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The ink-stained road: impressions of Japan

by Stephen Mansfield

JAPAN THROUGH WRITER’S EYES, edited by Elizabeth Ingrams. Eland, 2009, 336 pp., $29.95 (paper)

Reviewed by Stephen Mansfield Recent years have seen a number of excellent anthologies of writings on Japan, including “Japan: True Stories of Life on the Road” and the superb “Southern Exposure: Modern Japanese Literature From Okinawa.” Now comes another welcome slice of cultural geography in this collection edited by former Japan habitue Ingrams.

Considerable care has gone into selecting extracts that transmit the character and plurality of these islands — no surprise given the imprint of Eland, a U.K. publisher closely identified with quality travel literature.

Ingrams skillfully introduces each region and city with a well-considered historical and cultural profile. There are a number of factual errors in the editorial sections, though, and while they scarcely detract from one’s enjoyment of the collection, I was certainly surprised to read that Araki-cho, a quarter in Tokyo I know rather well, “does not exist any more.”

From early visitors like missionary Joao Rodrigues and trade pioneer John Saris, to the second wave of foreigners like Rudyard Kipling, the early accounts of Japan may be off the mark with many cultural interpretations, but they have an engaging freshness of perspective. As implied by the collection’s title, the reader is treated to a feast of subjective observation.

Vivid descriptions of what the authors see and experience make this an excellent primer for travelers who like to read up on their destinations. The best convey a good deal more than merely the visible and tangible.

Oliver Statler, for example, writing about Shimoda, explores its historical connections to the sea as much he does the town as it existed at the time. Commenting on the importance of the port during the Edo Period, he recalls stories of ships being “so densely moored that a man could walk clear across the harbor on their decks, a full mile.”

Kyoto is reimagined through the elegant gossip of diaries written by the likes of Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon, as well as the more analytical, modern eye of Alex Kerr.

Tokyo in particular is a city that writers feel compelled to describe in great detail: Rika Yokomori provides a rich portrayal of Azabu Juban in central Tokyo, and an extract from Donald Richie’s undervalued novel “Tokyo Nights” illustrates how well the author understood the hubris of the bubble years.

The Kotobuki area of Yokohama is given suitably gritty treatment in Rey Ventura’s “Underground in Japan,” where he describes members of his fellow Filipina community with touching candor: “Wherever you were, you would always have in your pocket some money, a loved one’s photo, a list of telephone numbers, a prayer book — and in the case of most men, a knife.”

Further down the coast, the humorist Kaori Shoji is represented with a piece on Shonan Beach, beloved in her imagination but in reality worse for wear.

Road testing the book on a recent trip to Tohoku, I found pieces on the region by not only Matsuo Basho and Isabella Bird, but also essays by Kunio Yanagata, Kenji Miyazawa and James Kirkup, collectively providing insight of remarkable depth.

In this volume, Ingrams may have compiled the most far-reaching literary travel companion yet for these diverse and pluralistic islands.

Elizabeth Ingrams leads a “Book Break” discussion Oct. 2 at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in the Denki Building near Yurakucho Station. Bookings are required via email: japanthroughwriterseyes@yahoo.co.uk