I don’t know what it is about Alan Booth that makes me enjoy his writing so much. After reading his book The Roads to Sata, a story of walking the distance of Japan, I knew I had to read his other novel Looking for the Lost: Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan.
Alan Booth and the Secret of the Mystery
Alan Booth is type of the author that defies description. He’s a square peg in a round hole.
The reason I can’t nail him down is because he writes with vigor and at the same time a melancholy that almost borders on depression. I find it very hard to tell if Alan really loves Japan or if he’s sick to death with it. I think one reader put it best when he said “Great book. It inspired me to give up traveling in Japan years ago.”
While Alan doesn’t hide his feelings of disappointment with Japan, you get the distinct feeling that has a deep fondness for the history and culture of the Japanese people. He just has a difficult time expressing it because he’s such a “miserable bugger.”
The Journey of Dazai Osamu
Looking for the Lost is actually a collection of three stories/travels of Alan’s. The first account is how he walked in the footsteps of famous Japanese author Dazai Osamu as he traveled through his home of northern Japan.
What I find most remarkable about this section is that Alan Booth doesn’t particularly like or even respect Dazai Osamu often referring to him as a depressed and suicidal drunk.
The only thing Dazai did in Fukaura, apart from eat and drink and feel sorry for himself, was pay a brief visit to Enkakuji Temple.
Factoring in how often Alan finds solace in beer when he’s particularly gloomy, I was surprised that he didn’t identify more with Dazai. I suppose we’re often most distant with those that portray qualities that we hate about ourselves. That’s not to say Alan was a drunk and suicidal, but he does share a certain dejection with Dazai.
The room was colder than the street, and so before and during and after dinner I drank half a dozen flasks of sake to keep of the chill. Then I went out for a stroll through the unlit town. There was no sign anywhere of life or drink or entertainment. I stood on a bridge looking up at the bright half moon and said to it. “I’ll miss you when I’m dead.”
The Journey of Saigo Takamori
Alan’s second story takes him along the path of Saigo Takamori, a influential leader who has been dubbed the last true samurai.
Saigo’s journey begins with him and a small group of loyal warriors. It what looks to be an untenable situation, Saigo and his troops break through the surrounding Imperial army and try and make their escape back home where they will make their final stand against a Japan being ushered into the modern age.
Alan relates better to Saigo than he does to Dazia. Both Alan and Saigo seem to have a quest to hold on the the old and to fight against a modern and progressive Japan.
I wanted to see how closely I could follow his footsteps, how much of the countryside had changed, what had gone, and what remained.
It doesn’t take Alan long to find out that a lot has changed. Old roads and even older customs have slowly degraded leaving little trace of where and what they were.
This is particularly evident when Alan passes a group of Japanese construction workers on his way to Upper Hori.
“There’s nothing up this road till you get to Lower Hori,” one of them called after me.
“That’s alright,” I said. “I’m not looking for anything.”
“There’s drinking water about a kilometer further on, though.”
“And if you’re planning to walk all the way to Upper Hori you’re an idiot.”
Alan finds that a good portion of old Japan has been replaced by a “newer and better” version. There was an endless touting of newness: shintojo (newly avialable), shingata (new style), and shinhatsubai (newly on the market). Like their products, Japan was more interested in it’s new image than the image that Saigo fought for and Alan desperately tries to cling on to.
Towards the end of his journey Alan is once again overcome by a bad case of the blahs. His feet are covered in blisters, his body is wet and cold, and whatever affirmation he was looking for has slipped through his grasp yet again.
To hear some people talk, I grumbled, you’d think you were in Norfolk or Kansas or somewhere instead of the depths of the Orient. Why, if you listened to such people long enough, you’d come away thinking that Japan was an ordinary place, just like any other.
The Jouney of the Heike
Alan’s last travel takes him on a quest to find the last remnant of the Heike.
The Heike were a Japanese clan that were once at the pinnacle of power but eventually faded into history. Alan describes their decline as “the foremost epic and tragedy of Japan.”
So, Alan sets off to find if any of the Heike’s descendants and villages remain.
Poring over maps in my room late at night, I have often wondered how many of the Heike village stories are true. The Heike were a vast clan and had begun to scatter well before their final collapse…so they might have gone almost anywhere.
I think it’s during this last trip that Alan finally finds what he’s looking for in Japan. As he approaches the small town of Gujo Hachiman he is overcome with what he sees:
What I was in fact approaching was a town of a kind I’d dreamed of finding when I’d first arrived in Japan almost twenty years before, a town so extraordinary that, when I went out to stroll around it that evening, I almost forgot to limp.
Whether he had really found what he was looking for or he just came to the realization that things are always going to be in a constant state of change. I think Alan finally finds a measure comfort in the realization that while you can enjoy reminiscing about the past, you’ll drive yourself mad if you fight against change and modernization.
My favorite line in the book, and probably Alan’s most honest, is when he admits that maybe it’s OK if things change and what is lost is not necessarily gone but is just waiting to be discovered if you look long and hard enough:
I tramped out of picturesque Ogimachi unable to make up my mind for certain whether Japan’s signposted fossil culture disappointed and infuriated me or whether I should simply be grateful that the Noh and gasshozukuri villages had not vanished altogether. Was it better for an art to die and be decently buried or to die and be pickled in formaldehyde?
I find a strange connection with Alan’s honest, if not glum, account of Japan. Throughout the book I kept thinking about what kind of person was Alan Booth and what was he really looking for?
I couldn’t help but be constantly reminded about what I read on the book’s dust jacket that Alan would die in 1993 at the young age of 46. What happened to him? Did he one day go out on his final journey into the heart of Japan and never return?
Alan never really talks about why he stopped writing until the very last page of his last journey. It’s a brief but sad look at the future:
I strolled back along the dark, crowded streets of Aikura, ignored by the teachers who hurried along with their lips pursed and their eyes fixed on the ground and hailed or chortled at by the jean-clad kids, and I felt a niggling in my stomach. Perhaps it was something I had eaten…or perhaps I had drunk too many beers. Perhaps the climb over the spine of Honshu had tired me more than I imagined. Perhaps I was experiencing the beginnings of a chill.
It would be another twenty-seven months before they found the cancer that would eventually take Alan Booth’s life.
Vivid, honest, and at times brutally depressing, you really owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of Looking for the Lost: Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan.
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