Japan: artful enigma

Japanese contrast

Mysticism and modernism are rarely such close partners as they are in Japan, where every view and every byway offers inspiration and invites reinterpretation

By Andrea Oschetti

Japanese contrast


April 1877. Japan had just re-opened its borders to foreigners, ending an isolation that had lasted since 1639, when Isabella Bird arrived, the first ‘English lady’ to venture into the interior. Dogged by ill health in her early life, doctors had told her she needed a change of air. Instead of the customary Italian Riviera she had chosen Japan, Tibet, Hong Kong, Morocco, Egypt and elsewhere, enduring “a stew of abominable things” to fulfill her thirst for adventure and her countrymen’s curiosity for the exotic Orient. Setting out from Tokyo she travelled north to Hokkaido by horse, cow, rickshaw and on foot. Many of the people she met had never seen a foreign woman: in one village, the roof of a house collapsed under the weight of the crowd standing on it to catch a glimpse of her. Her interactions are remarkable when compared to the difficulty of authentic encounters for modern travellers, with her portraits of children and women, whose private life she witnessed by taking advantage of her sex, among the first ever read in the West. The climax comes when Bird encounters the Ainu people, with their stark cultural differences from the Japanese. They were recognised as an indigenous group only in 2008, in a change from the long-held national policy of assimilation. Bird’s own ethnocentric views are characteristic of the Victorian explorer, but despite these it is easy to be drawn into her book and to admire her indomitable nature.

There are no real Ainu settlements left in Japan and fewer than 100 people speak the language. ‘Authentic’ villages, such as Akan in Hokkaido, are tourist attractions, but they do offer the opportunity to meet Ainu people. There are also a number of Ainu households, two museums and some handicraft workshops in the town of Nibutani. Between these two areas lies Japan’s biggest national park, centred on Asahi-dake volcano, which can be summitted as part of the Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse trail.

Japanese temple


Booth had lived in Japan for seven years and was fluent in its language when he set off in the mid-1970s to walk the entire length of the country. Of his motives he said: “Because I’d lived in Japan for a quarter of my life and still didn’t know whether I was wasting my time. I hoped that by taking four months off to do nothing but scrutinise the country I might come to grips with the business of living here, and get a clearer picture, for better or worse.”

Booth did not confine himself to the wilderness, but also passed through cities and rural communities. But his chronicle reveals how challenging it is for a traveller to relate to locals, regardless of the setting. Typical of the author’s difficulties is the following conversation:

The old man had asked me where I lived, and I told him I lived in Tokyo.

“Tokyo is not Japan,” he said. “You can’t understand Japan by living in Tokyo.”

“No,” I agreed. “That’s why I’m taking this time off to have a good look at the rest of it.”

“You can’t understand Japan just by looking at it,” the old man said.

“No, not just by looking at it,” I said. “Not by looking at it as a tourist might out of the
window of a bus, but by walking through the whole length of it.”

“You can’t understand Japan just by walking through it,” the old man said.

“Not just by walking through it,” I argued, “but by talking to all the different people I meet.”

“You can’t understand Japan just by talking to people,” the old man said.

“How do you suggest I try to understand Japan then?” I asked him.

“You can’t understand Japan,” he said.

The 65-kilometre trail which crosses the Japanese Alps from Murodo to the Kamikochi valley in Nagano prefecture is one of Japan’s most beautiful and popular. It skirts the Oku-hotaka-dake, third highest mountain in Japan, and the Tateyama, on top of which is the Oyama Shrine where climbers are offered warm sake by a priest.


Matsuo BashoMatsuo Basho, already a famous poet and Zen scholar, sold his house in Edo (now Tokyo) in the spring of 1689 and started walking north. North represented uncertainty and uncharted territory, compared with Edo’s famous road to the south – the Tokaido – which connected the home of the Shogunate with Imperial Kyoto.

At that time few would conceive of taking the road for pleasure but Basho set out on a journey of self-discovery, abandoning his material attachments as well as his own self, in order to discover his true identity. His journey of spiritual enlightenment is recorded in this short book, an artful combination of prose and poetry.

He was a masterly observer of nature and people and reflected in the book upon their mysteries. He shows us how to travel and how to understand the distinctive characters of the people and places we encounter.

Basho’s work inspired this 18th-century painting by Yosa Buson of a solitary traveller on a winding road. Many editions of The Narrow Road (first lines shown right in Basho’s own hand) also provide a map which disciples have followed ever since. I took his northern routes – the Oshukaido and the Hokurikudo – by foot and by car, along ancient forest trails and deserted highways, lodging in monasteries and love hotels, on an exercise of contemplation. I kept a light-hearted spirit, amusing myself by writing haiku, the poems which were Basho’s specialty:

As firmly cemented clam-shells

Fall apart in autumn,

So I must take to the road again,

Farewell, my friends.


The unintentional manner with which Murakami describes his passion for running and its relevance to his success as a novelist is the beauty of this little book, which anyone who spends hours training for their favourite sport will naturally feel close to.

Japan is a paradise for road runners, hosting some of the best marathons in the world. Enter the Tokyo Marathon in early February for the fun and eccentricity of its costume carnival; measure yourself on Osaka’s fast course in late October; and if you can meet the exacting entry cut-off time of 2 hours, 42 minutes, the small marathon in Fukuoka in December is the most important and beautiful marathon in the world from a competitive point of view. The course has seen several world records in the past.


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