Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2010 July 28 • Wednesday

Looking for the Lost: Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan, Alan Booth's second book about taking long walks in Japan, is more than a worthy successor. Booth is older, more experienced, married a second time and a father to a young daughter. Instead of the almost gonzo endurance test that was The Roads to Sata, Looking for the Lost documents three long walks with specific targets.

"Tsugaru", the first part of the book, finds Booth walking in Aomori prefecture, retracing the steps of the famous Japanese author and Tsugaru native Dazai Osamu, who had traveled there in May of 1944, "seven years after his fourth attempted suicide and four years before his fifth and successful one".

Twice married and once a father, twice ambitious for Japan's most prestigious literary prize and twice thwarted in this ambition by the literary establishment, a university dropout, bedridden on and off with bouts of T.B. and drug addiction, once locked up for a month in a mental hospital and five times hauled in by the police on suspicion of being a political subversive, Dazai had spent twenty-three days in Tsugaru on that late spring trip during the Second World War, boozing with friends, visiting relatives, staying in the family house which, fourteen years earlier, he had been forbidden ever to enter again and, in the end, seeking out an emotional reunion with his nursemaid whom he thought he loved.

Sent on this trip by a Tokyo publisher, Dazai came back with a book, Tsugaru, apparently considered one of his best. Booth finds that Dazai's territory has changed a lot, noting new developments while offering his assessment of Dazai as both writer and human being. Once again Booth is a brilliant observer and commentator. At one ryokan he is called Sensei, "a polite term of address used by pupils to their teachers, publishers to their authors, electors to their parliamentary representatives, bar hostesses to their best-heeled customers, people wishing to be facetious to those they particularly despise, and by the general public to anyone who appears, or professes, to know something they do not".

Aomori prefecture is so "well supplied with fanciful stories," Booth tells us, that "among the other things you can see there if you have time is the grave of Jesus Christ". It was also the origin of a particular folk music revival, "the Tsugaru shamisen boom" that peaked in the 1970s. (Takeshi Terauchi recorded some of those Tsugaru folk tunes with his surf band.)

The second part of the book is "Saigo's Last March" and begins with a quote from the Billie Holiday song "Strange Fruit": "Southern trees bear strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root". Saigo Takamori was a major military and government figure in nineteenth century Japan who died fighting a civil war on the island of Kyushu. His last act was to lead a band of rebels on a sixteen-day scramble to reach Kagoshima, their home city. They traveled on foot, fighting off the imperial brigade the whole way.

Booth attempts to follow in Saigo's footsteps literally and is confounded several times by the overgrown old roads, usually thriving with wasps and adders, sometimes completely lost or impassable. His modern map is frequently useless, as are directions given by locals. He tries to match Saigo's speed also but falls two days behind.

Part three, "Looking for the Lost", begins with the Gion temple bell tolling "into the heart of every man a warning that all is vanity and evanescence". The historical background is the clash between the Genji and Heike clans, which results in the destruction of the Heike. The few surviving members of the Heike scattered and Booth's walk this time is to find where they might have gone.

Numerous small villages claim descendants of the Heike among them, too many for the claims all to be true. "That no village claims to have been founded by descendants of the victorious Genji is hardly a surprise. There is far greater resonance in defeat than in victory, as artists have known since Aeschylus wrote The Persians and Euripides The Trojan Women".

As in The Roads to Sata, the people Booth meets provide many of the most memorable passages. Consider the learned and dedicated landscape gardener named Mr. Hatta.

I found Mr. Hatta cleaning his teeth.

"What's so special about the garden at Ryoanji?" I asked him, naming the famous rock and sand garden in Kyoto's most brochured and pamphleted Zen temple.

"The spaces between the rocks," he replied, with his mouth full of toothpaste.

The spaces between the rocks, so to speak, are what Booth also appreciates on his travels. He doesn't take you to see sights but to receive impressions of people and places.

The story of the Heike, as Booth puts it, "is that of the speckled decline of late summer into autumn". That turns out to be Booth's story also. At the end of the book he has a strange feeling in his stomach. It turns out to be colon cancer. Looking for the Lost was published posthumously. After reading The Roads to Sata and Looking for the Lost (in which Booth shares his memories of how he got interested in Japan and ended up living there) you'll feel that you've lost a friend. Booth's last work has at its center "what Japanese artists have called since the Heian period mono no aware, 'the sadness of things'".