When I first visited Japan twenty five years ago children would point at me and shout Gaijin da! But when I feel nostalgic and want to return to the times when, as a foreigner in Japan, I was just that little bit out of the ordinary I can pick up Alan Booths outstanding travelogue recounting his trip walking the length of Japan back in the 1980s. These days Japanese hotel owners will let foreigners stay at their hotels regardless of how well they understand Japanese language, etiquette, culture or history simply in return for paying the bill.
Alan booth is British, and prior to his walk (in 1977), he had spent 7 years living in Tokyo, with his Japanese wife. Having what appeared to be a very fluent use of Japanese, he decided to walk from the northern most point to the southern most point of Japan, to interact with the local people, and try to get a more thorough understanding of Japan. For 128 days, over 3300 kilometres, the author walked (the backroads where possible) and interacted with the village people. He stayed mostly in ryokan - a Japanese inn, for locals more than tourists. Setting out from Cape Soya, heading south, this book was an often amusing read, Booths writing highlighting some of the more strange conversations with the people, and many of these emphasised how he really got into the rural backroads of Japan. A couple of the more amusing parts quoted below: P102: Conversation in a bar (takes place in Japanese): "Ah, so you have been hitch-hiking." "No, I've been walking." "Yes, yes, yes. "Well, yes there are, but we haven't got any beds.
The prospect of reading another gaijin-does-Japan book left me listless. It's the quality of his observations and the self-effacing way that Booth writes them that makes The Roads to Sata so good. If you have an interest in good writing about Japan, you gotta read this.
The best summary of his attitude is found in a conversation with a reporter at the very end of the road:"Do you like the Japanese?" "Which Japanese?" "The Japanese?" "Which Japanese?"That's the attitude to have when writing about a country. The Roads to Sata is the story of children chasing after Booth and calling him names, or people buying him drinks in bars, or old fishermen singing songs about herring on the shores of Hokkaido, or an old man who tries to draw him a map but forgets the characters for ryokan (), or another who tells him that a country is like a paper with a formal print-out on one side and some doodles on the other side, and that he must not forget to write about both sides. It's about the small-town police officer who's deathly afraid that he'll be bewitched by kitsune on the mountain roads, or the workman in Hiroshima who blames him for the bombing, or the person who complains about all the English on television that's creeping into the Japanese language, or the driver who refuses to believe that Booth is speaking Japanese even when his girlfriend points it out, or being turned away at a ryokan that was full only to call them less than an hour later and be immediately offered a room. That's definitely part of why I liked it so much, but I think the quality stands out even for people who know very little about Japan.
With this book, that wasn't a problem... Admittedly, they were funny in places; but I don't do poetry, and I DEFINITELY don't do maudlin. In the end, skipping the poems saved the book from losing that 1/2 star. Having people constantly offer the author rides along the way, was also really sweet.
Author Alan Booth had been living in Japan for seven years and spoke fluent Japanese by the time he embarked on the unique project of walking from Cape Soya, the northernmost point of Hokkaido, to Cape Sata, the southernmost point of Kyushu. Swelled by early summer rain, Swiftly flows Mogami River. Booth concludes with a conversation he had with an old man in Hokkaido. After cautioning that Japan cannot be understood from life in the cities, nor from talking to people, the old man states bluntly: 'You can't understand Japan.' (p.281) That bit of wisdom is as true today as it was in the early '80's when this book was published NOTES: Multiple translations of the Basho haiku about the Mogami River. Booth was also a film critic and his articles have been anthologized: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/... An anthology of Booth's writings was recently published: https://metropolisjapan.com/alan-boot...
What kind of midlife or personal crisis had sent Booth walking for 2000 miles? Additionally, although he spent more time interacting with people than he could have from a car, there was no sense of getting to the heart of any of the individuals he met. Rather it always felt like there was an air of superficiality about even the most authentic of his interactions.
There are descriptive passages, there are brief historical interludes, there are occasional serious conversations that shed light on aspects of Japanese life. Some quotes Naoetsu is described in the official guidebook as one of the flourishing industrial centers on the Japanese Sea Coast. p134 ...while the temple gardens are meant strictly for contemplation, you can stroll along the pathways of Kenrokuen as you would through an English park. But here in Japan, where fires and earthquakes so frequently ravish the cities, and where, consequently, many of the most famous landmarks have had to be rebuilt in modern times, anything that has stood for a hundred years can claim to be venerably old. You can experience a little of Kenrokuens peace by looking at the photographs in the guidebook.
Although he spoke fluent Japanese, he found that the perceptions (especially in rural areas) of his "foreignness" created almost an invisible barrier. but, of course, the conversation is taking place in Japanese.