The Roads to Sata
By Alan Booth. Viking, 1986, 281 pp.
To travel on foot is a lure for many people, whether they are pilgrims following in the footsteps of those who preceded them, or adventurers setting out on their own paths. As Patrick Leigh Fermor observed in his classic, A Time of Gifts, "On foot, unlike other forms of travel, it is impossible to be out of touch.”
Alan Booth clearly felt the attraction of this kind of journey. An Englishman who had lived in Japan for 7 years, was married to a Japanese woman, and spoke fluent Japanese, he set out in the eighties, at the age of 30, to walk from the northernmost cape of the northernmost island of Japan, Cape Soya, to the southernmost cape of the southernmost island, Cape Sata—the entire length of Japan.
In The Roads to Sata, he gives us a kind of journal of this journey, which took 128 days and covered some 3,300 kilometers. He walked on back roads and, if necessary, on highways, he stayed in country inns, he consumed quantities of beer (“foot gasoline,” as he calls it), and he had encounters with, he estimates, some 1200 people: from businessmen to housewives, from priests to cyclists, and from farmers to sumo wrestlers—with whom he actually wrestled. (Spoiler alert: he didn’t win!)
Along the way, he meets an elderly man, who tells him: “A country is like a sheet of paper; it’s got two sides. On one side there’s a lot of fancy lettering—that’s the side that gets flaunted about in public. But there’s always a reverse side to a piece of paper—a side that might have ugly doodlings on it, or bits of graffiti, or goodness knows what. If you’re going to write about a country, make good and sure you write about both sides.”
Booth clearly takes this to heart. He describes the landscape, myths, and history of the regions he passes through, especially in the north. He writes interestingly about some of the fascinating rituals, such as O-Bon, the Festival of the Dead, which is for many people, he says, “the most important time of the year.” He praises the hot springs so wonderfully resuscitating to his sore legs, and the kindness and nicely quirky aspects of many of the people he meets.
But he also describes the heaps of refuse lying on the beaches, the violent pornographic comics, the cruelty to animals, and, above all, the unfriendliness and even hostility toward foreigners that he encounters. People mock him, assuming he doesn’t understand what they’re saying; little boys (but not girls) taunt him; everyone stares, making him feel like a “freak.” Many inns turn him away, claiming at times that he can’t stay because he doesn’t understand Japanese (even while he’s speaking to them in Japanese) or because he can’t eat the raw fish they serve (even though he explains that he’s lived in Japan for 7 years and assures them that he eats raw fish).
Booth recreates these encounters vividly, and they’re believable. I felt I could understand his frustration. But I began to find his depictions frustrating as well. Westerners have often had trouble with the very different culture of Japan, and I wished that while the author was getting in touch with the country, he would have been more openly in touch with himself. Why, after all, was he on this journey? He says very little about this at the start. It is only at the end of his trip, when a reporter asks him this question, that he replies: “Because I’d lived in Japan for a quarter of my life and still didn’t know whether I was wasting my time. I thought that by taking four months off to do nothing but scrutinize the country I might come to grips with the business of living here, and get a clearer picture, for better or worse.”
This statement seems to me both odd and oddly placed. Why would he be “wasting his time” living in Japan? What does he mean by this? In view of the book, I could only think he had been wondering for a long time whether he would always be viewed as an outsider in Japanese society, and that he’d been possibly “wasting his time” thinking he might be accepted. It isn’t clear. But whatever he means, the statement suggests that Booth started out with an attitude that shaped his experience, and it would have altered the reader’s experience to have known from the start what that attitude was.
The Roads to Sata is an engaging account, but it would have been a far stronger book if the author had explored his own cultural viewpoint and made it more explicit at the start. Without this reflection, and introspection, an important layer is missing, a layer of insight necessary to interpret the story he’s telling. A cross-cultural memoir—like a sheet of paper—always has two sides.
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The Roads to Sata