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on 6 February 2015
I so much enjoyed Alan's wry dry humour! He has a fine eye for detail which touched me as a long time admirer of Japan. He finds the people he meets generous, kind and sometimes incapable of comprehending what he was doing. A real journey through the real Japan on the West coast.
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on 9 August 2012
I read `The Roads to Sata' shortly after reading Will Ferguson's `Hokkaido Highway Blues'. The comparisons are obvious - Ferguson hitching south-north and Booth walking north-south - giving their insightful and humorous commentary along the way. Booth's physical achievement was clearly the greater. As for literary achievement, I enjoyed them both in their own ways.

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.
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Alan Booth walked the entire way, alone, from Cape Soya, on the far northern tip of the island of Hokkaido, to Cape Sata, as the title states, at the far southern end of the island of Kyushu. The subtitle states that it was a 2000-mile walk but he kept track of it in the local (and global) measure of kilometers, and felt it was a bit more, at 3,300 km. He therefore walked across three of the main Japanese islands (which included the main one of Honshu); he did not cross the fourth main island, Shikoku. It took him 128 days; he timed it right in terms of weather, starting in June in Hokkaido, with some snow still on the peaks, and ending in the October, as the leaves were turning, and it was becoming colder, in Kyushu. He never states the year; one reviewer suggest 1977, another, the early `80's. Clearly it was before 1986, when the book was first published.

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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on 5 December 2003
Alan Booth's talent - greatly missed with his all too early passing - was not just to write in a clear and entertaining style, but also to avoid generalising or romanticising his Japanese experience. He spent enough time living in the country and spoke Japanese well enough to have a very good level of insight, but also to appreciate that there were some aspects of life that he might never understand. The Roads to Sata is an absolute 'must read' for anyone with an interest in Japan and is one of the best pieces of travel writing that I have ever read. It will leave you wishing that his career was much longer and more productive.
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on 30 March 2001
The late Alan Booth was one of a relatively small number of foreigners to adopt Japan as his home. He was a fluent speaker of the language and well versed in many aspects of Japanese culture and history. As such he was well qualified to write a book about Japan and he avoids the cliches of oriental inscrutability so common to critiques of Japanese culture. The structure is suggested by the title - with the exception of a few trips by boat Booth walks from the northernmost point of Japan on Hokkaido to the southernmost point of the island of Kyushu. The route he takes is mainly a rural one - Booth consciously avoids the urban sprawl of Tokyo. Booth is clearly fascinated by the minutiae of life in small-town Japan, and his ability to speak fluent dialect, sing traditional enka karaoke music and imbibe copious amounts of beer and sake is the passport to many entertaining encounters along the way. Booth is easily the literary equal of Bill Bryson or Paul Theroux. In common with Bryson he manages to turn the telling of minor details and anecdotes into a fascinating narrative whole. The reader really gets an insight into Booth's experiences as a foreigner in Japan. His affection for Japan and the Japanese is mixed with frustration that he is so often treated as an outsider despite having lived in Japan for most of his adult life. This can take the benevolent form of people who fuss and take pains to treat him as an honoured guest. Sometimes it is manifested in less pleasant forms as he is refused lodgings or otherwise discriminated against. For anyone who has visited Japan, and especially for those who have lived there for any length of time, Booth's book will probably articulate so many of the things that make Japan so special (and sometimes infuriating). For those that have not, The Roads to Sata is a great piece of travel writing in its own right and will have you itching to go and see Japan for yourself.
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VINE VOICEon 31 May 2009
Writing about Japan seems to be like walking a thin tight rope. Read Amazon reviews of other Japan books and you'll find that many authors get criticised - either for being too negative towards Japan - or the complete opposite; viewing the country in a blissful state of wonder.

Booth's account of his journey walking from the north of Hokkaido to the south of Kyushu is a little different. He passes through the country, closely observing its smallest details and quirks, largely of rural life, reporting what he sees, smells, hears and feels on his journey, but rarely does Booth judge the Japanese.

His account is very well written; funny in some parts, graceful and poetic in others. Anyone who has spent extended time in Japan will knowingly nod and chuckle, recognising many of the traits, situations and irritations that he alludes to.

My one small criticism of the book is also what seems to have endeared it to so many reviewers; Booth's aptitude to objectively report, rather than asses, the things he experiences means that those with less knowledge of the country may be left a little in the dark at times.

There are certainly parts when a little more explanation would have been helpful. Especially as Booth (RIP) was so well qualified to do so - being fluent in the language and having lived in Japan for 7 years at the time of writing.

However, it seems that his unwillingness to judge his hosts too heavily is why this book has been so well received, and continues to be, even though it was first published back in 1985.

I wonder how much of the rural charm that Booth captured so well, has now faded into history, twenty five years on since he made his journey?

I like to think that the innkeepers, bear hunters and fisherman that Booth speaks of are still going about their rural ways, keeping this charming side to Japan alive.

Overall, Roads to Sata is a well painted, funny and realistic portrait of Japan, and probably the most enjoyable book I have yet read on the country.
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on 8 October 2015
I don't think the book has dated too much though on numerous occasions Alan Booth does seem to have a pretty negative view of some things Japanese almost highlighting them when possible over maybe the charms of Japan, such as rude schoolboys, Ryokan owners, rubbish on the sides of the roads which in particular surprised me as I haven't seen such mess in Japan who are normally such a law abiding nation (but maybe as I haven't seen the whole country and different back in the 80s). People not having seen foreigners I can understand back then. The book though wasn't very gripping and the constant walking along highways and industrial areas a lot made for dull reading. Like someone else said I wished he off-roaded a bit more even if it added on the kilometers, as surely he wanted to see as much culture as possible also. It had its funny moments but not as many as I thought there would be and a lot of the recollections I thought were going to lead to something funny or interesting just fizzled out to nothing on occasions, such as a moment in the bar where someone was talking about him & he just left, and yes it happened but just meant there weren't that many great stories to recollect unlike some other travel books I read, partly the lack of off-roading led to this.
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on 27 February 2010
I read this before I travelled to Japan and it made everything so much more understandable. His walk is a great adventure and very inspiring!
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on 6 August 2013
This has become one of my favourite books; well written, humorous and anecdotes so similar to those told to me by my son who lived and experienced Japan in many similar ways, yet 30 years on. It is a wonderful experience to visit Japan and this brought back many happy memories. I felt sad that we have lost his talents and enthusiasms with his early demise. I am about to read his second book on Japan.
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on 13 August 2013
This book is recommended by the Lonely Planet for Japan, and what a great recommendation. I bought it just before doing a trip across Japan. It's a wonderful book full of humour and wry encounters. It reminded me of Gorky - but has the humour of Bill Bryson. Extremely well written. Half way through I ordered Looking for the Lost which I'm just about to start. Money well worth spending.
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