A colloquial style of literature tourism


JAPAN: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, edited by Jeffrey Angels & J. Thomas Rimer, foreword by Donald Richie. Whereabouts Press, 2006, 232 pp., $14.95 (paper).

It was purely by chance that I read the stories in this anthology while visiting the very same locations that provide their setting, though my journey, starting in Okinawa and ending back in Tokyo, traced the itinerary in reverse.

Some of these stories have appeared in area-specific anthologies of Japanese writing before, including “Jacob’s Tokyo Ladder” in the excellent “Tokyo Stories” collection edited by Lawrence Rogers, and “Bones” in a fine book on Okinawan literature called “Southern Exposure.”

In “Jacob’s Tokyo Ladder,” the first story in the collection, Keizo Hino writes about a city that over-stimulates, a place where, at certain times of the day, ensembles of buildings have the power to transmit ideas and sensations. Hino’s story is firmly rooted in the architecture of Tokyo’s Marunouchi business district, its daylight rigidity of “massive parallelepipeds, constructed with absolute straight lines and planes,” mutating via the uneasy perception of the narrator into dark, organically active surfaces, one building with “massive walls, all a dark taupe, making it look as if the whole edifice had been carved out of a mountain of volcanic rock.”

Under the strong illumination of the imagination, a phantom figure appears from this night geology, then just as easily vanishes.

Other writers in this collection also project their own psychic states onto their environs, most notably Kenji Nakagami, whose “The Immortal” depends heavily on the atmosphere of the dense, primal forests that provide the setting for this utterly spooky tale of a degenerate holy man’s encounter with supernatural figures.

The descriptive passages in Yasushi Inoue’s “Under the Shadow of Mount Bandai” are worthy of the longer passages of an Anne Radcliff Gothic tale. While you might struggle with the unflagging accounting of setting, readers can acquire a feeling for the fastnesses of northern Honshu as they were in the late 19th century. Anyone who knows Tsukudajima’s Sumiyoshi shrine will instantly recognize the description in this story of sexual bundling in Maruuya Saiichi’s “The Obtuse Young Man.” Though a rather slight story, it is well-grounded, standing squarely on literary terra firma.

Sakunosuke Oda’s “The City of Trees,” an autobiographical account of life in a district of Osaka, suffers from some of the shortcomings — feeble characterization, digressive narrative, an undeserving sense of self-satisfaction — common to sentimental memoirs of this kind. Things get more interesting with Teru Miyamoto’s “The Swallow’s Nest,” also set in Osaka. Here we have a flesh-and-blood character in the form of an elderly woman who lives in the past, but fiercely, unapologetically.

Chimako Tada’s “The Garden That Spirited My Dog Away” evokes some of the atmosphere found on the verdant residential slopes at the base of Mount Rokko in Kobe, but ultimately is little more than a wistful memoir about the loss of a loved pet.

“The Destiny of Shoes” is one of Takashi Atoda’s best-known pieces. A chance encounter on the bullet train, a surprise ending, an entirely different take on the pink-champagne colors of Kyoto in the cherry blossom season, attest to Atoda’s skills at fusing character and setting into original narrative.

“One Night with Mother” by Tsutomu Mizukami takes us back to the realm of the nostalgic memoir, but with a crisp dash of realism. Set along the Sea of Japan coast, one senses, though, the fixation on mother figures common to some Japanese literature, where matriarchs are either backlit in the manner of saints, or portrayed as symbols of a lost eroticism.

Yasunari Kawabata’s much-anthologized “Yumiura” concerns a misalignment of memory between two people, a successful writer and a woman who claims to have known him briefly, intimately, some 30 years before. Searching his memory and the location of a town that appears not to exist, the writer begins to doubt aspects of his own reality, much like a character in a Paul Auster story.

The theme of retention and yearning resurfaces in Mutsuo Takahashi’s “The Snow of Memory,” another autobiographical account recalling a mother who, during the war years, leaves her son in the custody of a relative while she follows her lover to China.

The past resurfaces with a shock in Tsuyoshi Shima’s brilliantly conceived “Bones,” a tale set on the ghost-ridden main island of Okinawa, where a construction company headed by a boss from Osaka, hellbent on erecting resort apartments over the site of a mass grave, attempts quite literally to bury the past and the local sensibilities that go with it.

For those of us whose habit it is to travel with works of literature whose geographical settings and coordinates help to situate us in a manner beyond the scope of any guidebook, an anthology like this is an indispensable pleasure.