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Armchair Traveler: Japan

August 16, 2014

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.

In all this I begin to understand the profound effect of Japan’s isolation, which lasted more than 200 years, from 1633 to 1853.

A view of Nagasaki (Photo: Thinkstock)

Van Zoet is restricted to Nagasaki, a ravishing city on the southern tip of Japan. Set on hills overlooking both the Pacific and the South China Sea, even now the geography is glorious, much like San Francisco. In those times, the Dutch traders were forced to live on an enclosed pie shaped sliver of land, a stone’s throw from Nagasaki, called Dejima.

A small-scale version of the island of Dejima (Photo: Sebastian Bertrand/Flickr)

Dejima has been restored as a little theme park, with a bridge to Nagasaki. The wooden buildings, the period items inside, Japanese and western — beds, cooking utensils, lanterns — give you a sense of what it was like here in Jacob’s time. When I found myself in Nagasaki, I undertood that sense of apartness a little better. I could see how this port city evolved and with it, Japan, its relationship to shipping and trade, to China, and the world. David Mitchell’s novel gave me that in a way no guidebook or tome on current affairs or history could ever do.

Related: Armchair Traveler: Great Books Set in France

(Photo: Amazon.com)

The Makioka Sisters“ by Junichiro Tanizaki

On a recent trip from Nagasaki to Kyoto, I re-read “The Makioka Sisters,” a life-changing book for me. This story of three sisters, each one way or another on the brink of marriage in pre-war Japan, is no soap. Tanizaki won the Nobel Prize for literature, and the Makioka Sisters is a masterpiece.

Set in Osaka and Kyoto, it starts as a miniaturist account of domestic life, and feels like a Japanese “Pride and Prejudice.” Much is invested in the characters of the sisters; much of what they feel is expressed in their clothes, the decision to wear a Western dress and pearls or the Japanese kimono and sash. The men in the book are in charge; Japan is still a patriarchal society. But in the book, as in life, it’s the women who rule the domestic sphere, marriage, the whole emotional life of the country.

Related: So Many Hot Springs, So Little Time in Japan

Modern Kyoto (Photo: Reggie Nadelson)

What seems a charming Jane Austen-esque novel to begin with, explodes into the real world, first with the terrible floods of the 1930s, and then the onset of World War 11.

This book tells a thousand times more about Japan than any guide book or non-fiction account, more about Kyoto’s cherry blossoms, more about the distinctions between provincial Japan and Tokyo, and much more about the human soul.

Related: Can’t Travel? Let These Books Take You Cross-Country Instead

(Photo: Amazon.com)

OUT” by Natsuo Kirno

Finally, to Tokyo. Tokyo Noir has become a genre all its own. (Tom Ford has sunglasses called Tokyo Noir.) With its unimaginable crowds, its nightlife, the legends of criminal gangs, there is no better city than Tokyo in which to set a murder. Natsuo Kirno’s novel sees it all through a very dark glass.

Tokyo noir (Photo: Reggie Nadelson)

One of Japan’s brilliant female crime thriller writers, Kirino shows you a Tokyo of women who work the graveyard shift at a fast-food factory. Women who decide to avenge themselves violently on their lazy, double-dealing husbands. This prize-winning novel gives you a Tokyo world otherwise hidden behind those glittering towers and fabulous shopping malls.

And here are four more books about Japan that I recommend adding to your reading list:

In the Miso Soup” by Ryu Murakami: A sleek Tokyo thriller.

The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance” by Edmund de Waal: Edmund de Waal first encountered his family’s netsuke carvings in his uncle’s Tokyo apartment. In his book he describes several visits to the city.

After Dark” by Haruki Murakami: Dreams and reality in a Tokyo night.

Spring Snow (The Sea of Fertility tetralogy)” by Yukio Mishima: Tokyo before the First World War.

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