Having travelled most of the mapped and unmapped of our country’s roads as a journalist, and being complicit in the weekly news and spoof-roundup Die Ware Naarheid met Schalk Bezuidenhout, there is a lot one can accuse Erns Grundling of. Having written the Afrikaans version of “Eat, Pray, Love” is not one of them. Unless you replace each of those three words with “walk”.
Having been dealt a snotklap by love and a wobbly hand by life, he headed to Spain in 2015 to walk the famous Camino de Santiago.
During the 1000+ km stroll he shed almost 10kg and exponentially more in emotional baggage. The experience led to an Afrikaans book about the experience, Elders: Die Camino. (Reason why you should’ve paid attention in Mevrou Brink’s Afrikaans class: “Elders” means somewhere else, a great pun on the name “Erns”, which can also mean “somewhere”)
A quaint memoir about a normal guy doing something lots of others have done, or are doing (face it, we all know someone looking for a spare back-pack since one of her friends did it), but in his own way.
The English version Walk it Off just hit the shelves. The book lead to the series Elders: Die Camino (the entire series is also available on Showmax), in which Erns revisited his experience, with the lost weight and emotional baggage being replaced by a camera crew.
Now he’s back with more of the same, but something else entirely. In Elders: Japan he travels to the land of sushi, cherry blossoms, bustling cities, sake, samurai and pretty soon also the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
“Neither myself nor any member of the crew had been to Japan before, so we had no idea what to expect. It was quite a leap (or at least two very long flights) into the unknown.”
Now, Japan is not only geographically a whole world away from Spain, but also in character. Where the Camino was a spiritual journey following the footsteps of pilgrims laid down over hundreds of years, the visit to Japan is more of an exploration of the unknown and the exciting.
Every episode also features some unique and interesting guides. In episode 1 he gets some tips about Japanese culture from Japanese chef (and Capetonian legend) Hatsushiro Muraoka – also known as Papa San and remembered by some from this classic ad:
Rugby legend and host of Toks en Tjops, Toks van der Linde, also shares some of his experiences in the land of the rising sun and provides the pun of the week with the line “Toks and chopsticks”.
In episode 2, the rugby theme continues with a visit to Springbok Duane Vermeulen, as well as a guided tour by Afrikaans celebrity, dominee Johan Symington, who has made Tokyo his home.
With a new episode dropping every week, this is the perfect way to get to know a foreign country and enjoy somebody else’s exploration of everything strange, silly and just plain off-the-wall.
I asked Erns a few questions about his trip and the show after he came back (spoiler alert – he does get back home safely. No Yakuza-related kidnappings or ransom dramas in this show).
So, why Japan?
With the World Cup happening later this year and the Olympics in 2020 being hosted by Tokyo, Japan is definitely going to pop up on South Aricans’ radar in the near future, so it seemed like an interesting destination to get a look at and explore.
Also, despite it being a good travel destination, I wanted to keep with the nature of the Camino, which was about hiking and walking. So I added that element by tackling a hike up to the top of Mount FujiI. Viewers will have to watch and see whether I made it.
I also made my way along two Japanese pilgrimage routes: The Nakasendo Way and the Kumano Kodo, the latter being the sister pilgrimage of the Camino in Spain. But there’s also a lot of exploration of Japanese culture, food and traditions, and obviously some rugby.
“What made Japan so much more intense than Spain was the overwhelming nature of everything.”
With the Camino you went back to something you already did. Had you been to Japan before this?
With the Camino I knew what to expect. I’d been there, I’d written a book about it and I was prepared and knowledgeable about what we were doing. This time it was very different.
Neither myself nor any member of the crew had been to Japan before, so we had no idea what to expect. It was quite a leap (or at least two very long flights) into the unknown. We weren’t able to do any recon beforehand, so we went armed only with a basic structure of what we needed to shoot and that was it. The rest we just had to wing!
What’s the difference between retracing your steps and going somewhere you’ve never been?
It was great and exciting and a new challenge to be experiencing something brand-new and sharing it with viewers at the same time. What made Japan so much more intense than Spain was the overwhelming nature of everything. The place, the cities, the people, the hyper-modern cities and the untouched rural areas… Just the way Japanese people live in harmony with nature.
So this time, I did it the other way around. With the Camino I went, walked and wrote the book. This time I just went. But the book is already finished, and Sushi and Shosholoza should be hitting the shelves in September.