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?

The Roads to Sata

Long walks through Japan have become something of a tradition. Alan Booth (1946-1993) made a journey, entirely on foot, over the approximately 2000 miles or 3000 km between the northernmost tip of Japan, Cape Soya in Hokkaido, and its southernmost point, Cape Sata in Kyushu, and this book, The Roads to Sata, was the result.

Views from Cape Sata

Booth had been living in Tokyo for several years but had begun to suspect that Tokyo was not the ‘real Japan’ and therefore decided to embark on his journey, choosing to walk, mainly along roads rather than across country, so as to have chance to meet and talk to people along the way. He explains his motivation in an interview with a journalist after completing his trip:

“Why did you decide to do it in the first place?”

“Because I’d lived in Japan for a quarter of my life and still didn’t know whether I was wasting my time. I hoped that by taking four months off to do nothing but scrutinize the country I might come to grips with the business of living here, and get a clearer picture, for better or worse”.

but admits that he was not successful in his mission:

“Have you managed to do that?”


The trip avoids many of the typical cities and tourist sights, leaving out Tokyo (mentioned only in passing at the beginning), Osaka and Kyoto, and instead concentrates on the ordinary, everyday towns and cities along the way. Booth also eschews the usual clichés found in writing by Westerners about Japan – geishas, mono no aware, wabi-sabi, the homogeneity and consensus culture of ‘the Japanese’ and so on – presumably because Booth had been in Japan for long enough to get such things out of his system if he ever had them in his system to start with. His introduction specifically points out that he has:

“tried to avoid generalizations, particularly ‘the Japanese’. ‘The Japanese are 120,000,000 people, ranging in age from 0 to 119, in geographical location across 21 degrees of latitude and 23 of longitude, and in profession from emperor to urban guerilla.”

However, in the course of his travels, Booth finds that he cannot avoid clichés and preconceptions – not his own about ‘the Japanese’, but those of the people he meets about Westerners. Despite speaking fluent Japanese, he often has to convince the owners of the ryokans where he wishes to stay that he can indeed eat raw fish, use chopsticks and sleep on a futon, and that he in fact does all these things regularly with his Japanese wife in Tokyo. At one ryokan, the owners finally say “but we can’t speak English!” despite the fact that for the previous few minutes, they had been speaking in Japanese. Booth is also frequently accosted by schoolboys asking “Amerika?” (i.e. “Are you from America?”) and saying “Ziss is a PEN” – the first sentence in the English language textbook used in Japanese schools – and “Hey YOOO!” (I can’t imagine what sort of textbook would teach this as an appropriate way to greet, well, anyone, so I’m somewhat bemused as to where it may have come from.) The schoolgirls, on the other hand, politely asked him for his autograph, and a policeman is surprised that the money in his wallet is Japanese money.

Booth clearly wants nothing more than to blend in, be accepted and talk to people, and the constant reminders of his otherness cause great frustration. At one point in the journey, an elderly lady clearly becomes aware of his frustration and attempts an explanation:

“We don’t see many foreigners here” explained the old lady as she pedaled off. “That’s why the people stare at you. That’s why the children shout.”

but nonetheless, being treated in this way starts to get to him:

“I haven’t got any friends,” I snarled. “I’m a gaijin.”

Occasionally, the frustration boils over into what seems to be a somewhat exaggerated sense of injury. Some children are reported as saying, of the gaijin:

“Look at it!… What’s it eating? What’s it speaking?”

and later:

“See what it does when you say ‘hurro’ to it.”

although there is, to my knowledge, no way of unambiguously referring to something or someone as ‘it’ in Japanese; the only expressions I can think of that they may have used – which are admittedly not terribly polite – are:

あのもの ano mono, which could mean あの物 that thing or あの者 that person.

あの奴 (あのやつ) ano yatsu, which could mean ‘that guy’ or ‘that thing’

彼奴 (あいつ) aitsu, which means ‘he, she, that guy’ but is also used, at least in Kyushu dialect, to mean ‘that thing’, if I remember correctly.

However, it could be that I have missed an important expression here – please let me know in the comments if so!

Things have changed a great deal since the late 1970s, when Booth made his journey, and particularly in large towns and cities, people are used to seeing foreign faces and hearing non-Japanese people speak the language with varying degrees of fluency. Even by the time of Booth’s later book, Looking for the Lost (published after his death in 1993) he seems to have been accepted into ryokans without the long debates. The earlier, 1970s book gives many hints of a disappearing era; for example, older people cite distances in terms of ri – “the distance that a man with a burden would aim to cover in an hour on mountain roads” (aim to, presumably, because he may find his way impeded by bears, or be bewitched by foxes, or have some other unpleasant fate befall him). Some things remain the same, however: music and sirens blaring out at various times of day to indicate that children should go to school or go home, politicians’ vans blaring out messages “My name is Tanaka Kenji, vote for me”, tiny noodle shops run by elderly couples, a love of nature and of the restraining powers of concrete, good food, good beer and sometimes overwhelming friendliness and hospitality, adult manga in full public view (although I heard some time back that they were finally to be banished to top shelves) and the idea that Japan and the Japanese people are unique and uniquely difficult to understand. In Hokkaido, not long after the beginning of his trip Booth has a conversation with an old man and tells him that he, Booth, lives in Tokyo.

“Tokyo is not Japan,” he said. “You can’t understand Japan by living in Tokyo.”

Booth agrees and says that’s why he decided to look at the rest of Japan.

“You can’t understand Japan just by looking at it,” the old main said.

No, agrees Booth, he was also talking to the people he met. The old man tells him that you can’t understand Japan just by talking to people. How could he understand Japan, then, asks Booth.

“You can’t understand Japan,” he said.


The Roads to Sata gives an insight into a Japan that is far removed from the touristy stereotypes and is probably particularly fascinating for those who have never had a chance to visit. However, the premise of the journey – walking from one end of the country to the other – does not allow much detailed discussion of the individual places Booth travels through, and many themes come up repeatedly through the account – concrete, dead snakes, beer, pollution, to cite some examples. There are some parts of the journey that Booth himself appears to find rather tedious; certain parts of Japan are ‘away from the tourist trail’ for good reason. The Roads to Sata also, necessarily, reflects the Japan of its time, which has now partially passed away, and the state of mind of the author, who was still trying to “come to grips with the business of living [there]” and “didn’t know whether I was wasting my time”. In Looking for the Lost, we see a man who appears much more at ease with his life in Japan. Sadly, Alan Booth passed away from cancer when he was only in his 40s. An obituary can be found here and a short review of “The Roads to Sata” here.

Booth appears in this video, part of a BBC educational series.