In 1980 Cathy N. Davidson traveled to Japan to teach English at a leading all-women's university. It was the first of many journeys and the beginning of a deep and abiding fascination. In this extraordinary book, Davidson depicts a series of intimate moments and small epiphanies that together make up a panoramic view of Japan. With wit, candor, and a lover's keen eye, she tells captivating stories--from that of a Buddhist funeral laden with ritual to an exhilarating evening spent touring the "Floating World," the sensual demimonde in which salaryman meets geisha and the normal rules are suspended. On a remote island inhabited by one of the last matriarchal societies in the world, a disconcertingly down-to-earth priestess leads her to the heart of a sacred grove. And she spends a few unforgettable weeks in a quasi-Victorian residence called the Practice House, where, until recently, Japanese women were taught American customs so that they would make proper wives for husbands who might be stationed abroad. In an afterword new to this edition, Davidson tells of a poignant trip back to Japan in 2005 to visit friends who had remade their lives after the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, which had devastated the city of Kobe, as well as the small town where Davidson had lived and the university where she taught. 36 Views of Mount Fuji not only transforms our image of Japan, it offers a stirring look at the very nature of culture and identity. Often funny, sometimes liltingly sad, it is as intimate and irresistible as a long-awaited letter from a good friend.
At times the author's attempts to honestly depict her reactions to the Japanese world around her seemed to flicker and then just fade away, leaving me with unanswered questions. But her admiration of the Japanese culture and people, evident in the loving care with which she built a Japanese style house and welcomed Japanese friends there, always shone through. In the end I came to appreciate that the Western world's struggles to fully understand Japanese culture are a more fitting descriptions of its complexity than any neatly wrapped explanation.
The book is written in chapters that outline a number of her unfoldings while living in Japan. Her assumptions of life there are challenged, but she also challenges her students at Kansai's Women's University to see life differently, particularly as they learn the English language. This is a book well worth reading, but each chapter should be savored separately, as might look at the prints of Katsushika Hokusai's, for which the book is titled.
I didn't expect to like it that much. I thought, oh, another memoir of an expat teaching English. It was so much more, an incredibly nuanced portrayal of Japanese people and customs.
Davidson has a wonderful writing voice, subtle but persuasive. I would recommend this to anyone who wants to know something more about Japan, and also of what occurs when a person attempts insinuating herself in a foreign culture.