ALAN BOOTH'S CLASSIC OF MODERN TRAVEL WRITING Traveling only along small back roads, Alan Booth traversed Japan's entire length on foot, from Soya at the country's northernmost tip, to Cape Sata in the extreme south, across three islands and some 2,000 miles of rural Japan. The Roads to Sata is his wry, witty, inimitable account of that prodigious trek. Although he was a city person-he was brought up in London and spent most of his adult life in Tokyo - Booth had an extraordinary ability to capture the feel of rural Japan in his writing. Throughout his long
"I stamped off down the coast road in as foul a mood as an overcast day, two silly women, and seven years of being a sideshow can provoke."
I liked this, he mentioned the issues gaijin face here in Japan but he didn't dwell. Far too many foreigners dwell on the negatives and that's part of what makes books like A Ride in the Neon Sun can be hard to read. Yes, you're going to get stared at, it's a given. Have your bad moments but either accept it and move on or find a country where you blend in more.
"A hush fell over the children while their stunned little minds tackled the unimaginable: the thing could speak intelligible language"
Awe-struck children always make me smile. I admit I've had my fair bit of surprise when I see Japanese children nattering on fluently and I realise a toddler can speak better than me but I've also had the reverse where kids are in awe that I speak. Either way the pure innocence of children is great.
"...'There are so many Japanese things I'd miss. I'd miss the four seasons like anything. They don't have four seasons abroad, do they?'..."
*Giggle* Always one of my favourite discussions. I think it's taught in school or something that only Japan has four seasons since it's such a widely held belief.
...'A country is like a sheet of paper; it's got two sides. On one side there's a lot of fancy lettering--that's the side that gets flaunted about in public. But there's always a reverse side to a piece of paper--a side that might have ugly doodlings on it, or bits of graffiti, or goodness knows what. If you're going to write about a country, make good and sure you write about both sides.'...
I love things like this, the honesty he get from people he spoke with, and that he conveyed in the book. It's like Alex Kerr said in Lost Japan, there's a lot more to Japan than gets discussed and this is something of the Japanophiles that frustrates me to some extent. To truly love a country you should accept it, warts and all, not try to idolize it to something that doesn't really exist. I hear some people telling stories about Japan and I wonder what Japan they know because it's not one I've ever seen. Japan is great, but it's not perfect.
I love how the Japanese are attached to calendar dates--the rainy season hasn't started yet because the news hasn't said it, never mind the weather and AB couldn't have been stung by a jellyfish because 'the jellyfish season ended yesterday'.
"The gallery owners decided eventually that the optimum time for viewing the Mona Lisa was seven seconds, and this was felt by most art lovers to be satisfactory. It is not surprising, then, that two or three seconds suffice for the Bridge of Heaven. Mount Fuji generally rates five or six and the Second Coming of Christ will merit ten."
Indeed. But not particularly Japanese. I think it's just more obvious here when there is a whole busload of them staring for the same few seconds, taking the same photos...
I found his thoughts on Hiroshima an interesting and challenging read. Though he doesn't explicitly give the dates of his trip, you can work it out because he was travelling when
Sadaharu Oh broke Hank Aaron's record. 1977. It was a lot closer to the end of WW2 and the bombings than we are now, and as a consequence emotions were closer to the surface. He met survivors as a matter of course. He skipped a lot of cities I know the most, I'm glad he didn't skip this one.
This was a quick, but not unsubstantial read. He managed to balance the good and the bad of the country without coming off as jaded or condescending. Makes me even more eager to track down a copy of Looking for the Lost, though I found reading the non-fiction words of a deadman to be a bit disconcerting.
In the early eighties, Booth decides to travel from the tip of Japan in the north to the tip of Japan in the south. On foot. Along the way, he meets perplexing Japanese person after perplexing Japanese person. Here’s a sample:
‘I recognized the turnoff to the lodging house...by a brightly lit electric sign glowing an effusive welcome...The doors of the lodging house were curtained and locked and it took five minutes of rattling them to rouse the white-shirted custodian, who bustled out finally to tell me that they were closed.
“But you’ve got a sign all lit up down on the highway.”
“Yes. We always keep it lit.”
“What for, for goodness’ sake?”
“To make people feel welcome.”
“But you’re closed.”
If you like travel narratives, you will love this one. Side note: I wish you luck trying to find a copy. I’ve had this on my wish list for at least five years and I only found a copy this summer.
Boozing apart, this is an interesting and very entertaining account of the bits of Japan you normally don't hear very much about.
Booth is a contemporary of people like Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux, and he shares something of their habit of commenting acerbically on the things he doesn't like. But he is far from being an ignorant gaijin who has parachuted in from elsewhere to make fun of the locals - after seven years in the country he understands Japanese history and culture and knows what he's looking at, and he's more than capable of holding an intelligent conversation with the people he meets - even if he is liable to start singing Japanese folksongs at them at the smallest provocation. His irritation at the thoughtless xenophobia he keeps encountering (the people who assume he can't understand Japanese even when they are talking to him in that language; the schoolboys who treat him as a circus freak; the inns that are mysteriously fully-booked when he appears) is always tempered by his assurances that not all Japanese are like that, and that even the ones who are like that can often be won over after a couple of beers...
This probably isn't a very useful guidebook in practical terms, but it does help you get Japanese geography straight in your mind. Obviously, it's all describing how things were forty years ago, much will have changed in the meantime, but some things (like the climate and the stark contrast between rural and city life) probably haven't. Booth's type of walking, mostly over motor roads and covering distances of around 30km a day, isn't something you would necessarily want to reproduce either. On the whole, when you find yourself trudging along over mile after mile of asphalt with cars roaring past you, you start asking yourself why you aren't at least on a bicycle...
By walking instead of hitchhiking, Booth ends up having many fewer interactions with Japanese people. Ferguson has extended conversations with people who pick him up. Booth's interactions are more adversarial, as in 'No, leave me alone, I don't need a ride.'
Unlike Ferguson, Booth has little sense of humor. Booth goes to major tourist sites, which, having been to them all myself, I found less interesting.
Unfortunately, the major theme of the story is how Booth can never be accepted by the Japanese (even though he lives in Tokyo and has a Japanese wife), and can never truly understand Japan. Ferguson brings these issues up, but they aren't central to his story.
Many, or even most, of his interactions seem to have been negative. Most of the most detailed portraits he gives are negative ones: children who treat him like a circus freak, innkeepers who lie to him because they don't want to host a Westerner. This isn't great reading.
Despite all these negatives, I still liked the book! It just pales in comparison to Ferguson's book.
> The people spoke with different accents, but the same proportion were gracious and kind and the same proportion treated me like a freak, explaining, if they got the chance, that Japan had had so little contact with foreigners (in modern times for only five generations) and that it was their native inquisitiveness, and not rudeness, that had got the better of them. Walk the length of Japan: what for? To hear a nation with a two-thousand-year history complain of growing pains?
> The men of Iwate state flatly that their sake is better because their rice is better. The men of Akita counter that their sake is better because their water is better. I have studiously avoided taking sides in this dispute because I have found that, by maintaining a noncommittal silence, I have cup after cup of free sake urged upon me in an effort to elicit the judgment I shall never give
> "I know everything about England," crowed one particularly cocky little horror who had elbowed and shoved the polite girl out of the way. "Oh yes? Well, what's the capital?" "Don't know, but I can speak English conversation." "Go on, then." "Yes no yes no yes no yes no." And I had to put up with several minutes of this chant before the kids eventually grew tired of me and went off to strangle cats or something. … I turned round finally and told them it was rude to treat people like circus freaks, but the tallest of them simply repeated my words in the same nonsensical nasal voice while the others fell about laughing
> Worse than this and the ear-wrenching noise was the fact that halfway through the tunnel I ran out of oxygen. It was the filthiest place I could remember being in. The circle of rusty daylight at the end of it looked like the bottom of a stopped-up lavatory bowl, and the closer I got to the air again the more unbreathable it appeared. I emerged finally, choking, spitting, one side of my body covered with soot and slime from the tunnel wall, my mouth as dry as a dung brick, and found I had to sit for nearly a quarter of an hour on the grass verge by the highway to recover my breath, by which time it had begun to rain.
> "You're full?" She nodded, her thumb still in her mouth. We stood and looked at each other with pained expressions on our faces. "Well, in that case I wonder if you'd let me have some matches?" The woman fished into her apron pocket and gave me a box of the ryokan's matches. I walked down the village street to a little yellow public telephone and dialed the number on the matchbox. It wasn't even necessary to disguise my voice. "Hello, do you have any rooms free?" "Yes, how many of you are there? We're..."
> "Be careful." "What of?" Officer Uehara was silent for a long moment, and I was spooning up the last of the curry rice when he said, softly but quite distinctly: "Foxes." "What?" "Be careful of the foxes. Their spirits can bewitch you." I looked up expecting to see a broad grin, but there was not the least trace of humor in his face.
> when I had put on my kimono again and come back into the living room, I found to my astonishment that the couple had phoned my wife, whom I had not seen for more than three months, and who was waiting eight hundred kilometers away in Tokyo to wish me a happy anniversary. … I offered to pay for the meals and the room, and Mrs. Takahashi flew into a mock rage and threatened to box my ears for such a suggestion. We said goodbye on the main street of tiny Nakasu, bowing to each other while neighbors gaped. Mrs. Takahashi plucked a small pink handkerchief from her sleeve, dabbed her eyes with it, and stuffed it into her bag, and I left her village the sadder for a kindness that I could not repay because I was not meant to.
> "I'm not a funny foreigner," I said. "I'm an ordinary foreigner." There was a short silence, and the master coughed. "Er... what... er... would you like to drink?" "He heard me!" laughed the customer. "Yes," I said, "you have quite a loud voice." The traditional pantomime followed, in which the customer went through the motions of an elaborate and completely insincere apology, ending with an offer to buy me some beer