In late February of 2017, I was offered a job teaching EFL to Japanese university students in Japan for the spring term (April 7 — August 1). I opted to extend my stay for one week, until August 8, so I could travel around Japan for a week.
I would be living in Sagamihara City in Kanagawa Prefecture, part of the greater Tokyo metropolitan area. The capital of Kanagawa is Yokohama, the second largest city in Japan by population (3.7 million); it lies on Tokyo Bay, south of Tokyo, in the Kantō region of the main island of Honshu, and is today one of Japan’s major ports.
I was to leave on Monday morning, March 27, and would arrive at Narita Airport in Tokyo on Tuesday, March 28 at 3:55 p.m.
These were the books I took along on my trip:
- Japanese phrase book & dictionary by Berlitz Publishing Co.
- Tokyo: 29 Walks in the World’s Most Exciting City by John H. Martin and Phyllis G. Martin
- Lonely Planet: Japan
I always love to read novels and travelogues set in a country to which I’m traveling. Over the years, and in the months prior to my upcoming trip, I read the following novels and memoirs. If I wrote a review on Goodreads, I’ve included it here.
- Crawling at Night. Though this novel takes place in New York City, it tells the story of a Japanese sushi chef. It was written by a friend of mine, Nani Power.
- When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka.
- A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki:
- I enjoyed this book about Ruth, a “stuck” author, who cannot seem to finish the memoir of her mother’s death. Instead, she happens upon a diary that has washed up on the shore of the island where she lives with her husband. The diary is written by 16-year-old Nao, a Japanese girl who grew up in Sunnyvale, CA but had to move back to Tokyo when her father lost his job after the dot.com bubble burst. In Tokyo, she is subjected to harassment by her classmates; in addition, she has to deal with her father’s multiple failed suicide attempts. Nao is writing the diary to tell her great-grandmother Jiko’s story, but she ends up not really completing that mission, as the diary is mostly focused on her own life. Jiko, a Buddhist nun, has lived to the ripe age of 104 and has a strong influence on Nao’s life. Ruth, the author who finds the diary, gets caught up in Nao’s story and worries she might have been killed in the 2011 tsunami. There are interesting twists with time and quantum physics and multiple & parallel worlds toward the end, which makes the story even more fascinating. I learned a little something about quantum physics, which seems way out of my league, but the author made the subject accessible. I enjoyed the book immensely.
- The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynd:
- I enjoyed this book which is written as journal entries and letters. A young Scotswoman, Mary Mackenzie, sails to China in 1903 to marry a military attache in Peking; her marriage is unsatisfying, and when she has a love affair with a Japanese nobleman, her daughter is taken from her and she becomes an outcast from the European expat community. Two years after arriving in China, she ends up in Japan, where she lives for 37 years, only sporadically seeing her married Japanese lover, yet having a son by him. She is open about her struggles and her status as a “fallen woman,” yet she still can never resist her lover, despite his taking her Japanese-looking son from her. If the child had looked white and European, the child would have been able to stay with his mother. Since he looks Japanese, he is sent off to be raised by a Japanese family, as the lover is already married with his own family. This is a story about a woman’s survival, resilience, and enduring love, both for a man and for a country. I found this line, written in 1942, to be particularly resonant: “There is nothing like living in a country as an enemy alien to really thin down the roster of your friends.”
- Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto:
- I enjoyed this quiet book about Yocchan, a young woman trying to create a life for herself after her much-loved musician father is found dead in a suicide pact with an unknown woman. She moves into a small apartment across the street from a bistro where she works in Shimokitazawa, in an attempt to establish some independence for herself, when her bereaved mother asks to move in with her. Though living with her mother is not exactly what Yocchan has in mind, she can’t turn her mother down. Yocchan’s daily life is like a meditation: she revels in her repetitive tasks in the bistro, walks in the neighborhood, and engagement with the local shopkeepers. She comes to fully appreciate her mom and her now-deceased father. She derives pleasure from watching people and how they eat; she believes a person’s relationship with food reveals nuances of character. The title of the book, Moshi Moshi, is “hello” in Japanese when talking on the phone; it reflects Yocchan’s obsession with her father’s phone, which he inadvertently left behind on the day he died. She has recurring dreams that her father is trying to reach her by phone, as if he has some unfinished business with Yocchan and her mother, some last message he wants to impart. The book is like a Buddhist meditation on life – quiet yet revealing and, ultimately, satisfying.
Here are books I’ve read about the shameful period in U.S. history when we put the Japanese into internment camps during WWII.
- Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford:
- How ironic that I was reading this book as the Donald Trump campaign was raging here in America. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is first and foremost a story about love and family, but it is set in 1942 Seattle during the unsettling time after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese-American families were rounded up and put into internment camps because Americans feared there were spies among them. Though told they were being imprisoned “for their own safety,” they were in fact treated just as Trump today would have all minorities treated: walled-off, separated and denied rights. Although the Japanese were not methodically murdered or used in horrific scientific experiments as the Jews were under Hitler, their homes and belongings were taken from them and they were forced to live in camps under armed guard for the duration of the war.
- The protagonist, Henry, is a Chinese-American whose father is consumed by the Japanese atrocities in China. His father’s obsession with the Japanese as enemies, and the fear that Henry might be misidentified as Japanese, leads his father to insist on Henry wearing an “I am Chinese” button. Henry attends an all-white school on scholarship and is continually bullied by the white students for being different. When Keiko, a Japanese-American girl, appears at school, Henry and Keiko strike up a friendship that is strained not only by Henry’s family’s fears, but by the unsettling historic events around them. I found the book disturbing but also redeeming. While living through our unsettling political times, I could only hope that we wouldn’t repeat this dishonorable period in U.S. history.
- The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende:
- This book seemed so promising, but in the end, I felt it just didn’t deliver. I’d say my star rating is more of a 3.5 than a 3. This story of a love affair between a Japanese man, Ichimei, who spent much of WWII in a Japanese internment camp in the USA, and a Jewish woman, Alma, whose parents perished in WWII, just skimmed the surface. For such a love affair, one that Alma supposedly counted as the love of her life, she couldn’t make the leap to give up her wealth and her station in life to marry a Japanese man. The parallel story of Irina, a care worker at Lark House nursing home, and Seth, Alma’s grandson, isn’t all that intriguing either. I agree with another reviewer who said the story seemed to be hurriedly written. There was more telling than showing, and not much dialogue, and it just seemed generally without structure or deep feeling. I expected more from Isabel Allende; overall I found it disappointing.
Finally, I read a number of books about Zen Buddhism.
- Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice by Shunryu Suzuki
- Discover Zen: A Practical Guide to Personal Serenity by David Fontana
- The Beginner’s Guide to Zen Buddhism by Jean Smith
I put quite a few books on my Kindle and I also brought along the following novels to read while I was in Japan:
- Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
- The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
- An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
- Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
- A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton
- Snow Country by Yusanari Kawabata
- Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki
- A Separation by Katie Kitamura
- The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto
- Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata
- How to Be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway
I was excited about meeting my Japanese university students. I looked forward to exploring the Tokyo area (using my 29 Walks book), eating a lot of Japanese food, and hopefully finding time to visit Hiroshima at some point. I felt certain other expats in Japan would be able to advise me on other good places to visit. As I would be working 9-hour days during the weeks, I wasn’t sure how much time I’d have to wander, but I looked forward to exploring as much as I could over the four month period. 🙂
~ catbird in japan | the land of temples and what-nots ~
*March 23, 2017*
“ANTICIPATION & PREPARATION” INVITATION: I invite you to write a post on your own blog about anticipation & preparation for a particular destination (not journeys in general). If you don’t have a blog, I invite you to write in the comments. Include the link in the comments below by Thursday, November 22 at 1:00 p.m. EST. When I write my post in response to this challenge on Friday, November 23, I’ll include your links in that post.
This will be an ongoing invitation, on the 4th Friday of each month. Feel free to jump in at any time. 🙂 If you’d like to read more about the topic, see: journeys: anticipation & preparation.
I hope you’ll join in our community. I look forward to reading your posts!
the ~ wander.essence ~ community
I invite you all to settle in and read posts from our wandering community. I promise, you’ll be inspired! As I’m still in Spain/Portugal, see below in the comments for any links.
Thanks to all of you who wrote posts about anticipation and preparation. 🙂
Thank you. It was really beautiful and a great experience. 🙂
I’m amazed by how you find the time to read so many books before every trip.. your lists are so diverse too.. again your photos show such an interesting country. I’m looking forward to hearing about your pilgramage did you take many photos?
I love to read, Pauline, so the books I read are often spread out over a number of years. The pilgrimage was a grand adventure; I took 7,000 photos, but some of those were of my 10 days in Portugal, and my week after the Camino, in Finisterre and Muxia. Lot’s of editing to do!
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Wow 700 photos that is a lot of editing. I’m really looking forward to hearing and seeing your pilgrimage but I can imagine the time it will take
It’s actually 7,000+ photos! Yes, it will all take time, and I’m still not even finished posting about my Four Corners trip! I’ll be busy for a while. Plus, I need to catch up with everyone! 🙂
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I’m enjoying your 4 corners trip Cathy such astounding scenery
Thanks, Pauline. It was such a fun trip out west in May. It was all new to me too. 🙂
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Oh the gardens are breath-taking!
Japan has magnificent gardens. 🙂
Beautiful Japan – I would love to go…thank you for all the literature tips.
I hope you can go one day! I love to read, so the books are always fun for me. 🙂
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Of the books you reviewed i’ve read Tale for the Time Being and The Ginger Tree and enjoyed them both. Of the former, I preferred the Japanese parts of the story to the American parts (or was it Canadian?)
I too preferred the Japanese parts to that book!
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Well done as always, Cathy. The photos are so beautiful! And you do a great job with book reviews – the Ruth Ozeki book sounds really good. Did you like Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind? It’s such a wonderful classic, I think. One additional thing I’d love to hear about is how you deal with a long flight like that.
Thank you, Lynn. The Ruth Ozeki book was good, but I especially loved The Ginger Tree. As for Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, it was so long ago that I read it, and it was before I wrote reviews on Goodreads, that I can hardly remember what I thought of it. 🙂 As for long flights, I don’t deal with them well, and am very uncomfortable and impatient for them to be over! Our travel home from Portugal on Tuesday (unexpectedly extending into Wednesday) was a case in point. I wanted to tear my hair out because of delay after delay!
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