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Downer, On the Narrow Road to the Deep North - Off the Cliff

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Sun Jun 21st, 2015


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08:22 pm - Downer, On the Narrow Road to the Deep North
Finished another of my Lost Books from the 90s- Lesley Downer's On the Narrow Road to the Deep North, which stands at the opposite pole from 'Look at me!!' books like Richie's The Inland Sea, Booth's The Roads to Sata, and even Kerr's Lost Japan.

What causes the difference? It can't be just that she's English with the national English restraint that goes so well with Japanese enryo: so is Booth, and he doesn't have an ounce of enryo. It can't just be the time: the wild 80s when, as she says, everyone was a little insane. Booth wrote in the 80s; Richie in the even wilder 60s and 70s. It might be that she's a woman, travelling alone; she isn't trying to get into anyone's pants, which makes her different from Richie and Booth and possibly Kerr. She also doesn't go on and on about what an outsider she is and how this is unfair and why don't the Japanese take her to their bosoms: largely because the Japanese up in the Tohoku *do* take her to their bosoms. Invite her to their homes, give her rides, confide in her; and none of this strikes her as odd. Doubtless this was an aspect of the place and the times, but oh is it pleasant not to have a writer going on and on about how tiresome of the Japanese to think gaijin can't eat Japanese food or sleep in Japanese rooms. Downer merely assures the Japanese that she can, and that's an end to it.

In brief, I get the impression from her that she likes the people she meets and likes the Japanese in general, and doesn't feel any burning need to tell them how they ought to live their lives to be more congenial to westerners: and god knows I don't get that from any of the other writers.

Downer is also doing something I might do (have done, actually): following the traces an historical personage. Or several. Basho and Sora were also retracing the route of Yoshitsune and Benkei, except backwards-- Yoshitsune was fleeing north as Basho was returning south. But the two pairs of travellers reappear over and over in the temples and towns Downer travels through, and she goes out of her way to track them down. Me, I wouldn't climb up and down mountains just to see what Basho saw: physically couldn't in any case: but I applaud Downer's devotion in doing so.

Should note that she also fails to do something that more recent writers feel necessary, and that's to (try to) be funny. Humour in travel writing almost invariably reverts to that ancient deadly topos, 'foreigners are funny because they aren't like us.' Downer simply notes without comment when the people she meets think differently from herself, have different values, lead different lives, end story.

Would that Will Ferguson would do the same. He's not Dave Berry, thank god, but already I'm getting the litany of 'the Japanese tell me blah blah blah which means they think they're wonderful.' It's up there with all the other complaints about Japan I heard and never experienced, like the bit about always being stopped and asked for your gaijin card. Didn't happen. Not once. Never mind 'the shock of discovering that no matter where you go you instantly become the topic of conversation.' No you don't: not in Tokyo at any rate. "They look at you, they laugh when you pass by, they say, "Hello!" They say "Foreigner!" They even say, "Hello, Foreigner!" Perhaps in Kyuushuu they do that: I hear the place is like Sicily. No one did that to me. I'm neither blind nor deaf, and not more than usually impervious: I for sure knew that a lot of people in Seoul were staring at me when I passed by. But I can count on the fingers of one hand the times people registered me as a gaijin: a ten year old on a bike who turned to look back at my sister and me in Tokyo, to the peril of the people on the sidewalk in front of him; a schoolgirl whispering an awed 'Gaijin-sama desu' to her friend when my Canadian prof and I walked by them in Fukushima; in Fukushima again, a four year old in a supermarket who pointed at me and said 'Gaijin da! Kowai, kowai!' (Ack a scary gaijin!) laughing into my eyes all the time.

And yes, once or twice I got the Glare of Death from a Yamanote obasan. That's what Yamanote obasans do. The rest of the time people asked me the time, or for directions, or if I was French. Is it Kyuushuu? Is it being a young male instead of a middle-aged female? I don't know, But this is why no two people's Japan is ever the same.

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