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Having faith in traveling

by Donald Richie

EXCURSIONS IN IDENTITY: Travel and the Intersection of Place, Gender and Status in Edo Japan, by Laura Nenzi. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008, 267 pp., illustrations IX, $57 (cloth)

During Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1867), Dr. Laura Nenzi tells us, “physical mobility (traveling along horizontal lines) was tightly regulated and social mobility (traveling along vertical lines) . . . was not always a viable option.”

This was because “parameters based on status and gender permeated every facet of one person’s life, and to a certain extent travel was no exception.” Officials meddled with every major move, and actual checkpoint barriers periodically closed the major roads.

However, what became known as recreational travel changed all this, and altered some of these parameters. By the 19th century, travel had already become a part of consumerism and though religious pilgrimages were often the excuse for travel, the new mantra, suggests the author, was “I buy, therefore I am.”

Besides being pious and visiting noted shrines and temples, the new travelers could take advantage of quite a menu, one which in the author’s words rested on the relationship between “faith and fun, prayer and play, sacred and profane.”

As the Edo Period matured (if that is the word) into an age when money mattered more than pedigree, travel generated its own economic power. Thus the pilgrimage, far from being a mere act of faith, became an enterprise that required a monied infrastructure to pay for the advertising, the lodgings, the making and marketing of all those amulets and charms.

Landscape (something to look at and admire rather than something to simply tramp through) was invented, and citizens flocked to gaze at Mount Fuji, not as an object to avoid by going around it, but as a presence that was to be thought beautiful and, eventually, divine.

And when the traveling crowds got too big, they could go see the miniature Fujis that, Disney-like, spotted old Edo. The most famous of these imitations was in Meguro. It was only 12 meters tall but visitors admired the blend of the sacred, the leisurely, and the convenient.

The Japanese discovered many reasons for travel, once travel had become a possibility. Among these one of the most interesting to the modern mind (at least, to this modern mind) is what we would now call sex tourism. Though there were eventually many guides to various venues, there is also one literary monument. This is Jippensha Ikku’s 1814 “Tokaidochu Hizakurige” translated into English as “Shank’s Mare.”

In its picaresque pages the two friends Kita and Yaji make a mock pilgrimage, the real purpose of which is to eat and drink a lot and to enjoy the other sensual pleasures as well. Every pretty girl is noted and the Tokugawa military checkpoint at Hakone is barely acknowledged.

Ikku quotes the old proverb that “shame is thrown aside when one travels,” and Kita and Yaji go out of their way to illustrate this. Their travels are punctuated by their realizing it on a purely physical level and in the form of instant gratification.

And they knew just where to go, since by this time brothels and baths loomed large on travel maps and cruise guides. As Dr. Nenzi informs us: “To the erotic traveler, interaction (and intercourse) with local prostitutes served a purpose similar to what lyrical or historical recollections did for the educated and what the acquisition of material objects did for other wayfarers in the age of commercialism.” And it is true that sex makes a memorable souvenir. Or, as phrased by the author: “Intercourse, like the recovery of historical and lyrical precedent, or like shopping, facilitated the seizure of the unfamiliar.”

Nenzi is an academic and manages to squeeze out most of the juice before presenting the pulp, but, on the other hand, such a dry delivery benefits the text in that, by contrast as it were, it beckons the salacious (this reviewer among them) to re-imagine the pleasurable dimensions of free travel in straight-laced Tokugawa times.