Saturday, January 22, 2011

Book review: On the narrow road - journey into a lost Japan by Lesley Downer

On the narrow road - journey into a lost Japan, by Lesley Downer

This was not a fast book to read, but a book that takes its time.  Lesley Downer, a Japan scholar from Britain, sets out to trace the steps of the famous 17th century Japanese poet Basho and his companion of their trip to the North of Japan, through mountains and distant valleys. Basho, famous for his haiku's, wrote in detail about his trip and also wrote many haikus at the places they stayed during their 5-month long walking trip. Lesley quotes some of these in her book when she visits (or tries to, some are gone) the same places as they did.  Away from the coastal cities concrete, neon, and traffic, she is looking for a lost Japan, a country that might have some similarity to how Japan was in the 1600s, rural, peaceful, and undisturbed by the stressful, modern world..  She does find it, but it is endangered and not much left of it.

Her detailed writing gives you a fantastic introduction to Japanese medieval history, literature and haiku, and also the current and past traditions of 'regular' people.  She doesn't avoid talking about fear of foreigners, her own tiredness and embarrassments, and highlights the great people she meets by coincidence during her trip, which isn't as long as Basho's in time, and not all by foot.  She uses trains, buses, and hitchhikes, and walks where is is possible, mostly in the mountains.  I know very little about Japan, and I think this book taught be at least five times more than I knew.  Densely written at time, it is a lovely book, a book for contemplation and reading 2-3 pages at the time. Highly recommended to anybody that loves biographical stories, foreign countries, history, and literature.

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