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Sunday, Feb. 3, 2008

Journal of an uncommon traveler


By STEPHEN MANSFIELD
WINDOWS ON JAPAN: A Walk Through Place and Perception, by Bruce Roscoe. Algora Publishing, 2007, 308 pp., $31.95 (paper)

On the premise that speed blunts the mind, New Zealander Bruce Roscoe decided to make his journey on foot, following a route across the waist of Japan, from the port city of Niigata to Yokohama. By walking, he would discover that "Time isn't lost but found."

Where the late Alan Booth's "Japan walks," collected in "Looking for the Lost," describe the writer's disillusionment at the sight of beauty and quintessence evaporating into industrial ether, Roscoe's inquiries, though not uncritical, generally conclude with a resigned, even grudging acceptance of the way things are.

Many of the towns and rural areas he passes through are little short of blighted. Roscoe discovers a country where "subordination, not coexistence" with nature is the depressing norm. Approaching the city of Takasaki, he comes across the base of a stream, "concreted and strewn with rubbish — plastic drink bottles, vinyl bags — and a white cat lay dead on the footpath. Old futons, tins, and household waste smothered a house at roadside. Other garbage half-buried a car." Crossing a bridge north of Kogetsu, he admonishes that "it's best not to look underneath." Roscoe may not offer much to the prospective tourist, but a great deal for those interested in a journey of inquiry.

Like the picaresque novels of Laurence Sterne and Henry Fielding, Roscoe introduces each chapter with a companionable preamble: "We resume our journey in the snow country," he writes in one of these literary orientations, "where we stumble upon a priceless collection of Western art, learn that Japan is pouring more concrete than even China, and relax to the balm of jazz in an unusual coffee shop."

Roscoe might chuckle at being compared to a musicologist, but music threads its way through this walk, from Wes Montgomery's "Full House" to Penderecki's "Threnody for Victims of Hiroshima." Roscoe riffs on anything that catches the attention of his observant traveler's eye. It takes a few pages to sink in, but there is method and management in what first appears to be free association, an improvised musical notation. A night in a Niigata jazz bar is succeeded by an analysis of Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels," a note on tombstone dealerships, the watchmakers Seiko, even a chapter on the travel writer Paul Theroux, whom he takes to task for his oddly personal contempt for the Japanese, whom he repeatedly characterizes as "little bowlegged people who can't see without glasses," "evil little fiends," or the even more perplexing, "flawed clockwork toys."

A combination of travel writing, reportage, personal rumination and culture essay, there isn't much that slips the attention of this uncommon traveler. Staying at the Takahan Hotel, where novelist Yasunari Kawabata met a 19-year-old geisha called Matsue, the model for the character Komako in "Snow Country," a line of inquiry inevitably ensues, with Roscoe tracing the story of what became of her. Other encounters are more puzzling. How does one interpret the presence of three severed heads from the Amazonian jungles, a set of skulls with string tied through their eyes and nostrils, sitting on the shelves of a temple the author visits in the fastnesses of Niigata?

There are no highway robbers, menacing bikers or roadside ordinance along these routes, but the way is nonetheless, fraught with abrasive sights, moments of tension. Roscoe is a generous, evenhanded writer, however, giving the people he meets the benefit of the doubt, even when innkeepers are slamming their doors in his face.

Ultimately, Roscoe's Japan is a human landscape. Flawed, immensely diverse, it is never quite the monoculture many foreigners and Japanese, in a cozy collusion suggesting a comfortable mutuality with stereotypes, would like us to believe. As for his journey, given the choice, few of us would take this route, let alone on foot. Taking roads largely reserved for motorized transport, Roscoe acquits himself admirably in the role we assign him of proxy pilgrim.



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