On the Narrow Road to the Deep North


Read 21/01/2018-31/01/2018

Rating: 5 stars

My 300th post! How good that it should be a five star review of a book that celebrates the 300th anniversary of something.

After the bleakness of The Secret River, I felt in need of something calming, and what could be more calming than an account of a pilgrimage undertaken on the 300th anniversary of Basho’s 1689 journey to the Tōhoku and Yamagata regions of Japan?

I first encountered Lesley Downer when I read Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha Who Bewitched the West. I’ve since read her novella A Geisha for the American Consul and one of her novels, The Shogun’s Queen. I have Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World on my list, too.

On the Narrow Road to the Deep North is Lesley’s first book, a travelogue that reveals small town and rural Japan in the late 1980s, a place that’s a world away from the Japan of popular thought. At the time that Lesley travelled in Basho’s footsteps, it was rare for non-Japanese to venture beyond Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe. It was still fairly rare for non-Japanese to travel to Japan as tourists. Tourism to Japan only properly began when Tokyo hosted the Olympics in 1964 and Osaka was the location for the World Expo of 1970. As a kid in the 1970s, I watched Battle of the Planets/G-Force, the dubbed version of the anime show Gatchaman. By the time I was a teenager in the 1980s, Japan had become this cool place to dream of visiting. Pop stars went there, Ridley Scott modelled his Future LA on Tokyo in Blade Runner, and fashion designers Kenzo Takada, Issey Miyake, Yoji Yamamoto and the collective Comme des Garçons challenged Western fashion in exciting ways.

I wish that, in my twenties, I’d had the boldness to go against what was expected of me and, instead of scratching about for work during the recession that marked my graduation from university, gone out on the JET programme like my friend’s sister did. But I didn’t and it wasn’t until my late thirties that I finally got to visit the place that had caught my imagination all those years ago.

On the Narrow Road to the Deep North captures something of what I feel about visiting Japan. I’ve done the usual tourist stuff and enjoyed it, but both Mr Hicks and I like to go off the beaten track and explore what other people might not think is interesting. We like to rent apartments rather than stay in hotels. We like to visit smaller towns and cities as well as the famous places. We’ve benefited from the kindness of Japanese people who have helped us on our travels and stopped to interpret maps for us or give directions, sometimes pausing for a chat, suffering our Japanese language skills in exchange for the chance to practice their English. We have never done anything as extreme as hike through the mountains, calling on people’s generosity to find a place to sleep, the way that Lesley describes in her book, but I recognise the kindness that she experienced on her journey.

Perhaps because of the times we’re living through, perhaps because of watching my mum disappear to dementia, perhaps because I’m approaching the slip road to being 50, I’m finding that I spend more time thinking about stepping off and doing what I want to do without worrying about the consequences. Experiencing other aspects of the world, slowing down, being rather than doing. That’s the overarching sense that I got from On the Narrow Road to the Deep North, that in Japan you can slow down and be in a landscape and still find company, and that life begins to feel less pressured.

There’s something about the acceptance of impermanence in Japan that Lesley captures in this paragraph:

Things disappear quickly in Japan. There are villages in the countryside where the whole population has left, moved to the city – and within months the roofs have caved in, the walls toppled and a mat of vines and weeds hangs over the skeletal remains of the houses. What with earthquakes, volcanoes, typhoons, fires and hot steamy days of summer when everything rots, no one builds for posterity. And the old is not valued as it is in England. Usually ‘old’ simply means worn-out, useless, in need of replacement.

This has always struck me in Japan when we have visited a heritage site and discovered that it’s more than 50% replica or reconstruction. There are some heritage sites with genuine antiquity, but Japan seems not to have lost the ability to accept something that captures the idea or the truth of something as authentic without needing it to be an original relic. In the UK, in heritage-speak, we call the need to preserve the original the cult of authenticity. In Japan, if something survives the impermanence of time, it becomes something that can move the spirit when the person encountering it dwells on its antiquity. Lesley quotes Basho on his encounter with the Tsubo stone of Taga Castle, one of a chain of fortresses built in the seventh and eighth centuries by the Yamato men who tried to conquer the Ezo of the North.

“Mountains crumble, rivers change their course, new roads replace old, stones are buried and vanish into the earth and old trees yield to saplings. Time passes, one era replaces the next, and we cannot be certain that anything of them will remain. But here before my eyes was a monument which without a doubt had stood for a thousand years, through which I could see into the hearts of the men of old. This, I thought, makes travel worthwhile and is one of the joys of being alive, and forgetting the pains of the journey, I wept for joy.”

I love this passage. The documents and objects that connect us physically to the past, that create communal memories and a sense of who has gone before us, are my bread and butter. Yes, history is intellectually interesting, but it’s the thread that links humanity through the ages and tells the story of our tiny moment on this planet that is the thing that moves me. I’ve seen people doing their family history moved by the survival of a document that bears an ancestor’s signature, firm evidence that they existed. For me, travelling to other countries, learning about the histories that exist elsewhere, is all part of understanding how we are all connected.

Time after time in this book, Lesley describes something that pulls out a memory for me of something we have experienced on our trips. We haven’t been to any of the places focused on in Lesley’s travelogue, but we have been to similar places. The passage about leaving Sendai’s concrete behind and the landscape growing greener made me think of the trip we took from Aomori to see the Showa Big Buddha. We caught a local train and got off at a single platform station at Koyanagi from where we crossed rice fields up to Seiryu-ji. Farmers were working in the fields, overlooked by high rise apartment buildings, and cars were whizzing along a bypass, but as we crossed the fields it felt as though we were in a different world.

Every now and then we rolled past a farmer working out in the fields, up to his knees in water, plucking out weeds and throwing them into the plastic basket on his back, or drew up at a little station in the middle of nowhere, grass and vines spilling across the platforms.

On the same page is a haiku written by Basho about going to view Mount Fuji but being unable to see it:

kiri shigure
Fuji wo minu hi zo

Misty drizzle
A day you can’t see Fuji!

This reminded me of our first trip to Kawaguchiko, when we rose early and left Tokyo by train, climbing up into the mountains, past a theme park and then into Kawaguchiko where we spent the day in the damp drizzle trying to find Fuji San and failing. It was October. We had decided to make a day trip of it and arrived late morning. The odds were against us. We had better luck 18 months later when we stayed for a couple of days and saw the sacred mountain from the train, from our hotel, across the lakes, pretty much all the time. But I appreciate Basho’s humour about Fuji San’s no show.

In Hiraizumi, visiting Kiyohira’s Golden Hall, Lesley’s foreign-ness and interest in the hall was striking enough to attract the attention of one of the monks who took it upon himself to share the building’s history with her. Afterwards, he ran after her with a memento of her visit, so that she wouldn’t forget. We have been the recipients of many small kindnesses by people who have appreciated our interest in Japan and its culture, from handfuls of sweets to a Taisho-era coin, and the cloth cover I keep my Kindle in which is made from an old kimono. Similarly, as when Lesley was trying to find the house in Tsuruoka where Basho stayed, we have encountered assistance above and beyond what we expected when we’ve been puzzling over maps and trying to find a particular place. We’ve had a taxi driver leave his cab, doors open and engine running, to help us find a restaurant, an old woman dash into a shop to ask directions on our behalf and then the shop worker come out of the shop to make sure we went the right way, and a woman stop to help us orientate ourselves in Ningyocho before apologising that Suitengu shrine was closed for refurbishment, as though it was her fault. We did see a statue of Musashibo Benkei, although before I read On the Narrow Road to the Deep North I hadn’t heard of this warrior monk.

Another thing that I was unaware of before reading this book was that Japan had a system of arranged marriages called o-miai. Lesley met and stayed with a couple in Obanazawa whose marriage had been arranged.

I knew that most people of their generation, particularly in the countryside, had had arranged marriages. But it was hard to believe it of these two. They were one of the most affectionate couples I have ever met …

The wife shared with Lesley that their closeness hadn’t always been the case.

“At first you don’t like each other. It’s terrible, having to live together. You don’t agree about anything! I remember one time, we had had a row. I was scrubbing out the bath, feeling lonely and sad, and all of a sudden, through a crack in the wall, I noticed a dandelion, just one. It was summer, usually dandelions flower in spring … In the end I’m alone, like this one dandelion, flowering out of season.”

I suppose the early days of any relationship can make us feel that way, as we learn about the other person and learn new things about ourselves reflected back on us. The early days of marriage or co-habitation, too. But what a thing, to marry someone you don’t know and have to get to know them without having had a choice in the matter.

Finding things out about yourself is a theme in the book, as Lesley meets different people and is occasionally surprised by her reaction to them. Families welcomed her into their homes on this journey, and there were times when she was reluctant to leave and continue on her way. A sense of companionship and community among people brought together by geography, tradition or shared interest shines out of the book, as well as the joy of being welcomed by strangers and made a part of their lives for however short a time.

As seems to be the case these days, there was a passage in this book that chimed with things that I’ve been thinking about, particularly the way I am often fearful of the unknown and need to be prepared for what might happen next. I am thinking a lot about finding a way to be present in and accepting of the moment. The passage is about Lesley musing on words Basho had written on an earlier journey, to do with moving along in his own time.

“As I have no home, I have no need of pots and pans. As I have nothing to steal, I have nothing to fear on the roads. I need no palanquin but amble along in my own time … There is no particular road I have to follow and no particular time I have to set off in the morning. Each day, there are just two things I have to bother about: whether I’ll find pleasant lodgings that evening, and whether I’ll be able to get [straw sandals] to fit my feet — that’s all. Time after time new sights stir my spirit, day after day my feelings are kindled.”

For Lesley, her reflections were on letting go of the comforts and reassurances of modern life and allowing herself to experience Basho’s world. When she does, she finds herself in a magic place, feeling as though she has arrived somewhere and been welcomed.

Towards the end of the journey, Lesley joined a group of pilgrims visiting the Holy Mountain Gassan. Most of them were rice farmers from Fukushima. Lesley becomes friends with a handful of them, enjoying their company, discovering who they are, feeling frustrated by some of their behaviours and attitudes and flattered by others. The way she describes them made them real to me and left me wondering how many of them survived the 2011 tsunami. Something I don’t suppose I’ll ever know.

I loved this book. I loved the way Lesley’s personality shone through, and the way she shared information and insights that made me think about my own experience of Japan. Most of all, I loved the way it transported me out of my immediate surroundings and into another world. That’s what all good travel writing should do.

3 thoughts on “On the Narrow Road to the Deep North

  1. I confess I haven’t been able to read your blog thoroughly lately, because unless you hated a book I inevitably put it on my to-read list, and I’m starting to wonder if there’s a point in keeping track of everything I want to read when it’s physically impossible to actually do it. But I already knew this one would be safe, and yes, it sounds so lovely. I’m in a different stage of life, but a very similar one as far as wanting to do only what I want to do. The sense you described, “that in Japan you can slow down and be in a landscape and still find company, and that life begins to feel less pressured,” that’s exactly what I want to find.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a beautiful book. It made me feel really calm. I’m going to try to find my equivalent of being in a landscape. I suspect that my need to slow down and just be is more of a reaction to the state of the world than my other possibilities. And I understand about not reading blogs regularly. I’m doing the same. I catch up roughly once a fortnight, which makes it (a bit) easier to resist the lure of the to-read list. Only a bit, mind!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for recommending this book to me Jan. As I read your post many times I sense we are of one heart and mind. When I see you say:

    it’s the thread that links humanity through the ages and tells the story of our tiny moment on this planet that is the thing that moves me.

    I know the Spirit of man moves within us to connect all for whom the Japanese people and their ways have special meaning and insight that draws us as if they are long times friends, or they are the epitome of Jesus parable to love thy neighbor as you love yourself.

    That has always stuck in my mind since working with the Japanese in UK in the mid 80s that western society is dominantly ‘I-me-my’ culture where Japan seemed to be ‘we-as-our’ where the group valued unity and individuality was not to be seen.


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