited take with no narration. Some choose to also have music playing over the top.

This idea was first explored and marketed as treadmill videos. People used to (and still can) buy DVD’s of walking POV’s, which was used as an accompaniment while using a treadmill. The term that was used for this was ‘virtual walk’ but ‘treadmill videos’ will also yield results if you you’re interested.

What makes Japanese walking tours important.

Swinging our focus back onto Japan, video walks allow us to vicariously take to the streets of numerous towns and cities within the country. Many of course focus on Tokyo and Kyoto but out of the 47 prefectures of Japan; I found a walking tour available in 46 of them (Kagawa is the odd one out here).

What makes these videos so invaluable over other forms of media, is how they connect the viewer to the location. There are three areas which combine to deliver immersion and to help achieve this connection:

  • What you can see.
  • What you can hear.
  • Being part of the crowd.

What you see

At the heart of a walking tour is what you can see. It’s a chance to travel the length and breadth of the country exploring shrines and temples, castles, gardens, historic towns and villages or the lights of the modern cities.

Compared to viewing the whole picture in front of you, as is normally the case, you’ll find yourself trying to look around the screen at the small details and Japanese features as they pass you by. Whether that be paper lanterns hanging from shop fronts, streams and rock formations, colourful advertisements, statues and ornaments or the unique Japanese architecture.

When I watch, I find myself actively moving my head to try and catch a better look at something that catches my eye. This is something I don’t normally do when watching videos, but it speaks highly of the sense of discovery and exploration you get while watching a walking tour.

What you hear

What you hear is incredibly important, Sound gives direction to what is happening around you and helps with overall perception. The filming process picks up sounds to the side and behind the camera. This carries over to the viewer when watching and it is these sounds that immerse you in the content.

If you are walking down a narrow Tokyo side-street, you can often hear bicycle bells and the rumbling of a car-engine getting closer from out-of-shot. You can see a group of friends talking on screen in-front of you and continue to hear the conversation just after they have left the shot behind. More unique to Japan, especially in the cities, is the number of public broadcasts, advertisements, music videos and such that are played in the public area compared to some other countries. Because they are everywhere a perceived sound source is constantly moving around inside you head as they come in and out of range; this in turn keeps you connected to the experience.

Being part of the crowd

This is the key part that forges that connection. Being filmed with a POV viewpoint is certainly an important part here, but there is more to it. As you virtually walk with others around you, you become one of those people — you become part of the scene.

There are times when you will want people in front of you to walk quicker, move out the way so that you can read or see something. If it’s a quiet street you may even feel that awkwardness as the only other person walks towards you from the opposite direction.

Another part of this idea, however, is the fact you can watch people in their daily lives. Their interaction with their surroundings, behaviours and habits are visible around you.

Put it all together.

With all three parts in place, you begin to create that immersive connection that gives the feeling of experiencing Japan first-hand. You will be able to explore all different parts of Japan in a way that is similar to how you normally would.

We are all acutely aware this isn’t the case, but this can be a compelling alternative that can help see japan in a natural way. Depending on your situation, Japanese walking tours can be either a vital source of discovery or powerfully reminiscent.

More recently virtual reality: 360-degree versions of Japanese walking tours are appearing, which would take all the discussed aspects further still. You may even forget where you are which, in a sense, is the goal we are trying to achieve. I’ve not had the chance to try this out myself due to a lack of a VR headset, but it something id love to try in the future.

alex knight DpPutJwgyW8 unsplash
Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

Benefits for Japanese language learners

Whilst you are off getting lost in the countryside or the backstreets of Tokyo, consider how much Japanese language practice you could be getting in.

This is a resource I personally use quite a lot to help me study. In a typical video there are so many signs, posters, and advertisements you can try and read. Things like shop names and shrine markings, floor markings and notices; are generally quite short and are great for kanji recognition and deciphering on the go.

The bonus of watching a video, is that you can stop it whenever you like to and try to read what’s in front of you. The great thing about this is that these are real-life Japanese texts. If you were to get better at reading these, when you next fly out to japan you can use the knowledge you’ve learnt when you see them for real.

Next steps

Its now time to grab yourself some decent headphones, choose your destination and stream it to the big screen. There are many youtubers out there that record these types of videos, but two of my personal favourites are: Japan 4k for its simplicity and quality, and Rambalac for similar reasons but for also covering many different places throughout Japan. One last mention is a small channel but one that covers a lot of smaller towns and secluded spots. That is Town Walking Japan.

What are your opinions on walking tours? Do you have any favourite spots? And have you have tried the VR versions? Let me know in the comments.