Japan on Foot, by Mary King.
Fine Line Press, 2012, 236 pp., $23.00 (paperback)
The Japanese like to think of themselves as a small people living within snug, but territorially confined boundaries.
Scale, of course, is relative. If you come from Russia, then Japan is, indeed, a small country. If you hail from the U.K. on the other hand, a nation that could fit into the boundaries of Honshu Island with room to spare, then Japan is expansive.
This long anticipated book by British journalist Mary King, the account of her 7,500-km, 15-month walk through the Japanese archipelago in the company of partner Etsuko Shimabukuro, is by its very nature, about space and distance.
Some fine precedents for walking books exist, among them Camilo Jose Cela’s “Journey to the Alcarria” and Patrick Lea Fermor’s “A Time of Gifts,” considered by many to be one of the finest travel titles of the last century.
To my knowledge, no women writers have undergone the rigors of long-distance walking in Japan, although there have been female authors who have toured the country by other means, like Josie Dew, whose long journey by bicycle resulted in the frequently hilarious “A Ride In The Neon Sun.”
Hokkaido is the starting point of this journey of discovery, a remote littoral in Okinawa its end. During their long tramp, the two friends meet with a bewildering mix of hospitality, suspicion, good will, insufferable rudeness, and humor.
The beauty of the country observed at close quarters is matched by stunning ugliness, as they experience nature sites recently trashed by tourists, dingy boarding houses, shrill air raid sirens announcing the time of day in tranquil villages, collapsing seaside towns, and in one Hokkaido town, neon signs offering the services of Russian and Southeast Asian hostesses.
In the mystic region of Osorezan in northern Honshu, the writer is privy to intriguing oral histories, supernatural tales, and accounts of visitations from the spirit world. In a district where the afterlife is as present as the here and now, King uses the services of a shamaness to channel a message from her father. On the mountain, they encounter jizo statues clothed in apparel akin to cerements, the stunted forms standing with “Blouses and dresses, saturated in the downpour,” the figures clinging to the rocks, “giving the impression of emaciated corpses.”
Along the way, there are fellow travelers well met, like the bearded, 65-year-old Japanese man cycling around the country and sleeping in railway stations and on benches to save money, and a miko, or female yamabushi, mountain ascetic. In the little town of Shimokawa, they come across a two thousand meter long replica of the Great Wall of China. In the fastness of an esoteric temple, King observes a mummified priest, a man of such severe faith he subjected himself to the mortifications of a slow death and embalmment. In Toyama they spend the evening in the company of a bar owner with a taste for cross-dressing.
Time, distance and encounters on the road provide the writer with the chance to reflect on serious issues like gender discrimination, suicide, the plight of the Ainu minority, and the difficulties faced by Japan’s burakumin caste. It is also a time to face off with the past. Meeting a war orphan in Matsue, a woman left behind in China at the end of World War II, the writer is reminded of her biological parents and the meeting that took place with them a few years before.
If the journey is rich in rumination, it is also laced with asides on good food, hot springs, companionable strangers, and plenty of booze to lubricate aching limbs and tired minds. Fifteen months later, hardened by the road, no longer foot-sore and submissive, the pair step onto Yonaguni, Japan’s westernmost island, the site of what some marine biologists believe to be the underwater ruins of the ancient civilization of Mu. The odyssey finally over brings a sense of accomplishment and sadness, as such long journeys must.
In the end, though, it is not the journey so much as the sheer gumption of these two women in undertaking it that we are forced to admire.