In the new age of experience that defines the travel accounts on Japan from the immediate pre- and postwar periods, writers began resisting the easy enamor of the Orient. Instead of viewing Japan as an exotic wonderland, they took a more considered, critical view of what they encountered.
In “A Superficial Journey Through Tokyo And Peking,” English writer Peter Quennell begged to differ from the rapturous praise being heaped on architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s design of the newly opened Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. He describes the structure as having a “queer facade, its pretentious squat symmetry” recalling a “modernist chest-of-drawers in stone and brick, the stone used being of a repellently porous type, pocked with large holes like a Gruyere cheese.”
The poet Edmund Blunden, who taught at the University of Tokyo in the 1920s and then returned after the war, gained two very different perspectives on the country. Belonging to a generation habituated to disaster, his experiences of Tokyo after the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake were captured in “A Wanderer In Japan,” first published in 1950.
“The Tokyo which I formerly knew was in ruins,” he writes, “after the earthquake and the fire, though some districts had been spared; and now I was coming again to a desolated and incinerated city.” His travels into the farther reaches of the country, especially Hokkaido and Kyushu, provided a soothing balm to his time spent in scorched cities.
Ethel Manning, the long forgotten author of over a dozen travel titles, spent several months in Japan in 1959. Her journeys, alone and in third class, are described in “The Flowery Sword: Travels in Japan,” first published in 1960. A fine example of travel as inquiry, Manning visits destinations as diverse as Noboribetsu, Kashikojima and Koyagishima, a melancholy and impecunious island off the coast of Nagasaki blighted by coal mines, abandoned shipbuilding yards and derelict shops.
James Kirkup, author of the 1962 travelogue “These Horned Islands,” was able turn his hand to an extraordinary number of genres, including the travel books — a trait shared by Donald Richie, who’s “The Inland Sea” from 1971 is regarded by many critics as a masterpiece of the form. Like many travel books, the seamless narrative — suggesting a single journey — was the summation of several trips taken over a number of years. The polishing of craft, the winnowing of time and experience that went into writing the book, results in graceful passages of writing.
Alan Booth, one of Richie’s few equals, is known for two outstanding travelogues, “The Roads To Sata: A 2000-Mile Walk Through Japan” (1985) and “Looking for the Lost: Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan” (1996). Booth’s waspish observations would not endear themselves to many Japanese readers, but are a welcome tonic in a country not generally given to critical self-examination.
Books reconstructing journeys are commonplace in the late postwar era. One of the finest is from 1989: Lesley Downer’s “On The Narrow Road To The Deep North.” Three hundred years after poet Matsuo Basho’s journey, related in his book of the same title, Downer finds a Japan transformed beyond recognition — but with secluded retreats many Japanese thought long vanished. In the concluding chapter, she sits in a lonely and desolate temple by the sea as the elderly woman custodian serves tea and slices of peach. An ink-stone brush and paper are provided, the author compelled to write a final haiku of her own.
Novelist, travel writer and essayist Pico Iyer, the son of a Tamil theosophist and philosopher, is well known for his 1992 travel book, “The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto.” In an essay titled Our Lady of Lawson, which appeared in an anthology called “The Best American Travel Writing 2006,” Iyer writes a thoroughly urbane account of life in his adopted home of Nara without even leaving his neighborhood.
Any travel account that begins with the line, “When I woke up, a crow was eating my last rice ball,” also deserves attention. Nobody has written more lucidly about the island of Sado than broadcaster Angus Waycott, author of the 1996 book “Sado: Japan’s Island in Exile.”
No review of travel writing in the modern age would be complete without a mention of Will Ferguson’s “Hokkaido Highway Blues: Hitchhiking Japan,” published in 1998. An astute traveler, little escapes Ferguson’s eye. At the morning market in Hakodate — a place “Almost Korean in its exuberance and bad manners” — he watches women shoppers examining “floppy octopi with the critical gaze of connoisseurs.”
Thirty-three years after completing the trans-Asian journey that was published as “The Great Railway Bazaar,” Paul Theroux retraced the same route in his 2008 travelogue “Ghost Train To The Eastern Star.” Where the younger Theroux dismissed the Japanese as “little people, big hurry,” you would expect an older, wiser author to offer a more nuanced perspective. Theroux, however, dismisses Tokyo in a single line: “Bright lights but no warmth, very tidy, more a machine than a city.” Hokkaido is much more to his liking. In the snowed-in bars of Wakkanai, the crackling cold air and rundown hot springs he finds a friendly, unguarded people.
It remains to be seen whether contemporary writers of the caliber of Donald Richie or Alan Booth will emerge again. It is too early to predict the appearance of a Japan account equal to such classics of Oriental travel as Robert Byron’s “The Road to Oxiana,” Freya Stark’s magisterial “The Minaret of Djam” or Colin Thubron’s “Shadow of the Silk Road,” but even those who fall short of the masters will be making their own modest contribution, something we should be thankful for.
This concludes the three-part “Ink-stained road” series on foreign travel writing on Japan. Stephen Mansfield’s next book, a critical history titled “Tokyo A Biography,” will be published in the spring.