The Roads to Sata

The Roads to Sata

I often think that some first time travelers to Japan suffer from a condition of Japan-can-do-no-wrong. When I came back from Japan the first time all doe-eyed and with wonderlust, I certainly felt that Japan was as close to perfection as I could find. For months after I was constantly comparing everything in Canada to the way things went down in Japan. “That worker in Wendy’s didn’t say hello when I entered the store…hmmm.” “These people are not queuing up orderly AT ALL!” “Why is this toilet not shooting water at my bum?”

I had become a Japanophile.

Since I could see the signs of Japanophilia developing, I tried to find more books that covered the other side of the coin. That’s not to say that I went looking for the dark underbelly of Japan, I just wanted a more balanced look at the Japanese culture and people.

I started off by reading up on the Hikikomori (a society of Japanese youth that have cut themselves off from the outside world), in the book Shutting out the Sun. From there I moved on to Will Ferguson’s hitchhiking travels through Japan in Hitching Rides with Buddha. And recently, I completed Alan Booth’s epic walk through Japan in The Roads to Sata.

I must admit that although Ferguson and Booth’s trips were years apart, their experiences were surprisingly similar. I kept expecting them to meet up in some dark Japanese salaryman bar and complain about sore feet and sorer pride.

Booth begins his trip much like Ferguson, with an idea and a heart brimming with good English exploratory gumption. The kind of gumption that put Ernest Shackleton in a leaky boat in the South Atlantic Ocean or kept John Franklin plowing headlong into the ice until all was lost. Booth himself questions his own sanity about halfway through his journey:

When I reached Sapporo I thought I had done something respectable…But watching this little train rattle across its bridge while the kites wheeled and the breakers crashed, I wondered whether I would reach Capa Sata knowing I had done something mad.

Time and time again Booth would come across the same attitude that Ferguson would describe years later – you will never truly be a part of Japan if you are not Japanese. It doesn’t matter how much you learn about the culture, or how well you mastered the language, or how subtle your fingers are at holding chopsticks; the ryokan will still fill up with invisible guests seconds before you arrive, leaving you to wonder how a place so empty can still have absolutely no rooms available.

The sad reality is, the Japanese have been homogeneous so long that they’ve started to believe that they are truly unique. No outsider can speak the language. No outsider can eat the food. No other place on earth has four distinct seasons. No one can understand Japan but the Japanese.

I have a friend who teaches English in Japan, and one of the things he struggles with is convincing his students to look beyond the shores of Japan and develop an interest in seeing the world. He says many are content to stay in Japan and only travel abroad to pick up a Gucci bags in Paris. But I fully believe in the quote by Mark Twain that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” and if more Japanese would travel, then perhaps it would more likely that a foreigner in Japan would feel less like a circus freak and more like a brother.

Photo credits: NEGISHI VILLIAGE ROAD by Okinawa Soba.

2 Responses to “The Roads to Sata”

  1. mellchan  on June 21st, 2010

    THANK YOU for writing this! I too have noticed this condition, not in myself, but in my gaijin friends.
    I made a comment in jest about long lines and tokyo…as we were all waiting in a long line….and everyone just about jumped down my back in defense of tokyo and japan in general.

    On another occassion in a starbucks while enjoying some coffee, everyone was going on and on about how great japan is and how only japan could invent a place like starbucks…everyone viewed starbucks much less favorably after I told them it was an american establishment.

    I have lived in japan for a few years and although I love the country I also see many little things that irritate me just as they would if I were in my own country. Most of all the gaijins with the rose colored “japan can do no wrong” glasses get on my nerves.

  2. Travis  on June 21st, 2010

    Thanks for the comments Mellchan!

    I actually went over to your blog and read about some of your Japanese experiences and I can certainly see where you’re coming from.

    I fully agree that sometimes we let things cloud our judgment and end up disappointed when people and places don’t live up to our skewed expectations. I’m certainly guilty of it.

    I’m interested to see how I do with my two month trip next year. I imagine the shift from tourist to temporary member of society will be eye opening to say the least.

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