BOOK REVIEW: A Stranger in Tibet by Scott Berry

A Stranger In Tibet: The Adventures Of A Wandering Zen MonkA Stranger In Tibet: The Adventures Of A Wandering Zen Monk by Scott Berry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book tells the story of a Japanese Zen Buddhist monk, Kawaguchi Ekai, who traveled to India, Nepal, Lo (now Upper Mustang,) Sikkim, and Tibet in the early years of the twentieth century in search of Buddhist scriptures and teachings. His ultimate goal was Tibet, which he’d heard had the complete Buddhist canon in Tibetan. However, at that time, Tibet (like some of the other nations he traveled through) was xenophobic and strictly controlled / prohibited movements of foreigners, sometimes under penalty of death. This necessitated Kawaguchi first spending a year-and-a-half in Darjeeling to become fluent in Tibetan, and then using a range of disguises to facilitate travel. There was a book published after Kawaguchi’s trip entitled, “Three Years in Tibet,” but there are reasons why one might prefer Berry’s work, reasons that will be addressed below.

Kawaguchi was an interesting figure, a skilled polyglot, a fast thinker, and an iron-willed pursuer of truth. He was also bigoted and held uncompromising moral beliefs upto which few could live. The travelogue is sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, but always interesting. Sometimes Kawaguchi comes across as a Buddhist Don Quixote, but other times he’s a valiant scholar / adventurer.

As for why one might enjoy reading Berry’s account better: first, “Three Years in Tibet” is rather bloated and wasn’t written directly by Kawaguchi but rather by way of journalists. Second, Berry explores the truth behind some of the intolerant and sectarian views of Kawaguchi. Third, Berry offers broader context into the intrigues and geopolitics of the times that led to the shunning of foreigners in the first place.

This book delves into a fascinating time in a little-known part of the world, and it’s a compelling read throughout. I’d highly recommend it for those interested in learning more about the region and its past.


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BOOK REVIEW: Monkey: New Writing from Japan: Vol. 2: Travel ed. Ted Goosen & Motoyuki Shibata

MONKEY New Writing from Japan: Volume 2: TRAVELMONKEY New Writing from Japan: Volume 2: TRAVEL by Ted Goossen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: December 28, 2021

This anthology of travel-themed short writings by prominent Japanese authors includes: short stories, essays, poems, excerpts from longer works, and even an illustrated story [i.e. “The Overcoat” by Satoshi Kitamura.] The nature and degree of travel varies considerably with some pieces being travelogues or setting-centric fiction, but other pieces explore travel in a more symbolic sense (e.g. “Hell” by Kikuko Tsumura or “Decline of the Aliens” by Hideo Furukawa.] And one piece, “Cardboard Boxes and Their Uses” by Taki Monma deals more with the topic of being shut in, so it might be considered a study in travel through its absence.

The anthology includes works by literary stars such as Mieko Kawakami, Haruki Murakami, and Yasunari Kawabata, and showcases translation by some of the most well-know translators of Japanese literature. [The edition ends with a dozen brief statements by translators about what they have found particularly daunting to translate — not necessarily because the literal translation is difficult but because the elegance of the origin language can be lost to clunkiness in the translated language.]

Among my favorite pieces were “The Dugong” (a historical fiction story with a “Journey to the West” feel to it,) Haruki Murakami’s essay entitled “Jogging in Southern Europe” (which anyone who’s ever exercised amid people who don’t exercise will find amusing,) “Five Modern Poets on Travel” [particularly the tanka of Kanoko Okamoto and the haiku of both Hisago Sugita and Dakotsu Iida,] and “Every Reading, Every Sound, Every Sight” by Jun’ichi Konuma. That said, I don’t think there was a clunker in the bunch, each piece was well-composed and translated, and I’d highly recommend reading this book.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Three-Cornered World by Natsume Sōseki

The Three-Cornered WorldThe Three-Cornered World by Natsume Sōseki
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel was originally entitled Kusamakura or “Grass Pillow,” and it’s the Alan Turney translation that bears the title The Three-Cornered World. Turney drew from a concept that Natsume presents in the book – i.e. that an artist lives in the triangle created by the collapse of a corner called common sense. It’s a poetic and philosophical novel that is very much character-centric. In other words, if you must have an intriguing story, this book is not so much for you. However, if you find ideas and clever use of language appealing, you’ll love it.

The premise is that an artist takes retreat in the mountain countryside, and becomes infatuated with a local woman with a storied past. As the book tells us of the artist’s experience, it discusses aesthetics, the philosophy of art, and the place of emotion in artistic experience. This book is often compared to Bashō’s travelogue (i.e. Narrow Road to the Deep North) as it involves a great deal of elegant imagery and the occasional interspersed poem.

While the book is light on story, I was wowed by the author’s thought process and his use of language. While I’ve never read the original in Japanese, Turney’s translation is beautiful writing in its own right and I suspect it captures the sparse beauty for which Natsume’s work is famed. It is definitely worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Basho’s Haiku Journeys by Freeman Ng

Basho's Haiku JourneysBasho’s Haiku Journeys by Freeman Ng
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: October 19, 2021

The first thing a prospective reader should be clear about is that these aren’t Basho’s haiku. Basho wrote travelogues in haibun (a spare form of prose typically matched with one or more haiku,) and so one might expect the poems to be from them. On a related note, while all of the poetry is haiku in form, not all of it is haiku in substance. That is to say, it’s all presented in a three-line 5 – 7 – 5 syllable format, but some of it reads like a prose description of events chopped up into 5 – 7 – 5 syllable bit-sized pieces. That’s not to say that there aren’t many poems that do have the feel of true haiku, presenting spare natural imagery juxtaposed but not explained, analyzed, or judgement-laden. It seemed like the further into the book I got, the more of the poems felt like proper haiku.

It is a children’s book, so I don’t think it’s a major concern that it focuses on the most rudimentary elements of haiku (i.e. syllable count and nature imagery) at the expense of subtler elements. The Zen nature of Basho’s haiku might be challenging for a young reader. I addition to the colorful and whimsical artwork, showing prominent places from Basho’s travels, there is a single page explanation of haiku to help get kids writing their own.

If you’re looking for a book to get a child interested in nature, haiku, or travel, you should give this one a look.

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BOOK REVIEW: Tokyo Junkie by Robert Whiting

Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys . . . and BaseballTokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys . . . and Baseball by Robert Whiting
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Tokyo is the river that runs through this book, which for large tracts reads like a memoir and at other turns reads like a broad overview of things Japanese. I’ve only been to Tokyo once, for about a two week stay, but it’s impossible to miss the almost alien level of distinctiveness of the city. It’s the largest city in the world, but in many ways feels like a small town. The subways shut down at midnight, creating an alter ego to the city, aptly depicted in Haruki Murakami novels.

Whiting’s Tokyo journey begins with his time posted there in the military, a time which happens to correspond with the city being readied for the 1964 Olympics, through the present day COVID Pandemic challenges (which happens to correspond with the 2020 Tokyo Summer games being delayed — and it remains to be seen whether these games will ever happen given the fact that the COVID virus is not taking our plans for vaccine-driven herd immunity sitting down.)

As Whiting’s book is part memoir, it gives particular scrutiny to the subjects of his earlier books, in as much as those topics touch upon life in Tokyo. One of these subjects, the more extensively discussed, is baseball and the very different way the game is played and reported upon in Japan. The other key subject is organized crime and the legendary Yakuza. Crime in Japan is a captivating topic because it is both invisible and infamously brutal. I enjoyed the view through these niche lenses because (particularly) the latter is not so conspicuous, but is riveting stuff. [When I was in Japan, I was taken to a bathhouse (not considered strange in Japan as it sounds to an American.) Before we went, I was told that if I had big tattoos, I couldn’t go; and, if I had a small tattoo, I’d need to use a washcloth to keep it covered the whole time. This is apparently because reputable establishments don’t want the taint of Yakuza on their premises. So, this is how much they keep things on the down-low.]

Whiting led various lives in Tokyo, he was an airman, a student, a salaryman, an unofficial advisor to a Yakuza gang, a journalist, and a nonfiction writer. These allowed him to see the changing city from a number of varied perspectives, offering much deeper insight than the run-of-the-mill expat.

In addition to the modern history of Tokyo, Japanese baseball, Yakuza, and Whiting’s various lives in the city, the book makes a lot of fascinating dives into a range of Tokyo topics, such as: sumo wrestling, the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, the city’s distant history, salaryman drinking habits, the demographic crisis (i.e. its aging population has been approaching the point of too many retirees per working taxpayer,) etc. The book offers a no-holds-barred look at the good, the bad, and the ugly underside of the city. It at once praises the city’s politeness, cleanliness, and smooth-running order and rebukes its dark side – dirty politics, toxic workplaces, xenophobia, etc.

I enjoyed this book tremendously. It offered great insight into Tokyo, Japanese culture, as well as many niche areas that I probably would never taken the time to investigate, otherwise. If you are interested in learning about Tokyo, particularly modern Tokyo, this is an excellent read.

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