I don’t think this is a spoiler but in the final lines of Alan Booth’s The Roads to Sata (that I have just this afternoon finished reading) he recounts a conversation he’d had with an old man towards the start of his walking journey through Japan that started at the northern extremity of Hokkaido, Cape Soya. The old man explains that you can’t understand Japan by looking at it, walking through it or talking to its people. Booth asks him how, then, do you understand Japan to which the old man answers ‘You can’t understand Japan‘. It’s the final line of the book.
That comment is still sinking in. Who am I to know whether it is true? I’m just a cyclist with pretensions of travelling from Cape Soya to Cape Sata myself. I’ve never visited the country; I’ve only read about it, looked at lots of pictures and spoken to a few people who have been there. Booth doesn’t say whether he agrees with the old man or not. He just leaves the thought hanging there on page 324. If Booth can’t understand the country that he has lived in for a quarter of his life (or if he’s not willing to let his readers know whether he agrees or not with the old man), what chance do I stand?
The book is a ‘classic’ travelogue about Japan but it is rather old school. I’m a great fan of travelogue tangents; points at which the author (perhaps because he or she has run out of interesting things to say about where they happen to be) heads off in an entertaining, informative direction about something vaguely connected with what they’ve seen or experienced. Alan Booth tends not to do this. Yes, I’ve learnt a lot about Japan (to the extent that the old man above thinks I am able) but Booth’s knowledge is sprinkled throughout the prose. Perhaps he never arrived at a point where he didn’t have anything to say. If this is the case, he did a remarkably good job in turning a potentially repetitive wake up – walk – find somewhere to stay – eat – go to sleep book into something that is such an enjoyable read.
The book is about a journey made in 1977 when Alan Booth was in his early 30’s. He had moved to Japan in 1970 and by the time he set off, he had married a Japanese woman and spoke fluent Japanese. He had not just jumped off a jet plane with his walking boots speaking none of the local lingo. This is important as, throughout the book, he makes a great thing – to the point of frequently expressing annoyance – of being treated as a gaijin. That’s a foreigner. Some of the ryokans (guest houses) he stays in won’t let him in because he’s not Japanese (although they never do so so explicitly) and he often mentions being mocked in the street by school children. Some are chastened when he replies to them in fluent Japanese, but many others not.
When he arrives in Hiroshima – a section of the book he admits to finding quite difficult to write about – he tells us about meeting people who recount the events of 1945 when the bomb was dropped on the city and the aftermath of misery; medical, social and psychological.
These two aspects of the book – his treatment as a gaijin and his ability to speak to survivors of the atomic bomb – are worth dwelling upon. As noted, the journey took place in 1977. That was 32 years after the end of the war. It is now 2021, 44 years have passed since Booth set off from the northernmost point of Japan in search of the southernmost point. Surely a modern-day traveller in Japan would not be treated in such a wary or disdainful way by the locals and it would be difficult to find eye witnesses to the dropping of the bomb.
I’m thus tempted – with reason – to place The Roads To Sata not just in the realms of ‘classic travelogue’ but ‘classic historical travelogue’. It’s a great book but keep in the back of your mind that he was travelling in 1977, not the 21st century. Time will tell if I ever get the chance to travel to Japan myself. The Coronavirus may well, once again, throw water on that particular fire…
Here’s an interesting video of Alan Booth walking through Japan. It was filmed in the early 1990’s, a couple of years before his untimely death at the age of just 46. I smiled when I watched it for the first time as, just as he is in the book, he never seems to be too far from a beer…
Here’s an obituary of Booth that appeared in The Independent. It too mentions, you guessed it… beer.
I’m now making a second start on Will Ferguson’s book Hokkaido Highway Blues about his attempt to hitchhike from Cape Sata to Cape Sōya. Ferguson reference’s Booth’s book at the start of his own:
“Tromping down s highway all day often put Booth in a sour mood.” So true… Perhaps that’s at the origin of his fondness for beer.