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The Roads to Sata: A 2000-mile Walk Through Japan (Origami Classroom) Paperback – 1 Jun 1997
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Fluent in the language, well-informed and disabused, [Booth] is in the fine tradition of hard-to-please travellers like Norman Douglas, Evelyn Waugh, and V.S. Naipaul. A sharp eye and a good memory for detail...give an astonishing immediacy to his account. --Times Literary Supplement
An illuminating book. --The Economist
An illuminating book. --The Economist
About the Author
ALAN BOOTH was born in London in 1946 and travelled to Japan in 1970 to study Noh theatre. He stayed, working as a writer and film critic, until his untimely death in 1993. His highly praised Looking for the Lost is also available from Kodansha Globe.
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In contrast to Ferguson's more up-front opinionated style and laugh-out-loud humour, Booth's style is more subtle, the insights more nuanced, the humour drier (some might say slyer). You'll find no sweeping generalisations in Booth's account, little overt criticism or praise of Japan, and little analysis or moralising. Rather, he prefers to let the narrative do the talking - the sights and sounds, the small daily incidents, the people he meets along the way. A good example is the perceived xenophobia of Japanese society. Booth's epic walk is peppered with incidents which show that Japan can be a frustrating and uncomfortable experience for a foreigner (e.g. the name calling by kids in the street, the ryokans which become mysteriously `full' when he tries to get a room), yet it also has many examples where the locals showed him great kindness and concern for his well-being (e.g. lifts offered, which he had to decline) Is Japan xenophobic then? Well, yes and no. You decide. Like any other national stereotype, it's not black-and-white. (I suspect though that if he had made the same journey today, 30 years on, his references to the despoilation of the landscape would have been far more critical.)
Booth ends his walk little clearer on what he really thinks of Japan and the Japanese than when he set out. After three visits there, I'm in a similar position, though I can't wait for my fourth.
It is a marvelous guide for non-Japanese on what to expect in the rural areas of Japan. Most certainly, he is "off the beaten track," never traveling through Tokyo or Kyoto. It is also about Japan, not Alan Booth "finding himself." Knowledge about the author comes in bits and pieces, almost incidentally. He was in theater, and moved to Japan in 1970. He married a Japanese woman, and does speak the language (despite what some natives think!). Like a good Englishman, he drinks beer, and the references to this vital "foot gasoline," as he says, are frequent. He never once mentions drinking water! Almost always, he stays in one of the local inns, called "ryokans"; generally, it is possible to walk from one village to another, all of which seem to have them. He is offered numerous rides, in automobiles, which he always declines, usually to the amazement (and sometimes the anger) of the driver.
He commences his book by saying that it is absurd to try to make sweeping generalizations about 120 million people. His meetings are the chance encounters of the road, generally quite brief. They are a wide spectrum, the good and the bad, but in general he does experience "the kindness of strangers," particularly towards foreigners, though he makes the exception for young boys, who tend to jeer at him, and wishes for more encounters with young girls, who are invariably polite. He has a wry sense of humor, most often conveyed when he tells anecdotes involving speaking Japanese with someone for 5-10 minutes, and yet they are still reluctant to let him stay in their ryokan, because he does not speak Japanese, and, of course, could not eat with chopsticks! "What was I speaking, Swahili"?
Booth does "nuance." There are many "Japans." For example: "Crossing from Niigata to Toyama had reminded me a little of crossing from Yugoslavia to Austria: from a land of calloused laborers to one where slightly obese people consume cream pastries and have safe-deposit boxes in air-conditioned banks." Ever observant, he highlights some of the cultural differences; consider: "....I couldn't help noticing how different was the determinedly sanctimonious atmosphere that pervades most Christian churches from the breezy nonchalance with which visitors treat the religious monuments of Japan." Generalizations, there are a few: "And then the litany began: tiny country, no natural resources, misunderstood by everyone..." Booth even has observations about one of the classic divides between men and women: Why men don't ask directions! And the answer is: more often than not, the person questioned doesn't know, or gives the wrong directions!
Booth left us far too soon, dying of colon cancer, in his 40's. In his legacy he has also left us Looking for the Lost: Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan (Kodansha globe series) which I intend to read. I envy his journey, and loved the way that he told the story. With his inspiration, perhaps I can emulate 7-day segments, with a few being in the national parks. 5-stars, plus.
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