If you bother to read some of my other reviews you will realise that I am [boringly] in love with the Japanese Inland Sea or Seto Inland Sea. This is a languid sea, pocked with thousands of small islands, that separates Honshu, from Shikoku and Kyushu. It has been written about ever since the British Navy started to survey this region in the 1860s, and always in the most glowing of terms. Donald Richie is one of the great writers on all things Japan and this book - part fiction, part autobiographical - is of a journey he takes through the Sea. Here he attempts to discover himself as well as the place, a process that almost inevitably leads to tension. Richie captures this often forgotten part of Japan and at the same time is able to fleetingly see the inner soul of the Japanese just as he also fleetingly sees his own inner soul. Interwoven through the narrative is a disturbing sense of solitariness but also the notion that much in life defies explanation and 'just is.' Of course the best thing to do is to read all of Richie's books and this one is a very good start.
The Inland Sea is a true account of a journey made by an American man (living in Tokyo at the time) who travels (largely by boat) to the various islands of Japan's inland sea. First published in 1971, it was written in the early-mid `60s - so things have certainly changed a great deal since then; as such, this is a window into a Japan's rural past.
Richie wanders from island to island, meeting barmaids, monks and mafia along the way, and writes of his experiences very well. The pace is a touch slow at times, but perhaps this is just a reflection of the pace of life he is experiencing.
So why only three stars? Well, if I could, I would award it 3.5 stars, but there are several oddities with the book.
Firstly - the cover blurb reads "A masterwork of travel fiction", yet it is not fiction. This book is clearly a non-fictional diary account of Richie's journey. (Likely this was the publisher's rather than Richie's doing).
Secondly - there are no chapters - instead the prose keeps on flowing, with only lines of asterisks to break up the text. I felt conventional chapters would have been better.
The third is a personal thing; Richie is clearly extremely knowledgeable on many aspects of Japan, but I found his tendency to go off on tangents and perhaps over-philosophise, broke up the flow of the story at times.
And finally, though very well written generally, it could have done with a touch more humour. Rarely (if ever) did I laugh out loud during this book. Also, some of his tales are a touch unsavoury; for example, Richie tries to sleep with a 15 year old girl, despite being a forty-something married man.