Armchair Traveler: Japan
Access Japan through its literature (Photo: Thinkstock)
The first time I went to Japan, I felt lost. The film “Lost in Translation” was completely accurate. I spoke no Japanese. Few people spoke English — this is still true — and although in many ways it’s an entirely modern country (best trains, high-tech toilets, great hotels, wonderful food), it is also incomprehensible, the culture ritualistic, the society hierarchical, the manners impossible to decipher, much less copy. There is an awful lot of bowing, and not saying no, a lack of spontaneity which, especially as a journalist, drove me nuts when I wanted to see something or interview somebody not on the previously agreed agenda.
The author, right, dining on tempura in Hiroshima (Photo: Reggie Nadelson)
On my next trip, I decided to get into Japan through literature, which is the best way into the feel of a country, the emotions of a people, the imaginations, the dreams, the terrors.
Plus, the fast, quiet trains of Japan are attended by polite young women with carts of sushi for sale — the perfect place to eat and read novels.
(Photo: David Mitchell Books)
“The Thousand Autumns of Jacob Van Zoet” by David Mitchell
When the hero of David Mitchell’s marvelous novel about Japan first arrives in Nagasaki, he is stunned by the culture, the history, the clothes, the women, the sexual attitudes. Everything about Japan in 1799 seems utterly foreign to Jacob Van Zoet, a young Dutch clerk who works for the East India Company, one of the few that has the right to trade with Japan. The story turns on his meeting, his falling impossibly in love with an educated young Japanese woman.