There are only a handful of travel accounts about modern Japan of truly literary quality. There is Donald Richie’s magisterial “The Inland Sea,” Angus Waycott’s “Sado: Japan’s Island in Exile,” Will Ferguson’s “Hokkaido Highway Blues” and a clutch of other titles, before the genre runs into the sand.
It is not enough to boast of a long journey fraught with obstacles, or one undertaken by some novel form of conveyance, such as a Victorian bath chair, skateboard or supermarket trolley — all of which have been done with varying degrees of success. The account must be superlatively written.
The late Alan Booth’s more than 3,218-km walk — from Hokkaido’s Cape Soya to Kyushu’s Cape Sata — is a wonderfully observed account by a satirist not afraid to apply his critical skills and humor at the expense of whomever and whatsoever he encounters.
Booth had an ambivalent relationship to Japan. The mid-1980s, when the writer embarked on his walk, were not necessarily the best of times to be a fluent Japanese speaker with an erudite grasp of literature and drama. Booth experiences immense hospitality and warmth on his journey of discovery, but also encounters the cultural cold shoulder from strangers who tell him, without the slightest trace of hostility, that he will never understand Japan.
The book will, thanks to Booth’s insights, enlarge readers’ understanding of a country that may have lost some of its self-cultivated inscrutability, but none of its scope for personal exploration.