Looking for the Lost: Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan (Kodansha Globe) (英語) ペーパーバック – 1996/5/15
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A VIBRANT, MEDITATIVE WALK IN SEARCH OF THE SOUL OF JAPAN
Traveling by foot through mountains and villages, Alan Booth found a Japan far removed from the stereotypes familiar to Westerners. Whether retracing the footsteps of ancient warriors or detailing the encroachments of suburban sprawl, he unerringly finds the telling detail, the unexpected transformation, the everyday drama that brings this remote world to life on the page. Looking for the Lost is full of personalities, from friendly gangsters to mischievous children to the author himself, an expatriate who found in Japan both his true home and dogged exile. Wry, witty, sometimes angry, always eloquent, Booth is a uniquely perceptive guide.
Looking for the Lost is a technicolor journey into the heart of a nation. Perhaps even more significant, it is the self-portrait of one man, Alan Booth, exquisitely painted in the twilight of his own life.
"[Booth] achieved an extraordinary understanding of life as it is lived by ordinary Japanese....Frequently brilliant in his insights."-F.G. Notehelfer, The New York Times Book Review
"Alan Booth was not only the best travel writer on Japan, but one of the best travel writers in the English language. Looking for the Lost is a superb exercise in describing Japan from the point of view of an outsider with the knowledge of an insider."-Ian Buruma, author of The Wages of Guilt
"Booth had a horror of pretension....[He] never fails to produce the whimsical anecdotes that keep the whole account down-to-earth."-Elizabeth ward, Washington Post Book World
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I would especially recommend this book to those who have lived in Japan, as many of the observations and descriptions Booth records will most likely complete a half-formed thought or two that has been eluding your ability to state it precisely.
In short, this is a marvelous book, made all the more poignant by the idea that the wistful voices of the past and the echoing footfalls of the various journeys he recalls here are now all that remains of the author.
Booth's last work is composed of three parts. Each part is structured around a hike of two to four weeks. The travelogue part covers sore feet, welcoming to rude ryokan innkeepers, and, for anyone thinking of duplicating these trips, a LOT of rain. But then, at least he is not camping in it. Even by the late `80's, there is still the general assumption of many he meets that he cannot speak (or read) Japanese because he is a gaijin (foreigner). But his wanderings are not random; he structures them around a historical personage or event, and thus the "looking" (or, as Proust would say, the "searching") for the impact of the past on the present.
In the first two trips, he went to "extremes" of sort. Although he did not visit the northern most island, Hokkaido, this time, he did hike the Tsugaru peninsula, in far northwestern Honshu (which is the largest island). It is May, and cold, though the cherry blossoms will soon be abloom. He decides to follow the travelogue of Dazai Osamu, who journeyed in this area in 1944, during the final year of World War II for the Japanese. Osamu was certainly a strange character, who attempted suicide on four occasions, and succeeded on the fifth. Booth, in his humorous way, debunks and disputes much of Dazai's account. Still, many in the region recognize him for placing this remote peninsula on the "tourist map." The second trip is in the far south, on the island of Kyushu, in the heat of August. Booth wanted to retrace the steps of the defeated army of "the lost cause," at the same time of year that it had actually occurred. It was the last "civil war" on the main islands of Japan. Saigo Takamori, much romanticized in the region, led the revolt of the last of the samurai class. Swords against the guns of the central government, with predictable results. Saigo did his own version of Mao's "the long march", and it taxed Booth to keep up with the schedule. The third trip was in the middle, starting from Nagoya, which had to be completely rebuilt after WW II bombing. (Fittingly, the town is located between Kyoto and Tokyo (Edo, as it was once called). Booth is chasing down the remnants of a much earlier conflict, which commenced in 1180, and lasted five years. This is related in The Tale of the Heike, a constant companion of sorts. The winners might write the history, but Booth demonstrates that it is the losers that write the literature. After the Kyoto faction was defeated, the remnants fled into the remote mountainous regions of the "spine" of Honshu... one of the town's names, Taira, is probably derived from a leader of the Heike. Many of the houses in this region have roofs that are thatched, and steeply pitched, because of the snow. But those that can repair them are dying off, with no replacements, and Booth predicts that, say, by now, only a few at designated "tourist spots" will remain.
The book is replete with wise observations. A chapter that resonated with me is entitled "Pickled Culture", and it reflected my one experience with the Noh theater. And by someone who had come to Japan to study it. He says: "...(a Noh production) is about as comprehensible to a cross-section of modern Japanese society as an oral rendition of Beowulf in the original would be to a cross-section of modern British society."
Finally, what he calls the "niggling" in his gut was felt when he crossed the spine of Honshu, which would be diagnosed as cancer, 27 months later, and to which he would succumb. A keen observer, with a humanist heart, and I wish we could have shared a beer. He is missed. 5-stars, plus.
Through simple, real-life observations and exchanges -- no grandiose oversimplifications and cliches here! -- Booth presents the complexity, silliness, friendliness, biases, perspectives, history, modernity, antiquity and culture of the Japan beyond the big cities.
As a Tokyoite for seven years (transplanted from NYC), I can say without equivocation that Booth's two tomes are the most accurate, truest, loveliest texts you will ever read about the country.
He describes three different walks, each with a distinctive theme. The first follows the trail of Japanese novelist Osamu Dazai's 1944 tour of his home region, Tsugaru, in Northern Honshu. The second follows the path of General Takamori Saigo's retreat from the Battle of Enodake, in Kyushu, which ended the Satsuma rebellion in 1877. The third follows the possible track over central Honshu of the remnents of the Heike clan after their defeat at the Battle of Dannoura in 1186.
Along the way, between descriptions of his blisters and complaints about the weather, he weaves bits of history in with reflections on literature and drama, Japanese society, his own life, and the merits of various alcoholic beverages. He enjoys the Japanese, but doesn't necessarily like them, pokes fun at them constantly. Not that the Japanese, like any other nationality, don't deserve having fun poked at them. But one sometimes wonders why Booth spent so many years living in a country and learning the language of a people for whom he seems to have had so little respect. He acknowledges this indirectly even in the title of the book, "Looking for the Lost", which implies that he is looking for a Japan that may never have existed.
His comments on the Noh are interesting, but perplexing. He was a trained actor, went to Japan to learn about the Noh, and became disillusioned with it very quickly. From the little I have read and seen of Noh drama, it is based on quite different assumptions from European, especially Shakespearean, drama. It was "pickled" from the very beginning, an esoteric art form invented for the nobility, nothing "popular" or "alive" about it. Booth seems to have taken that difference personally, as if the Japanese had played a trick on him, rather than seeing the Noh for the quite unusual dramatic form that it is.
His announcement at the end of the book that he has colon cancer is terse and matter of fact, in some ways like Dazai's attitude toward suicide. One thinks of him writing this book with death looking over his shoulder, which perhaps explains the bittersweet feeling one gets while reading it.
Basho - "The Narrow Road to the Deep North"
Isabella Bird - "Unbeatan Tracks in Japan"
Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenellosa - "The Classic Noh Theatre of
Mishima Yukio - "Five Modern Noh Plays"
These are not nearly as much fun to read as Alan Booth.