Looking for the Lost

This second full-length travel book from Alan Booth was published after the author’s death in 1993. Unlike The Roads to Sata, which is the account of a single, very long journey, Looking for the Lost consists of three self-contained sections: Tsugaru. which traces the journey of the novelist Dazai Osamu around his home region in Aomori Prefecture, Saigo’s Last March, following the route that Saigō Takamori took through Kyushu to escape goverment troops during his ill-fated rebellion, and Looking for the Lost, a walk northwards from Nagoya to one of the many places to which members of the defeated Heike clan are purported to have retreated after their defeat at the battle of Dannoura.

The premise of this book is less constraining than that of The Roads to Sata, in which Booth undertook to walk the length of Japan; this necessarily entailed walking through some parts that were less interesting and appealing than others. In Looking for the Lost, Booth concentrates less on the process of walking the routes and expands more on cultural and historical themes, making for a more interesting and entertaining book in my opinion, and letting more of the author’s personality shine through. In addition, despite the melancholy title and Booth’s mention, on the penultimate page, of the cancer that would later kill him, the overall mood of Looking for the Lost seemed to be a good deal more cheerful than that of The Roads to Sata. Several years had passed since the previous journey, and the attitude of many owners of ryokans and minshukus to foreigners seemed to have become more welcoming in the intervening period; there is only one incident that I can recall in the later book in which an inn owner is clearly reluctant to allow Booth to stay because of his foreignness.


Whether by deliberate design or by chance, the three sections are organised in a sequence reaching back in time. Dazai’s journey, retraced in the first section, took place in 1944, Saigō’s in 1877 and the Heike’s, if it took place at all, in 1185. The first section, Tsugaru, is based on Dazai’s Return to Tsugaru (subtitled Travels of a Purple Tramp in reference to Dazai’s idiosyncratic style of travelling clothes). Booth mentions that he “did not much care for Dazai, as a man or as a writer” and comments disapprovingly more than once about Dazai’s tendency to spend hours on end getting drunk on other people’s wartime supplies of sake. For Booth, Dazai’s journey provides the structure for an exploration of a region of northern Japan that he finds interesting for other reasons unrelated to Dazai. One of the most interesting sections is on folk music. It was clear from The Roads to Sata that Booth loved singing and took a great interest in Japanese folk-songs, and he expands on this in Looking for the Lost with a discussion of the Tsugaru shamisen which, like many things in Japan, was the subject of a brief ‘boom’. The Tsugaru shamisen is a stringed instrument. I was not familiar with it at all but have found some videos on YouTube where you can see how it is played and listen to the sound.

Video 1

Video 2

The following video is an extract from an anime featuring a shamisen player:

Video 3

In “Saigo’s Last March” Booth followed the route taken by Saigō Takamori and his rebels from Enodake, in today’s Oita Prefecture, to his home in Kagoshima. Saigō had been one of the main players in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, in which the shogun was deposed and the emperor ‘restored’ to power (having been little more than a figurehead during the centuries of dominance by the Tokugawa and earlier shoguns). With other samurai from the Satsuma and Chōshū domains (modern-day Kagoshima and Yamaguchi Prefectures), he took a post in the new Meiji government. However, he later became disenchanted with government and returned to Satsuma and founded military schools for boys from the samurai class. After some years, the government became increasingly suspicious of the militarisation in Satsuma, beginning with espionage and later sending a warship to Kagoshima, eventually provoking the uprising known as the Satsuma Rebellion. During the last stages of this rebellion, the all-but-defeated rebels were surrounded on Enodake. Many of the rebels were killed or committed seppuku, but Saigō and a small band of 500 men managed to slip away under cover of darkness and make their way to Kagoshima, where they would later take their last stand.

Parts of the route taken by Saigō and his men have since become overgrown and difficult or impossible to follow; anyone who has been to Kyushu will know that much of the central, mountainous region looks like a thick jungle and that plants grow fast and vigorously in the warm and humid climate. During the journey, Booth meditates on the nature of heroism in Japanese and Western culture. While a hero in Western culture is held out as someone to emulate, he says, in Japan a hero is far removed from the everyday that he cannot be emulated, simply admired. The portrayal of Saigō, even before his death, as having undergone some kind of apotheosis that enabled him to look down upon the world from the planet Mars, is cited as evidence for this concept of heroism.

The final section of the book, Looking for the Lost, follows a route that may have been taken by defeated Heike warriors, starting from Nagoya and ending in a village named Taira (平), the alternative name for the Heike (平家) clan (Heike = house of Taira). Although the name of the village may appear to be clear evidence of a connection, Taira simply means ‘flat’ or ‘plain’ so it could have been a place-name derived from a geographical feature. The first chapter of this section features an exhibition of high-tech products and designs for the future in Nagoya, in which the theme of almost every exhibit is some kind of ‘dream’. (In the 2000s, ‘dream’ was still often in evidence in advertising copywriting, along with variations on ‘We support your comfortable life’.) The next chapter takes up the journey and links to the theme of ‘dream’ which occurs at the beginning of the 平家物語(へいけものがたり, Tale of the Heike):

The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind. (trans. Helen Craig McCullough)

The author goes back in time to the days of traditional gassho-zukuri houses (“praying hands” houses, referring to the steeply pitched roofs developed for snowy winters) in Shirakawa-go* and cormorant fishing before arriving in Taira. Did the Heike arrive there too? They could have done, but there was no concrete evidence for or against, and this conclusion is in any case overshadowed by the grim news, on the final page, of the author’s cancer. How much of the book was written, or edited, when the author was aware of his illness is not clear. He avoids an obvious sense of foreboding until the end, but it is clear from the front matter and blurb, as well as numerous online reviews, that he was already dead by the time of publication, so it is impossible to read it without this in mind.

Japan has changed since Booth pounded its pavements and roads, and Japanese fashions have become more popular in the West, reducing the distance and strangeness that both sides must have felt, particularly in the days of The Roads to Sata. It is a pity that we do not have Booth here to give us his take on Japan of the 2000s and 2010s.

* The English version of the (otherwise excellent) website for Shirakawa-go advertises a “Gassho style village map”. My immediate reaction was “Oh, how clever – they have made the map in gassho style”. My second reaction, “Well, don’t all folding maps somehow resemble pointed roofs when they are being unfolded?”. Finally, I realised that the expression “gassho-style” modified “village” rather than “map”. Anyone who is reading this and teaching English, perhaps you could encourage your students to make more liberal use of the word “of”. I have noticed that non-native speakers of English from many backgrounds seem somehow reluctant to use this word. Perhaps textbooks are to blame?

Vestiges of dreams (Narrow Road part 3)

When we read Bashō’s account of his travels, it is clear that what was important to him was to visit places that were famous from history or poetry (歌枕, utamakura), but unless we are scholars of Japanese literature and history then many, if not all, of these references are lost on us unless we have the assistance of notes. Keene, in the Kodansha bilingual edition (ISBN 4770020287) provides some notes, and there is also a comprehensive annotated translation by Prof. Dennis Kawaharada of Kapi‘olani Community College, Hawaii here (discovered since the previous post!): Summer Grasses, Autumn Wind: A Translation of Matsuo Bashō’s Oku no Hosomichi

Interspersed with passages that talk about the pleasures of travelling (enjoyable time spent with fellow poets) and its inconveniences (illness, tiredness and sharing sleeping quarters with lice, fleas and a urinating horse!) are sections that speak of the pathos of war and the way in which time erases the traces of past glories:


natsukusa ya tsuwamonodomo ga yume no ato

summer grasses: all that’s left of warriors’ dreams (trans.: Dennis Kawaharada)

summer grass –
that’s all that remains
of brave warriors’ dreams (trans.: Gabi Greve)

The summer grasses –
Of brave soldiers’ dreams
The aftermath (trans.: Donald Keene)


muzan ya na kabuto no shita no kirigirisu

heartless: beneath the helmet, a cricket (Trans: Dennis Kawaharada)

how tragic and pitiful …
a grashopper under
his helmet (Trans: Gabi Greve)

Alas for mortality!
Underneath the helmet
A grasshopper. (Trans: Donald Keene)

The former of these two poems was written at Hiraizumi (平泉) which was once the northern capital of the aristocratic Fujiwara family and a town with golden temples to rival those of Kyoto, but fell into disrepair and obscurity after the fourth lord, Fujiwara no Yasuhira, was attacked and defeated by the shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo for sheltering Yoritomo’s outlaw half-brother Yoshitsune. Yoshitsune had previously distinguished himself in battle fighting alongside Yoritomo during the war between the rival Minamoto and Taira clans (the Genpei war) but relations between the two brothers later deteriorated to the extent that Yoshitsune fled and took refuge in Hiraizumi with his faithful, and giant, companion Benkei (a Japanese analogue to Little John).


“Yoshitsune and Benkei Viewing Cherry Blossoms” by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi – note that in samurai culture, manliness and love of flowers were certainly not considered to be mutually exclusive!

Hiraizumi can still be visited today, although only a few of the temples remain. The golden hall (金色堂 Konjikidō) of Chūson-ji (中尊寺), which today is protected by glass and concrete, is thought to be one of the ‘palaces’ made of gold that Marco Polo describes (Excursion in Zipangu, the Land of Gold) and that later prompted explorers such as Columbus to go off in search of golden lands in the Orient.


Lotus flowers at Hiraizumi – photo by author

A compilation of “Oku no hosomichi” links:

Summer Grasses, Autumn Wind: A Translation of Matsuo Bashō’s Oku no Hosomichi

Accompanying map by Dennis Kawaharada

Narrow Road cycle trip by a modern-day Sora

World Kigo Database Matsuo Basho archive