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Edging Toward Japan: The joy of walking

Mount Iwaki and the Hirakawa River are seen in the town of Fujisaki, Aomori Prefecture, in this November 2018 file photo. (Haruo Fujita, Hirosaki Local Bureau)

By Damian Flanagan

    The British travel writer Bruce Chatwin (1940-89) believed passionately in the importance of walking. The problems of humanity, he contended, were borne out of people being settled and static. For years he planned writing a book called "The Nomadic Alternative," but eventually he found his "voice" as a writer when he left London and went walking around Patagonia.

    In the summer of 1988, at age 19, I visited Japan for the first time. From Tokyo to Kyoto and Niigata to Sapporo, I traipsed from one urban centre to another, but somewhere outside Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, I decided to start walking. I spent the rest of the summer rambling through the wilds of Tohoku, climbing the highest peaks, exploring remote peninsulas and circumnavigating volcanic lakes.

    I climbed many mountains -- Gassan, Zao, Iwate -- but the one that lingered in my memory was Mount Iwaki, which rises majestically just outside the city of Hirosaki.

    Alan Booth (Photo courtesy of Stuart Varnam-Atkin)

    The late, great British writer Alan Booth (1946-93) who walked the entire length of Japan in 1977 -- a journey described in his 1985 travelogue "The Roads to Sata" -- often said this was his favourite place in the country.

    He came to Tokyo in 1970 to study Noh, but became disillusioned with its pretentiousness. In pursuit of the "real Japan," Booth turned his attention to traditional folk songs and festivals and headed to a place far from Tokyo: Aomori. He nurtured a deep affection for the region for 23 years, until his premature death from cancer at age 46.

    Booth believed above all in the importance of walking. When walking, Booth remarked, you meet a true variety of people: farmers, fishermen, gardeners, housewives, old women, bartenders. Booth liked to visit local izakaya taverns in remote places and go on to karaoke bars afterwards. He said that the best way to glimpse the lives of Japanese people was to visit back-of-nowhere towns.

    All Booth's travelogues have been translated into Japanese, and his memory is still treasured in Aomori.

    Back in the late '80s this region was still an inconvenient place to visit, beyond the reach of bullet trains. Today, you can reach the city of Aomori from Tokyo in three hours, but the joy in connecting with somewhere so vibrant and alive -- as well as visceral and wild -- remains as intense to me now as when I was 19.


    (This is Part 1 of a series)

    In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.

    Damian Flanagan


    Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. One of the books he authored was "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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