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.
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...
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.