Many — some might say too many — travel writers build their books around a version of themselves. In spite of all the interesting places Paul Theroux visits, for example, the most memorable thing in most of his travel writing is “Paul Theroux.” William Scott Wilson, in “Walking the Kiso Road: A Modern-day Exploration of Old Japan,” takes a different approach: Though we get to know a bit about the narrator — his love for good coffee, his blisters — he never dominates the narrative or overshadows the valley in Nagano Prefecture through which he travels. He never upstages the people who populate it either.
“I hoped to remain as transparent as possible,” Wilson says, “and to offer, as much as possible, the perceptions of the poets, writers and officials who walked the road in the past. Their histories are the story of the road itself, but at the same time I thought that for the reader to get a grasp on the latter, the personalities of the people I met during my walk were essential to an understanding of the place.”
Wilson’s book is proof that his choice was correct. The poets and writers he invokes, and the people he meets as he travels, prove to be the perfect lens through which to view the Kiso Road.
A part of the Nakasendo, a route that connected Edo and Kyoto, the Kiso Road is one of Japan’s ancient ways. It was busiest, Wilson informs us, from the 16th to 19th centuries — “when travelers walked, rode on horseback or were carried in palanquins through the mountains, along scary suspension bridges and over steep passes.”
It remains busy today with travelers moving along it on foot, as Wilson does, but also in cars on the highways that parallel much of the route. The larger towns along the road — Narai, Tsumago, Magome — are popular tourist destinations, but as Wilson’s account makes clear, there is much to see between those places as well. He takes three weeks for a journey that could be done in one, and this leisurely pace ensures that he has time to reflect on what he encounters.
Wilson is a noted translator of samurai literature and the author of a book on Miyamoto Musashi, so it is no surprise that his reflections, as he walks, are often literary and historical. Indeed, his account makes it clear that the Kiso Road is a walk that begs for a mind as well-stocked as Wilson’s to vivify all that it has to offer. He draws on sources and ideas both amusingly mundane and aesthetically sophisticated. Entering an inn, for example, he is able to call up advice from an 1810 travel guide: “At first get your bearings, then find the toilet, how to secure the doors, and finally the source of fires.” On the other hand, referencing a late 18th-century account he is able to tell us about the eccentric monk Enku who created the statuary at a Kiso Road temple. These sculptures were made in the 1600s, but “looked more like something influenced by Picasso,” according to a sculptor friend of Wilson’s.
It was not, however, books that drove Wilson to take to the Kiso Road, but people, or more precisely, he explains, “the suggestion of a Japanese friend of mine, who kindly made reservations at an old inn in Tsumago, and sent me off one morning on a local train out of Nagoya.”
One suspects that it is the people he meets along the way who have drawn him back to the Kiso Road more than once since then and that gave him the impetus to write this book.
These people are not, to be sure, the characters and types one so often encounters in travel books, but rather human beings we recognize. There is, for example, the country policeman who gently questions Wilson after there is a fire near one of the inns where he stops. It’s hard to call it an interrogation, given that it takes place over tea and consists of questions like “Do you really like Kiso?,” but one can easily imagine Japan chroniclers of a certain ilk complaining that their protagonist had been considered suspicious simply because he was foreign. The reason Wilson does not do so, it will have become clear by this point in the book, is that Wilson is comfortable in Japan and among Japanese. This comfort, the fact that he does not see himself as a stranger in a strange land, gives his book a quiet clarity that sets it apart. He views people and tells us about them; he does not use them for effect.
Perhaps Wilson is able to do this because he made the journey he chronicles while in his late 60s. His narrative may not, therefore, have the exuberance of a young man’s quest, but it more than makes up for that with depth that only a lifetime immersed in Japan could make possible.
“The territory covered here,” he writes, “is not just geographical, the time not limited to late October/early November of 2013, and the hike not mine alone.”
We can only be grateful that Wilson has made his hike ours as well.