Looking for the Lost: Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan by Alan Booth

Looking for the Lost: Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan
Alan Booth
(Kodansha America, New York: 1995)

READ: February 2007

I've mentioned this before: Alan Booth is often mentioned as the quintessential travel writer of Japan. Like in The Roads to Sata, Booth takes us deep into the heart and soul of Japan and ordinary Japanese. Published a few years after his premature death from cancer in 1993, Looking for the Lost, is actually three shorter novellas detailing three different walks he took in Japan.

First, Tsugaru. This is the peninsula at the very northern end of Honshu, the central Japanese island, in Aomori Prefecture. Booth sets out in May 1988 to walk the same route taken by a Japanese author 44 years previously.

Second, Saigo's Last March, wherein Booth recreates the route taken by Saigo Takamori in August 1877, when Saigo, a previous government minister and one of the leaders of the loyalist army that defeated the shogun, led a final, ill-fated protest again the new government.

Third, Looking for the Lost itself, which, I was slightly thrilled to learn, was Booth's recounting of his walk along the length of the Nagara River through Gifu Prefecture (!). He is following what might be the path taken by the survivors of the ruling Heike clan after they were run out of the imperial capital of Kyoto and forced to flee in the late 12th century, one of the seminal points in Japanese history.

As I expected, Looking for the Lost was a tremendously enjoyable book, though, I must admit, there was something almost disquieting about reading about Japan in such a personal way, but one that was so different from my own (and my own could never hope to be similar). We all view countries in our own ways, and while I don't know if Booth loved Japan, he certainly was fascinated by it. And that, I think, is what makes his two books so good. He is not vaunting Japan, nor, à la Will Ferguson, poking fun at its idiosyncracies. He just tells the story as it is, as it happens.

I think I may have enjoyed Looking for the Lost even more than The Roads to Sata. The fact that there were three stories of three very different parts of Japan, each meticulously described with great personal anecdotes that really brought the regions to life, was excellent. It also probably helps that I am now in Japan and can better relate to some of his experiences. Also, the Japan he describes here feels different from the Japan in Sata, which was a Japan of the late 1970s and vastly more inward-thinking than it is now (as difficult as it is to imagine; Japan still being largely fixated on itself and often unaware of the larger world outside its borders).

And yes, most importantly, Booth does find the lost Japan he'd been looking for for the past 20-some years. He finds it, most poignantly for me, in Gujo-Hachiman, a small castle town about an hour's drive north of Gifu City. Having been there myself last October, some 15 years after Booth's visit, though I wasn't yet aware of Booth's opinion on the town, I felt at the time that it was a relatively untouched corner of Japan. Sure, the town has some industry and modernized facilities, and there are convenience stores like everywhere else, but there's also a certain charm, a certain Japanese-ness, some kind of magical / traditional quality to Gujo-Hachiman's streets and buildings that is hard to find in the rest of Japan, if at all.

So, my only problems with Booth's books are that there's only two of them and that I cannot help but compulsively read both of them entirely too fast.

Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Howl's Moving Castle
Diana Wynne Jones
(Harpertrophy, New York: 2001)

READ: February 2007

So, um, I first read this about two months ago, and after writing a review for it here in the stacks, I got a hankering to read it again. So I did. It's quite a compelling book, and I finished it in four hours flat.

I'm not reviewing it again - you can read the original review here.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

The English Patient
Michael Ondaatje
(Bloomsbury Publishing, London: 1992)

This edition published 2004.

READ: February 2007

In my last year of high school, I was expressing my discontent about what I had read recently (I don't remember what it was now) to one of my English teachers (I was taking 3 different English classes that year), and he recommended I read some poetry by a Canadian poet and author called Michael Ondaatje, as well as Ondaatje's novel In the Skin of a Lion. Well, there's been no turning back. Michael Ondaatje, without a doubt, has been my favourite author, bar none, ever since then.

I'm never quite sure which I like better, The English Patient or In the Skin of a Lion. I think The English Patient edges out ahead, but then I re-read the other and remember how excellent it is.*

The English Patient has some of the same characters as the other book, but you don't need to have read In the Skin of a Lion to appreciate this one. Hana is a young Canadian girl who is in Italy working as a nurse in the last days of World War Two. She has stayed behind in an old Italian villa to nurse a dying patient who suffered extensive burns to most of his body a few years earlier, does not remember who he is (or so he claims), and is not expected to recover. The story unfolds parts of the English patient's past in a wonderful, sometimes dream-like, narrative. There is also a romance between Hana and a young Indian sapper who has come to defuse mines in the area, as well as the reintroduction of Caravaggio into Hana's life, an old friend of her father's (who was killed in the war) who worked as a spy for the Allies through the war and has now come to join Hana in her isolation. But the focus of the story is the English patient and the strange circumstances that led him to the villa where he now lays dying.

I was so excited, though trepidatious, when plans for a movie were announced. Well, the movie was awful. Elements of the story were changed, apparently at random, that made the story lose so much of its powerful magic for me. If you've only seen the movie, don't hold it against the book. Please.

People seem to either really like Ondaatje or really don't. I personally am addicted to his fluid prose, so poetic and often dreamy. Others find him wordy and inaccessible. While I generally tend to agree with the posit "why say in 25 words what you could say in 10", I don't think that always works so well in fiction. I remember, in university, in 4th-year poetry class, being irritated by Elizabeth Bishop who, as I told my dismayed teacher, needed a serious editor to cut out the superfluous words she was tossing in. I switched my project to P.K. Page who was much better at being concise. Salman Rushdie is a prime example of a writer in love with the sound of his (boring, pedantic, unnecessary) words. But there is very little I would cut out of Ondaatje's work. His words are precise and appropriate to generate the extremely vivid images that I get when I read his books and his poetry (his poetry tends to be a lot more sparse in words). I see faces, I hear voices, I can even smell the place he is describing.

So, yeah. I like this book. Everyone should read it.

* If you still can't make yourself like The English Patient, at least try In the Skin of a Lion. It's written in a more concrete style. I know a number of people who have liked that one but couldn't get into The English Patient. And for those of you who are history buffs, it's about Toronto in the 1930's.

English for Use in "The Way of Tea"

English for Use in "The Way of Tea"
no author listed
(Tankosha, Tokyo: 2003)

READ: January 2007 onwards (intermittent use)

At my school, I was asked to join the tea ceremony club (sado). The members are me, a bunch of giggling first- and second-year students who don't want to speak English, and three Japanese teachers who don't speak much English at all. So the teacher who is in charge of the club bought me this book. It is targeted toward Japanese-speaking people who have to introduce and explain the tea ceremony in English, but it works well for me, too. Mostly, it is like a Japanese-English dictionary specifically directed at tea ceremony. There are long lists of the items used in the ceremony, with illustrations, and the names of each written in English and in Japanese (both in kanji and in hiragana/katakana). There are a few short explanatory sections, written in English and Japanese, and the last section has some short skits, again in both languages - I guess to demonstrate common conversations one might have while explaining tea ceremony to a foreigner. I wish it had more how-to sections - how to fold my tea cloth (fukusa), how to hold the tea cup, etc., but I guess it's technically targeted at people who already know how to do all that. Anyway, it's helping the tea club bridge the language gap, and it's a handy little reference book.