36 Views of Mount Fuji, by Cathy N. Davidson272 pagesDUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS

Cathy N. Davidson’s book, a mix of introspection and encounter-based travel writing, begins with the line, “I dreamt of Japan long before I went there.” Breathless with anticipation at the prospect of witnessing moss gardens, tatami rooms and wooden bridges strung with paper lanterns, Davidson came to Japan in 1980 to teach at an all-women’s university. What she found was “concrete apartment blocks dingy with pollution ... urbanization run amok.” In a sense, the book is a search for the essence of the writer’s pre-emptive dreams, to realize a vision of Japan that reserves a place for refinement and beauty.

The title of the memoir derives from the woodblock artist Katsushika Hokusai’s series “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji,” which portrays Japanese life and society, from the nobility and their traveling entourages, to the everyday tinkers, merchants and pilgrims. Davidson, whose wanderings take her from some of the most densely inhabited cities on the planet to the tiny, matriarchal community of Kudaka Island, tries to accomplish something similar to Hokusai, observing human and natural life at their most vital and frail. Beautifully written with the care and attention to detail of a fine artist, the author skillfully portrays the country, but spares us the tiresome ordeal of overexplaining Japan.

In one or two of Hokusai’s prints, Mount Fuji is present by inference, reinforcing the Buddhist concept that the closer you are to an object or idea, the less you see. It is oftentimes the person who, like Davidson, is passing through and observing the scene from a distance, that enjoys the most luminous view.