I have to admit that I find travel so exhausting that I’m at a loss as to why anyone would willingly watch an episode of Race Across the World, let alone have the stamina to keep up with the whole nine hours of viewing that lies before us.

Having tagged along vicariously for the first leg of their journey, north to south across most of Japan, Race is best understood as being like tourism but in a more intense, condensed, concentrated and indeed exhausting form. The five pairs of contestants, ranging from annoying siblings barely in their twenties to a reassuringly mellow couple in their sixties, are tasked with travelling from snowy Sapporo in northern Japan down to the paradise island of Lombok in Indonesia, via various waypoints in Korea, Cambodia and Malaysia – some 15,000 kilometres in total.

Just like any backpacking holiday, the idea is that you move as fast as possible for the least cost (the budget is fixed at £1,390, the price of two air tickets from Japan to Indonesia), and in order to make the best of the adventure try and squeeze in some sightseeing, local culture and pick up a bit of casual work along the way to pay the bills. So it is a race, in the sense that you want to get to the checkpoints and to Lombok first, and win the £20,000 prize money, but to do it within budget and with some actual pleasure along the way. It’s all about balancing these priorities, and that essential nuance gives the show its charm. The only forms of transport that are banned are planes and the ultra-fast Japanese bullet trains, which would spoil the vibe. They should probably call it “The Sort-of Race Across the World”, if accuracy is the thing.

This, therefore, isn’t a full-on scramble, like some version of Challenge Anneka or a leisurely, carefree Portillo-esque travelogue, but one where the contestants have to find a more optimal vacation balance. It was interesting that the winners on this first Japanese leg are Eugenie and Isabel, a mother and daughter who took a pretty long detour to see the isolated, tranquil and lovely offshore island of Sado, on the “wrong” coast from the point of view of sheer speed. It’s so off the beaten track, even for the Japanese, that it was once used as a place of exile for out of favour politicians and the like.

Yet they still arrived, after five days on the road and having missed a connection, two minutes before twins Alfie and Owen, who just about managed to squeeze in a glimpse of Mount Fuji along their supposedly efficient but actually overly panicky and rushed route. It seems that Isabel’s impressive attempt to get a random Japanese boy to teach her the language on a long bus ride paid off; public signage makes little concession to the foreigner, and the universally friendly citizenry speak surprisingly little English. Our contestants don’t remark on it, but Japanese society is an evidently self-sufficient affair, something visitors always find a novelty.

Stephen and Ivy, the retired couple, aren’t that bothered about coming first, and took their opportunity to tarry at a wasabi farm, pulling up roots, burning their mouths off and cadging a useful lift. Maybe it was something about the famous sauce, but Ivy unloaded how “unintentionally offensive” her husband of many years is, just as he’s asking his hosts how old they all are: “Some have learned to tolerate him, but I love him”. Touching.

Tourist trap: Twins Owen and Alfie in the new series of ‘Race Across the World'
Tourist trap: Twins Owen and Alfie in the new series of ‘Race Across the World’ (Studio Lambert Ltd)

What’s also striking about Race Across the World, and something sadly impractical in the “real” world away from reality TV, is how much richer the travel experience of all those involved is because they are deprived, under the rules of the show, of their smartphones. They end up exploring their relationships with their journey partners as much as the picturesque countryside and bustling cities.

The young siblings from Yorkshire, Betty and James, for example, seem to be getting to know each other for the first time on Japanese trains and in random cafes, despite having grown up together. Something similar is also true of the two sets of mum and daughter: Eugenie and Isabel, and Sharon and Brydie. Thrown together and almost forced to talk to one another rather than scrolling through social media, their personal odyssey acquires an emotional and, around the Buddhist shrines, a spiritual dimension. As noted by young James, an unimaginative traveller by his own admission, you don’t get that with a week “having it off in Ayia Napa”. A different kind of pursuit, that.

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