Alan Booth moved to Japan in his twenties and lived here for more than half his life, until his untimely demise from cancer at the age of 46. On the face of it he would appear to have written just two books, and one of them was published posthumously, so there must be scope for a further collection of his journalism and travel writing, of which there was sufficient for him to earn a living (he doesn’t appear to have worked in any other capacity in Japan, apart from a brief stint as an English teacher when he first arrived here).
The Roads To Sata is Booth’s most well known book, but while the task he undertook in order to write it – namely, walking the entire length of Japan from its northernmost to southernmost points – is impressive, in my humble opinion, Looking For The Lost is a finer literary achievement. Most importantly, when he went on his first, epic trek, Booth had only been in the country for seven years, and while his Japanese was already very good and his grasp of the country’s culture wide-ranging, by the time he went on the three shorter walks on which Looking For The Lost is based, he had at least another fifteen years of linguistic expertise and cultural knowledge to draw upon. So while The Roads To Sata is an account of his travels from A to B, and largely concerns itself with the people he meets and the places he visits along the way, in Looking For The Lost he follows in the footsteps of three historical figures.
The first is Osamu Dazai, who was born into a rich family, became a famous writer and ended up committing suicide. The second is Saigo Takamori, who was a military and political luminary in Meiji times, but made a few enemies along the way and ended up dying in heroic and / or tragic (depending on how you look at it) samurai-style circumstances. And the third are the Heike, not so much a figure as a group of figures: a military clan who wielded power the best part of a thousand years ago, and who having been defeated were hounded from their homes, never to be seen again.
Dazai is a particularly interesting figure in relation to Booth, as both were prodigious drinkers. Booth is very much aware of this, and refers to a review of The Roads To Sata in which his journey was described as ‘a 2000-mile pub crawl’. Indeed, he appears to spend almost the entire time drunk, to the extent that you wonder a) how he managed to remember what happened while he was on his travels and b) how he managed to stay sober for long enough to write an entire book about them. The summer of his north-to-south walk appears to have been particularly hot – even in Hokkaido and by Japanese standards – so one has to assume that quite apart from being sunburned, bug-bitten and with blisters on his blisters, he must have been completely dehydrated from dawn until dusk, and for the entire six months the walk took him to complete. For Booth, drinking is as matter-a-fact a part of everyday life as breathing and eating, and in Looking For The Lost is referred to entirely casually: a few bottles of beer for lunch here, several flasks of saké for dinner there. Goodness knows, if he had managed to survive the cancer, liver failure would surely have picked him off before too long.
But anyway, while Dazai’s pub crawl took him round the northern tip of Honshu, through a bleak and remote region called Tsugaru that Booth makes no attempt at all to glamourise, Takamori’s journey was around Kyushu, which is a particularly attractive part of Japan. Perhaps the most interesting point raised by Booth’s account is that while Kyushu is by no means bleak, due to the inexorable shift in the Japanese population from the rural to the urban, it too is becoming remote – on one day of walking in particular, he sees an average of approximately one other human being per hour, most of whom are old enough to be retired. This was something I came across when I travelled around Hokkaido, where the population demographic is getting older and older, and whatever children there are disappear to live in Sapporo or Tokyo as soon as they get the chance.
While Takamori was no alcoholic, he makes an excellent starting point for Booth’s reflections on the Japanese psyche. Takamori was one of the last of the old-style samurai, and his character encapsulates many ironies and contradictions, the most amusing of which is the fact that he almost certainly suffered from a medical condition that made his testicles swell to an enormous size, to the extent that he had to be carried around by his minions on a sedan chair. Again, Booth’s writing here is greatly enhanced by the insight he has into the subtleties of Japanese history and culture.
I was reading an internet forum the other day in which Booth was criticised for a Theroux-esque tendency to complain about things and make bitchy comments about Japan and its people, and while it’s true that he does succumb at times to what one assumes was the fashionable travel writing style of the time, he of all people – rather than an ignorant first-timer with nothing but a Rough Guide and a beginner’s phrasebook in their backpack – has earned the right to be critical. Before following in Takamori’s footsteps, for example, he has read – in the original Japanese – pretty much every piece of biographical writing there is on his subject, to the extent that he is confident enough to suggest his own theories about exactly where Takamori went, how he went there and why. (Again, this is something that cannot be said of The Roads To Sata, and Booth backs up numerous theories that contradict the accepted Japanese view with hard evidence: for example, his etymological take on the word ‘kokeshi’ – the wooden dolls of Japanese children with pudding-bowl haircuts – is particularly fascinating, not to mention rather spooky, and by the by, draws on an excellent Japanese book that has been translated into English, Memories Of Silk And Straw by Junichi Saga.)
The Heike, though, are more elusive than either Dazai or Takamori, as there is little documentation about them, and in any case, their story is so old that it has long since begun to blur at the edges and to move into the realms of myth and legend (after less than a century, Booth notes that Takamori is already well on his way to being perceived as a myth – even a deity – rather than a real historical figure). What Booth teases out of this is a meditation on the relative transience of Japanese culture and its artifacts. While it is true to say there are very few old buildings in the country as a whole, Booth manages to track some down that date back hundreds of years, and whose thatched roofs and snake-ridden rooms serve as vital proof of Japan’s history, and as a bridge to its mythical past, which may or may not have been peopled by clans such as the Heike. (His questioning of the modern Japanese assertion that as a race they are somehow purer than those of most other nations is also worthy of examination, particularly for an outsider. I for one was unaware that besides the Ainu of Hokkaido, several other indigenous tribes pre-existed the Japanese race as we know it today.)
Oddly, one of the only jarring moments in Looking For The Lost is its reference on the final page to Booth’s fatal illness. I would be intrigued to read an account of his battle with cancer (although perhaps the confessional style didn’t suit his writing – Donald Richie’s The Inland Sea, for example, is much more personal than either of Booth’s books), but the way in which he suddenly shoe-horns it into his conclusion rather detracts from what has come before.
It is of course ironic that Booth should have lived in a country with the longest life expectancy in the world, and whose excellent medical system is renowned for picking up serious illness early enough to enable successful treatment, when his own illness went undetected until it was too late. What a shame that he did not live to produce more great travel writing about the country that became his home.