Osaka – Author Karen Hill Anton has ventured down a road that all those struck by wanderlust would envy, and in her insightful and eloquently written memoir, “The View From Breast Pocket Mountain,” Anton illustrates how some of the best things in life are discovered by chance.
Readers of Anton’s Japan Times column Crossing Cultures, which ran from 1990 to 1999, are undoubtedly familiar with her life in Japan, specifically Tenryu, Shizuoka Prefecture, the place she has called home since 1975. Before settling down here, however, Anton traveled widely without a plan or a map, moving from place to place by relying on her intuition and trust in people to point her in the right direction.
Anton knew for several years that she wanted to write her story as a memoir to share her tale of self-discovery and adventure in its entirety.
“About three years ago, I decided this is something I want to do. It’s important to me and I was ready to put in the work to do it,” Anton, 75, says during a video call. “Of course, I wrote about living in Japan in my Crossing Cultures column, but I realized many people just knew of my life at that point — I hadn’t come here full blown at the age of 30! I thought people would be interested, and they are.”
Japan is far from Manhattan, the New York borough where Anton grew up as one of three children raised by a single father. In her early years, she developed a passion for creative expression, studying dance with the modern dancer Martha Graham and taking on a summer job with novelist Joseph Heller as he worked on his screenplay for “Catch-22.” Hungry to explore beyond New York, however, Anton set off to Europe not long after graduating from high school.
During her travels in her 20s, Anton lived in a castle in Denmark, where she gave birth to her first child, and interviewed Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to be their house sitter in Gstaad, Switzerland. Along the way, she encountered colorful individuals and developed friendships with people she wouldn’t have met if she had stayed in New York.
“Traveling in the precarious manner I did, you might not know what to expect, but I’d come to expect kindness. People were generally kind. They were generous. They were helpful. I had every reason to believe I would have good experiences because that’s exactly what I was having,” Anton writes.
In her memoir, she notes that during her travels overland from what was formerly Yugoslavia to Turkey, and from Iran to Afghanistan, she noticed how cultures blend into one another, rather than being very distinct, country by country.
“Delineations between countries aren’t always that clear, and when you travel overland you see that,” Anton says. “The people start to blend in a certain way, the foods they eat or what they wear. (It’s) a gradual transition across cultures.”
Looking back, Anton says the ’60s and ’70s were a magical time when travel was less worrisome and borders were easier to cross than they are now. “Sometimes people ask me if I would do a trip like that now and I say, you couldn’t do that now! Going to Afghanistan was like going into France,” Anton says. “It was like a different world back then, without any trepidation, fear or concern. If my daughters wanted to do that now, I’d have a heart attack! The world has changed.”
While Anton had occasional moments of doubt during her travels, the urge to explore and have new experiences always won out. Backpacking, hitchhiking and driving overland across several countries played a significant part in giving Anton insight to the world at large. Even with the trials and tribulations that came with traveling, eventually with a family in tow, Anton says it was all a beautiful experience.
Anton’s wanderings finally led her to Japan, and in the book’s closing chapters, Anton writes about raising her family in the countryside of Shizuoka Prefecture and realizing that the country had become her final destination. Although she and her family stood out as non-Japanese in a society that values conformity, Anton never let challenges such as language and cultural barriers deter her. “Identity” is not a word Anton mentions in her book. In fact, it was a subject that didn’t concern her very much.
“I was never so caught up in myself as an identity. I’ve never felt like that,” Anton says. “It wasn’t that things weren’t difficult at times. However, I’ve never attached myself to one identity, whether American, Black, African American or even a woman.”
While some non-Japanese residents struggle with being seen as “other” in their adopted home, Anton’s matter-of-fact attitude toward not always fitting in is wonderfully refreshing. “We wanted to make sure our children knew English to prepare them for the world, but with all the rest, I didn’t think it was central. I made it clear to them that you didn’t have to fit in some box,” Anton says.
The positive reception that Anton’s book has received so far could lead to a sequel, albeit in the distant future.
“I definitely have more stories to tell, there’s no doubt about that,” Anton says. “But for right now, I’d like people to focus on this story. I’m not a merchant, I don’t care if people buy the book, but I do care if people read the book. I’d like for everyone to read this story.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.