A Return to Japan, literarily

Back in the September of 2015, I spent a few weeks visiting Japan, arriving in Tokyo and travelling by rail to the northern island of Hokkaido and back again, via Tohoku, the northern half of the island of Honshu. It was an amazing trip, and I learned and experienced a lot (more can be found on my travel blog, here). In the weeks leading up to, during, and after the trip, I steeped myself in some works of Japanese literature to get some background and context into what I might see, which I discussed a year ago on BookLikes. Of course, the experience of spending time in the context of the society and its people, getting a taste of everyday life in a different culture added much to my reading of these works.  

Upon returning, I continued to revisit the trip and learn new things about Japan, through a few works of literature I encountered while in Japan. From the heart of urban Tokyo, to the former frontier city of Sapporo, to rural Tono, I found out about interesting writers and works which would expand upon my knowledge. Now, a year later I’ve finished reading them, which makes for an interesting way to reflect on the journey. Of course, the English translations of the Japanese I am relying on are works of literature in their own right, one that only approximates the originals. It is true that every traveler encounters these new things through the lens of their own experiences, on the other hand. It is also nice to relive the journey through these works, reflecting on how my understanding of the culture changed and evolved.


Soon after landing at Narita Airport, clutching a wad of Japanese yen notes, I noted that, unlike US currency so far, women were represented on some. The 5000 Yen bill features Higuchi Ichiyo (1872-1896), the first woman to become a literary sensation in modern Japan. Writing during the Meiji Period, she was among the first influential writers of the period. Published in a series of newspapers and journals during the 1890s, her work was distinctive in using a Classical Japanese style, with many references to the literature of the Heian period to capture the feelings of the era, rather than taking influence from Western sources.


In order to sample a bit of her writing, I checked out one of the few English translations of her work, Robert Lyon Daniel’s In the Shade of Spring Leaves: The Life of Higuchi Ichiyo from the library. Including nine of her works, in addition to a biography, it was quite an evocative, ornate look into the personal costs of life in the rapidly changing world of Meiji period Tokyo, particularly among the women and the poor. The writing preserved some of the erudite references and intricate wordplay of the Japanese language, including the striking realism of Higuchi’s depictions of the Yoshiwara red light district, near where Higuchi herself lived. The stories, such as “Child’s Play” and “On the Last Day of the Year” often focus on relationships and how differences in social standing affect people’s lives. Mostly, the stories end tragically. The Tokyo of today is much different from the one of Higuchi’s time, though places like the Shitamachi Museum, just south of Ueno Park, preserves some of what such neighborhoods were like at the time.    

Interior of the Shitamachi Museum, Tokyo

In Sapporo, the capital city of the northern prefectural island of Hokkaido, I found myself in an almost familiar environment. Hokkaido was settled by mainland Japanese relatively recently, mostly during the late nineteenth century as farming and mining interests began to wrest control of the island from the indigenous Ainu people. During this period, the Japanese government received some assistance from the United States in their colonial efforts.  Due to this influence and its relative youth, Sapporo is a relatively North American feeling city, with wide thoroughfares and a grid urban planning. Like my home region, it’s also known for chilly winters and agriculture, in particular, dairy.  

View of Sapporo, Hokkaido from Sapporo Historic Village

While visiting one of Sapporo’s major tourist attractions, the Sapporo Historic Village, which preserves many historic buildings from Hokkaido’s frontier period gathered from across the island, I visited the old home of Arishima Takeo (1878-1923), a socialist writer who reflected these themes. Arishima settled in Hokkaido for several years in the 1920s after his return from attending universities in Philadelphia and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The house of Arishima Takeo at Sapporo Historic Village (courtesy of Wikimedia commons). 


Intrigued by this interesting figure, I tracked down one of his few works available in English, Labyrinth, published in Japan at the turn of the century. Sadly, this semi-autobiographical account of a Japanese man’s education and tribulations in the United States, was less interesting than the life of the writer himself. Like Higuchi, his work focused on tragic relationships but it took a more typically melodramatic Victorian style, with some rather deep seated misogyny. The neurotic, self-destructive tendencies of the viewpoint character made it a little annoying to read, as well. The most interesting part was the first chapter, which described the narrator’s time working as an aide at a Pennsylvania mental hospital. Still, Labyrinth seems to have little to offer the modern reader aside from an historical curiosity.       

Leaving Hokkaido, I traveled back to the main island of Honshu, returning to the megacity of Tokyo via the rural north of the island, a region known as Tohoku. Thought of as a remote, harsh land, it was greatly affected during the tsunami in 2011. Visiting now, it was calm and beautiful. Pulling into the station in the small town of Tono in Iwate prefecture, I was excited to see the place known as the “City of Folklore.” Nestled into a fertile valley surrounded by forest covered mountains, it took a day of riding local rails to arrive in the isolated town.

Statue of a kappa near the stream they like to hang out in- with their favorite food, cucumbers. In Tono, Iwate, Japan

Local attractions in Tono include a kappa brook (home of the “mischievous water spirits,” kappa, and Unedori-Sama, the matchmaking Shinto shrine, among other well preserved vestiges of Japanese preindustrial culture. Cycling around the town, smelling the early autumn leaf fires from the rice fields, visiting the historic “magariya” (bent house) farms, and seeing the mist on the mountains and the old shrines by the side of the road was one of my favorite experiences of the trip. At the Tono Municipal Museum, I learned about the scholar Kunio Yanagita (1875-1962), who collected the folk legends of the region at the turn of the twentieth century.

Visiting the town after befriending Kizen Sasaki, a local who had moved to Tokyo, Kunio was fascinated by the stories Sasaki shared from his hometown, and was sparked to explore Tono  and collect these tales. The book he published in 1910, Tono-Monogatari (Legends of Tono), became one of the cornerstones of Japanese folklore studies. After visiting the museum and the town of Tono, I was eager to track down an English copy of the work. I was definitely not disappointed!  


A slim, fascinating treatise, the Legends of Tono consists of some 119 short vignettes recording tales and stories of the Tono region, as told to Kunio by Kizen. Both eerie and oddly prosaic, the tales reflect the everyday life and concerns of the people of this remote place, both their fears and their desires. Nature, farming, religion, all are dealt with in these stories. Including legends of the kappa, the tengu, snow women, and other supernatural entities, other tales discuss local landmarks and eccentric townspeople. Throughout the legends, certain elements seem evident and rather disturbing to the modern reader, including a deep suspicion and fear of outsiders- encountering any stranger on the roads or woods outside of the little villages of the Tono valley evokes great fear from the townspeople. Others are more classic folkloric motifs, such as a hunter hearing a premonition of a family tragedy back home. Among the most interesting legends in the book were explanations of local traditions still practiced and evident in Tono, such as the tale of Oshira-sama. A tragic tale of a girl who fell in love with a horse, until her father killed it and hung it from a tree, Oshira-sama became a kami still honored in Tono. Shrines to Oshira-sama can be seen in the traditional “magariya” farmhouse museum, Denshoen, which also contains a memorial museum to Kizen Sasaki.

An Oshira-sama shrine inside the farmhouse at Denshoen, Tono, Iwate, Japan

A few miles south in Iwate prefecture, the ancient temple complex of Hiraizumi is a very interesting place to visit. A UNESCO heritage site since 2011, there are two major historic Buddhist temples in the town dating back to the Heian period (the 800s to 1100s CE), Chuson-ji and Motsu-ji temples. Chuson-ji, a complex of temples nestled among atmospheric conifers on steep hills includes the Kojikindo Golden Hall, a mausoleum that survived from the 12th century holding the mummified remains of the Fujiwara lords who ruled northern Japan at the time. The Pure Land Garden at Chuson-ji, with its picturesque pond, survives from the 800s, with some of the remains of the ancient temple buildings visible as well. It was interesting to wander through the sites that have been in use for so long, even if they are mostly ruins nowadays.  

A root covered trail at Chuson-ji, Hiraizumi, Iwate, Japan

Among the travelers to visit the temple complexes throughout the centuries was the poet and master of the haiku, Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), who visited during his tour of northern Japan between 1689 and 1691, when little was left of the original temples. There is a statue of Basho at Hiraizumi to commemorate his visit, which he wrote about in his masterwork Oku no Hosomichi, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Talk about an evocative title! Reflecting on his visit to Hiraizumi, site of the Fujiwara’s ambitions centuries before, Basho wrote “natsugusa ya tsuwamono-domo ga yume no ato- Summer grass — all that remains of warrior dreams.”

The remains of the foundation of a temple from the ninth century,  Motsu-ji, Hiraizumi, Iwate, Japan

Having not read haiku, I was definitely interested in reading through this poetic travel memoir and revisiting my own voyage to Japan’s deep north.


The local library had only A Haiku Journey, which included some of Basho’s most famous haiku in addition to the The Narrow Road to the Deep North, translated by Dorothy Britten and accompanied by photographs taken during the 1970s by Dennis Stock. The photos were nice but a little dated, and I felt that Britten’s translations, which did not include the original Japanese, seemed a little affected, including alien rhyming schemes that would have no relation to the original language. I will have to look for another English edition of Basho’s verse. In any case, it was interesting to see this traveler taking stock of his visit to this eight hundred year old location some three hundred years before I too visited.

Akihabara afternoon, Tokyo

Finally, upon returning to Tokyo, I explored one of the most distinctive of the city’s districts, Akihabara, known as a hub for buying electronics, as well as the center of the country’s anime and manga fandom. Stopping in for some craft beer and honey toast, one could not help but browse the rows of vending machines dispensing little keychain figurines from a variety of themes, from fungi of the world to obscure video games of the ‘80s. Among them were some keychains from the manga series, GeGeGe no Kitaro by Mizuki Shigeru (1922-2015), one of Japan’s most famous manga artists. Shigeru passed away only a few months after my visit, but only recently has his work slowly been published in the United States. The Kitaro series deals with Mizuki’s favored topics of yokai (supernatural creatures) and Japanese folklore, but I’d recently been reading his autobiographical work in Showa: A History of Japan, which chronicled the history of the Japanese nation during the 20th century and Mizuki’s experiences as part of it.


The fourth and final entry in Mizuki’s four part Showa series, 1953-1989 was recently published in English and I checked it out from the library to complete it. I’ve always really enjoyed memoir comics and Mizuki’s accounts of how Japanese society changed over the years was fascinating. In the final volume, he writes how the post-WWII economy of Japan changed the perspectives of the nation, as he returned disabled from the war and began slowly making a name for himself as a manga artist as the political situation stabilized. Most interesting was the strong protest movements that blossomed in Japan as well as the US during the 1960s and 1970s. I also enjoyed how the historical portions were narrated as cameos by a character from GeGeGe no Kitaro, the yokai-man Nezumi Otoko (the Rat Man), who cuts a ghoulish figure as he drolly discusses what troubles are besetting one general or politician or another.  

Since returning from the trip, after recovering from that twelve hour flight home, I’ve often reflected on my time in Japan. The books and authors that I discovered on the trip, and those that I continue to discover, have allowed me to continue to reflect and literarily expand my knowledge even more than a year later.  

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