Alan Booth: his life, his works

I first came across the name Alan Booth when I was reading the work of another travel writer, Will Ferguson. In Hokkaido Highway Blues, Ferguson hitchhikes from the south of Japan to the north, a journey I learned Booth had taken in reverse earlier in the The Roads to Sata. The difference was that where Ferguson had hitchhiked, Booth had done the journey on foot—from the most extreme point north, Cape Soya, to the most southerly point, Sata: a distance of over 2000 miles. It was a bit like discovering a good album, then tracing the artist’s own musical influences: a trail which often leads to the unearthing of gems—such was the case with Alan Booth.

Booth has been described by Ian Buruma as “Not only one of the finest travel writers on Japan, but one of the best travel writers in the English language.” Good travel writers are prepared to go that little bit further, to dig deeper and discover more about the country that they are traveling in. The way Booth traveled and his intent as a writer were inseparable: traveling on foot allowed him access to the places that the expressways and shinkansen missed, places which he brought to life with a mix of anecdote, observation and historical/cultural background.

As the trek to Sata took place in 1977, for the modern reader the book provides an insight into the country at an important time—the very beginning of the bubble era, when it was changing rapidly. The writer’s journey takes him past construction sites where new roads, buildings and golf courses are being built. Meanwhile, towns are starting “to slide conspiratorially one into another.”

The Japan of this time still has one foot in the past, though, and not everybody has evacuated the countryside to live in the cities. Life in the more remote regions remains as it has for generations. People still talk of distances in terms of ‘ri’ instead of kilometers, and real traditional festivals are carried out away from the flash of the tourist cameras. In one chapter, Booth describes an O-bon festival in Yamagata where the entire village heads to the local graveyard to welcome back the dead by candlelight.

“One by one the candles on the graves flickered and settled into a glow. In the distance tiny pinpricks of light pinpointed another graveyard, and beyond that, another, stretching back towards the dark shape of the mountains,” He tells us with obvious delight. “This was O-bon. The real O-bon. There is nothing like it in the cities.”

On another occasion, he is invited to participate in the Namahage festival in Akita, where locals dressed as devils go door to door terrorizing children. At the culmination of the festival Booth is asked to lead the communal prayer and perform a Shinto ritual. Unfortunately, the sake gets the better of him and in a typical Booth moment, he messes it up. Not that anyone seems to mind, given that the entire village seems to be as drunk as he is.

Booth’s liking for a drink hardly hinders his progress. Rather, it turns out to be one of his trump cards. We find him in bars in the company of a range of characters who provide a refreshing antidote to the stereotypical images of the Japanese that were prevalent at the time. “I try to avoid generalizations, particularly ‘the Japanese,’” said Booth, who dedicated The Roads to Sata to some of the “Businessmen, farmers, grandmothers, fishermen, housewives, shopkeepers, school children, soldiers, policemen” (the list goes on) that he met, who he pointed out “are ‘the Japanese.’”

Descriptions of encounters with the people he meets show a comic sensibility, sometimes used to expose pretentiousness, but often, it is simply a means of highlighting the gentle absurdity of the world he saw around him. In the extract below, a ryokan owner takes Booth to the local school where he teaches.

“Now children, here’s an Englishman who comes from England. Do you know where England is Kazuko-chan?”

“Zutto mukô.” (far away)

“And do you think you can find it on our map?”

A battered metal globe had been dragged out to the front of the class and the four children clustered around it, wriggling.

“No Kazuko-chan, that’s Saudi-Arabia. This is England,” said Mr. Obata, tapping Iceland.

Booth’s second and last book, Looking for the Lost, is based on a series of journeys undertaken more than a decade after Sata. In late-eighties Japan, he sees the result of the changes underway in the first book. The construction industry has been busy paving, damming and building roads through even the more remote regions; the migration to the big cities has left some of the rural areas looking like ghost towns; and children no longer follow him around yelling English phrases. The journeys are temporal as well as spatial and Booth takes us back in time, following routes taken by famous Japanese. We learn about present day Japan in the way it reinterprets its past and reconstructs its heroes. He searches for the ancestors of the tragic Heike clan, follows the final march of ‘Last Samurai’ Saigo Takamori, and traces a journey home to Aomori by the writer Dazai Osamu, who turns out to be one of Booth’s least favorite subjects. The angst-ridden Dazai, from a wealthy background, is compared unfavorably to the blind Tsugaru shamisen player, Takahashi Chikuzan, from the same area.

“Dazai fancied himself an outsider,” Booth writes, “while Chikuzan tramping the lanes in his rags was a living embodiment of that condition.”

Booth’s respect for Takahashi Chikuzan and appreciation of his music was consistent with the version of Japan that Booth, who grew up in the working class area of London’s East End, came to love. An actor and theatre director, he originally came to study Noh, but found it detached from the country he found himself in. Instead he was drawn to more earthy forms of local culture like festivals and folk music. His was not the Japan that other Western writers of the time swooned over—of Noh, Tea Ceremony and Zen. Booth’s Japan was more that of common people, of the countryside (especially the north), and of Shinto more than Buddhism.

On the last page of Looking for the Lost, Booth describes a “niggling in the stomach” that turned out to be a symptom of the colon cancer that led to the writer’s death in 1993, at the age of only 47. During his illness Booth continued to write a column for the Asahi newspaper, recounting his experiences as a patient with the same sense of humor that characterized his travel books.

His former editor and friend, Tim Harris, describes Booth as a “witty, highly intelligent, passionate man” with an ability to “see things with a freshness” that anybody who has read the books would understand. The Roads to Sata and Looking for the Lost still make most people’s top ten list of the best travel books written about Japan. They are published by Kodansha International and are still available in most major bookstores.

Koe Magazine is grateful to Tim Harris and Alan Booth’s wife for making his pictures and the short story, “Snow Devils,” (following page), available for print in this edition. See “Performing Arts,” page 32, for more information on Harris’ upcoming event.

僕がアラン・ブースの名前を知ったのは、紀行作家ウィル・ファーガソンの著作 『Hokkaido Highway Blues』を読んでから。ファーガソンは日本列島をヒッチハイクで縦断した経験を書いているのだが、アラン・ブースがそれよりも前に『The Roads to Sata』という日本の紀行本を書いていることを紹介している。ファーガソンがヒッチハイクで日本を旅したのに対し、ブースは日本最北端の宗谷岬から九州最南端の佐多岬まで3200キロを超える距離を歩いて旅した。『The Roads to Sata』は美しいアルバムのような作品だが、読み進んでいくと著者が受けた音楽的影響が見えてくるとともに、日本の宝探し的作品に仕上がっていることがわかる。











『Sata』から10年以上も経って発表された2作目『Looking for the Lost』はいくつかの旅の記録を集めたものでこれがアラン・ブースの最後の作品となった。『Sata』で紹介された変化していく日本、この2作目が書かれた1980年代の終わり頃にはその変化の結果が出ていた。各地の道路はどんどん舗装され、ダムや様々な建築物のための道路が田舎にまで整備されていた。一方、都市部への人口流出によって過疎化が進んだ地域はゴースト・タウン化してしまったところもあった。英語らしき言葉を叫びながらブースを取り巻いていた子供たちも田舎にはもう居なくなっていた。2作目で紹介されている旅はどれも長いものではないが広範囲に亘っており、どの旅も読者をタイムスリップさせてくれる。またこの作品では、過去の史実や歴史上の人物をもう一度見つめなおすことによって現代日本に対する理解を深める、という手法をとっている。平家一族の悲劇を辿る旅、最後のサムライと呼ばれる西郷隆盛の行軍を辿る旅、そして太宰治の青森への傷心の帰郷を辿る旅。ブースは後に太宰治のことをあまり快く思わなくなっていたらしく、太宰と同郷で盲目の津軽三味線の名人、高橋竹山を引き合いに出しながら、裕福な家庭に生まれた太宰のことを批判的に描いている。



『Looking for the Lost』の最後のページで著者は腹部にちょっとした異常を感じていることを書いているが、これが結腸癌の前兆であり、結局この病気が悪化して1993年に47歳の若さで他界した。闘病中もブースは朝日新聞のコラムを執筆し、旅行記に見られたようなユーモアを交えながら自身の闘病の様子を綴った。

ブースの著作の編集者であり友人でもあったティム・ハリスはブースを評して「ウィットに富み、知性と情熱に溢れ、物事を既成観念にとらわれずに見ることができる男。彼の本を読めばそれが伝わってくる」と褒め称えている。多くの読者にとってこの2つの作品は今でも間違いなく日本の旅行記のベストテンに入るだろう。『The Roads to Sata』 と『Looking for the Lost』はどちらも講談社インターナショナルから出版されていて有名書店で手に入る。

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