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Sunday, Jan. 6, 2002

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

A fresh look at a familiar subject


By SARA HARRIS
A SNAKE IN THE SHRINE: Journeys With Nobby Through Middle Japan, by David Geraghty. University of Otago Press, 2001, 222 pp., $29.95 (paper)

Perhaps there's something about coming to Japan that brings out the writer in a person -- the peculiarities of the culture, the rarity of the experience, the seemingly unending appeal, on the "outside," of an "insider's" view of this inscrutable place. The Japan memoir -- often a young Westerner's first experience of living overseas -- has become its own genre: my year in Japan, me as a JET, me as an OL, me and Zen. Here it takes the form of a compilation of vignettes from the author's three years working at an English language school. Hesitation is the reader's first reaction. In such well-tilled ground, is there really anything new to say?

In this case, delightfully, yes.

While the premise and the setting, down to the thinly veiled English-teacher mill where he works (the "Star Institute"), may be familiar, Geraghty's perspective is fresh. Weeks after he arrives, his wife, a fellow New Zealander, joins him, finding work as a chef. Through their budding friendship with a local Japanese man (the "Nobby" of the title) and his family, they gain a valuable window on Japan. The two families, and sometimes just the two guys, travel regularly into the countryside.

The book sets out to elucidate the charms of rural Japan, but takes as its starting point the social and workaday reality of the city, with its everyday pleasures, attendant cultural tensions and general frustrations. Geraghty writes of getting away from it all to the serene and scenic countryside, to welcoming inns and the homes of friends -- or not, as with the hours-long traffic jams, overwrought tourist sites and typically packed "vacation" schedules he also portrays.

He immediately wins the reader's confidence with incisive, sensitive descriptions of his surroundings and the people he meets. His eye for detail is sharp, his language spot on -- the result, one infers, of a detailed diary, a passion for both reading and note-taking and an ever-ready camera. On the train ride from the airport to his new apartment, Geraghty observes his fellow passengers. "At one stop, a teenager got on sporting salon-manufactured dreadlocks, a tricolor beanie, and sundry other symbols of Rasta office. His prim demeanor and carefully selected outfit betrayed a pret-a-porter take on Rastafarianism, which blended seamlessly with the sartorial stiffness of the matrons around him."

The title of the book refers to the author's long-standing obsession with finding snakes, a theme treated in passing throughout most of the book. When Geraghty finds a pit viper nestled in an abandoned mountain shrine, it inspires a paean. "The snake, in its opportunist Shinto bed, was a perfect instance of the spontaneity I had craved but seldom found in my limited travels about the Japanese countryside: the animistic impulse beneath the layers of ritual and structure in Shinto; the Zen spark of a koan or haiku, free of the encompassing convention."

The search for snakes is more sustained than the other one-off portraits of people or snapshot descriptions in the book, but as a unifying theme or overarching metaphor it doesn't hold its weight. The book is so entertaining, though, that this matters little. Whether reading about the disappointments, perplexities, amusements or joys of Geraghty's life here, readers will no doubt find themselves nodding or smiling in recognition, or simply taking pleasure in a witty or insightful turn of phrase. Commuters on Japan's trains -- crowded or lonely -- will find this book as welcome as a breath of crisp, clean country air.

Sara Harris is a freelance journalist.


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