Renowned travel writer Bruce Chatwin believed passionately in the importance of walking in the wild. The problems of humanity, he contended, were borne out of people being settled and static.
But if you wanted to rediscover your nomadic self in a heavily urbanized country such as Japan, where would you go?
In the summer of 1988, at age 19, I visited Japan for the first time. The first weeks of my two-month holiday were spent riding trains from Tokyo to Kyoto and Niigata to Sapporo. But there seemed to be something superficial about this trek from one urban center to another. I would gaze out the window for hours, becoming hypnotized by the rural landscapes outside. Japan’s greatest secrets seemed to be located out there.
So, somewhere outside Morioka, Iwate Prefecture — right in the center of the northern Tohoku region — I decided to get off the train. And that’s when I started walking. I spent the rest of the summer rambling through the wilds of Tohoku, climbing the highest peaks, exploring remote peninsulas and circumnavigating volcanic lakes.
At one point, I spent two days walking down the Shimokita Peninsula in Aomori Prefecture at the northernmost tip of Tohoku. Its sandy beaches and deeply wooded paths were beautiful and remote, and I sang loudly as I walked its empty roads.
On the first evening, my resting place was to be a little village in a cove. It was dark when I arrived and began searching for the only minshuku (guesthouse). I felt like I had reached the back of Japan.
Tohoku has always been a place that represented the “other” to the power centers of Kyoto and Tokyo: a paradoxical place of adventure and rural quiet, a place of turning-in-on-oneself and spiritual retreat. It was ever so. In the 17th century, when Basho set out on his “Narrow Road to the Deep North,” he was Tohoku bound. In the 12th century, the legendary figures Minamoto Yoshitsune and Musashibo Benkei fled from war-torn Kyoto to the same northern region.
The devastating tsunami of March 2011 may have shattered forever the illusion of Tohoku as a place of “safety,” but its reputation as a place of escape, spiritual freedom and self-discovery endures. After all, this is where the original occupants of the country took shelter — and were gradually pushed north by the Yamato State during the first millennium.
There are pockets of Tohoku where shamanistic rituals survive and where Buddhism is still treated like a foreign, imported faith. In many ways, the “narrow road” seems to lead to the very heart of Japan itself.
For the past 20 years I have been dreaming of returning to Aomori — of wandering its roads, mountains and coastlines with nothing but a backpack and map.
I recently found myself in Tokyo without responsibilities or deadlines. I had a few days to spare, and could travel anywhere in the country, but there was really only one option: Hirosaki in Aomori.
When I visited the region in 1988, I climbed many mountains — Gassan, Zao, Iwate — but the one that lingered in my memory was Mount Iwaki, which rises majestically just outside the city of Hirosaki.
I’m not alone in my fascination. The late, great British writer Alan Booth (1946-93) who walked the entire length of Japan in 1977 — a journey described in his 1985 travelogue “The Roads to Sata” — often said this his favorite place in the country.
Booth was abandoned as a baby and adopted and raised in modest circumstances in the East End of London. After studying drama at Birmingham University, he came to Tokyo in 1970 to study Noh, but became disillusioned with its pretentiousness.
In pursuit of the “real Japan,” Booth turned his attention to traditional folk songs and festivals. During one of his holidays in that first year, he headed to a place far from Tokyo: Aomori. The trip left a mark on the young writer and he nurtured a deep affection for the region for 23 years, until his premature death from cancer at age 46.
When he returned to Tokyo from that Tohoku holiday in 1970, he looked for a bar with a proprietress who hailed from Aomori so he could learn the region’s dialect. He also bought dozens of records featuring Tohoku’s Tsugaru shamisen and Tsugaru folk songs.
His close friend Timothy Harris, who edited Booth’s prolific film criticism in the ’80s for the Asahi Evening News and is currently assembling an anthology of Booth’s journalism, remembers one of his pieces about Takahashi Chikuzan, the great Tsugaru shamisen player, who was born in Aomori Prefecture.
“Here, Alan’s love of ura-nihon (the back of Japan) — the coastal area of northern Honshu on the Sea of Japan side — is apparent,” Harris says. “Alan loved it because of its poverty and the hardness of life there, a hardness of life that gave, he felt, an authenticity to the people there that he did not find in, say, the courteously hypocritical old capital of Kyoto or the boringly tidy city of Nagoya.
“He was once told, by a blind itako (medium) on Osorezan — a caldera in Aomori Prefecture — that 200 years ago he had been born in the city of Hirosaki, but because of his sins in that life he had been reborn as a foreigner. This amused him, naturally, but it also meant something to him: Aomori was the true home of his spirit.”
The special bond that Booth felt with Aomori placed him apart from other commentators on Japan. Booth, like his near contemporary Bruce Chatwin, believed above all in the importance of walking. When walking, Booth remarked, you meet a true variety of people: farmers, fishermen, gardeners, housewives, old women, bartenders. Booth liked to visit local izakaya taverns in remote places and go on to karaoke bars afterwards. He said that the best way to glimpse the lives of Japanese people was to visit back-of-nowhere towns.
When an editor once mentioned the idea of driving between London and Tokyo, across Europe and Asia, Booth replied, “Drive? If it was me, I’d walk.”
After walking the 3,250-kilometer length of Japan on his 128-day journey in 1977, Booth returned to Aomori in 1988 and walked the circumference of Aomori’s northern shore with a copy of “Return to Tsugaru” by native son Osamu Dazai in his pocket.
Dazai had spent 23 days in 1944 traveling around the region, using buses, trains and boats. Booth followed his course over a similar 23 days, but spent the entire time walking, remarking en route how he felt no particular affection for the morbid, egocentric Dazai. Booth’s Aomori travelogue would later form the opening part of “Looking for the Lost” (published posthumously, in 1995).
All Booth’s travelogues have been translated into Japanese, and his memory is still treasured in Aomori. Earlier this year, journalist Momoko Kato wrote a six-part series for the Too Nippo, a local newspaper, about Booth’s love of Aomori — she even interviewed all the people that Booth encountered on his journeys there.
I was so thrilled to be back in Hirosaki that — in classic Alan Booth fashion — I got a little bit carried away in an izakaya. After laughing and joking with the staff (and drinking too much Hirosaki sake), they took me to nearby bar and I crawled home in the early hours of the next morning. That day, I made atonement and cleared my head by riding round town on a bicycle and walking reverentially around the tombs of the Tsugaru lords. I reacquainted myself with the famous Neputa festival, viewed the city’s impressive floats and learnt about Tsugaru’s shamisen.
I reminded myself that the true magic of travel in Japan, as Booth discovered long ago, lies not in the pretensions of high culture, but in the sheer delight of walking and meeting the everyday characters in the most unaffected, welcoming parts of the country. Back in the late ’80s this region was still an inconvenient place to visit, beyond the reach of bullet trains. Today, you can reach the city of Aomori from Tokyo in a mere 3½ hours, but the joy in connecting with somewhere so vibrant and alive — as well as visceral and wild — remains as intense as ever. May I return once more, an eternal return in the footsteps of Dazai and Booth.
Hirosaki is a four-hour train ride from Tokyo Station, via Shin-Aomori Station.