Documentary filmmaker Muller committed to living in Japan for a year in order to deepen her appreciation for Eastern ideals. What she's after--more than understanding tea-serving etiquette or the historical importance of the shogun--is wa: a transcendent state of harmony, of flow, of being in the zone. With only her Western perspective to guide her, though, she discovers in sometimes awkward, sometimes funny interactions just how maddeningly complicated it is to be Japanese. Beginning with a strict code of conduct enforced by her impeccably proper host mother, Muller is initiated in the centuries-old customs that direct everyday interactions and underlie the principles of the sumo, the geisha, Buddhist monks, and now the workaholic, career-track salaryman. At the same time, she observes the relatively decadent behavior of the fast-living youth generation, the so-called New Human Beings, who threaten to ignore the old ways altogether.--From publisher description.
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What this is not, I should say, is a travel guide to Japan. It contains a lot of fantastic insights into the culture, both mainstream and more esoteric, but if you plan to read this book thinking that it will make your trip to Tokyo easier, you'll be disappointed.
On the other hand, if you have an interest in what Japanese culture is like for both an insider and an outsider, then I definitely recommend this book. From her stay with a host family to her Buddhist pilgrimage, Karin Muller weaves a wonderful story with skill, honesty, and respect. She's not ashamed to reveal her own ignorance of some situations, nor is she ashamed to point out when other people are just plain baffling, at least by Western sensibilities.
I have read this book more than once now, and it's one of the few books that I can safely say I take more away from it each time I read it. It's an engrossing book, with plenty to amuse those who nothing about Japanese culture and those who know quite a bit.
By the end of the book, whether the author feels they've achieved a sense of inner peace and harmony is almost irrelevent. She's learned a great deal, experienced more than most people ever dream of, and she's taken away a little piece of another place to keep inside herself. In a sense, her pilgrimage toward the end of her time in Japan was only a fraction of the pilgrimage she embarked upon, and it left an impression that even the reader can feel as they share the journey from beginning to end.