There have been many books written about Japan by foreigners and I think I managed to come across most of the best writers early on during my stay in Japan, Donald Richie and Ian Buruma immediately come to mind. For some reason I put off reading Alan Booth's seminal The Roads To Sata (1985). I think I heard some negative comments about it, but a good friend whose taste I respect said it was his favorite book on Japan, which makes sense because he is a long distance walker and lover of traditional Japaneses culture not unlike Booth himself. Booth decides to walk from Cape Soya in the distant northern peninsula to Cape Sata in the southern isle of Kyushu in 1977. It is an extraordinary feat and gives a portrait of what rural Japan was like in the pre-Bubble era. I think the strengths of his book lie in stray observations of all the distinct individuals that cross his path, descriptions of rural areas that few people-let alone foreigners-pass through, and the sly humor that often lies in between the lines, perhaps in typical English style. Many of these encounters take place in bars and over beers and result in raucous nights and comically remembered conversations and interactions. Here is an example:
...a guest says to a ryokan person (guest house worker)..."I am just going out for a short stroll" is always understood as expect me back incapable of speech at about midnight," an dis automatically told what time the door locked and shown the back way in.
I plan to eventually visit every prefecture in Japan, so I was particularly interested in those areas I have yet to visit. So the Hokkaido section and Tohoku sections were interesting for me since I have only been to the capital city of Sapporo and Akita city in Akita. He has great admiration for the northern region as it is where he first lived when he arrived in Japan (in the northern most prefecture Aomori) and finds the sparsely populated countryside peaceful. I was also interested in his journey through the Chubu region-in particular Sado Island, the isle of exile, in Niigata and Kanazawa, one of the few cities spared from bombing in WWII, in Ishikawa-two places with long histories that are on my short list for traveling Japan this year. In the south I know little of Fukui and Yamaguchi as well. And once he crosses into Kyushu, a place I have visited several times, but not through the swath through the middle that he went, which crossed through Kumamoto and Oita-the next two places I plan to visit. I think Booth's book is less personal and less judgmental than Donald Richie's great travel book, The Inland Sea, a book I can't help but compare this to. I find it lacking in that sense, but I think these books would be a great starting point and companion pieces in learning about Japan. I think both books provide a glimpse into a forgotten Japan that no longer exists. To Booth's credit, I think he is reluctant to make any general observations about "the Japanese" and it is clear that he tires quickly of the attention and attitudes people had of foreigners in the 70s, he merely wants to be accepted as an individual person rather than an exotic gaijin (foreigner), and as a result he connects with those who look past his foreignness and accept him as a person. He has little faith that he will ever truly understand Japan, even though it is probably what he thought he would accomplish in his herculean task. He admits as much in the final pages. But then again, no foreigner can. And I think this is the appeal of living in such a place as Japan and something that both Richie and I would probably concur with.