Having recently devoured Lesley Downer’s On the Narrrow Road to the Deep North someone, and I’m afraid I can’t remember who (but I owe them thanks!) recommended I read The Roads to Sata by Alan Booth. Published in 1985, The Roads to Sata is the story of Alan Booth’s epic 2000 mile walk through Japan, from Cape Soya (宗谷岬), the northernmost point of Hokkaido to Cape Sata (佐多岬), the southern tip of the Osumi Peninsula of Kyushu.
Alan Booth (1946 – 1993) was a British writer and journalist who moved to Japan in 1970, living in Tokyo for the rest of his life. When I looked him up online today I was saddened to find he had died in 1993 of cancer, aged only 46.
Booth’s 1985 journey from one end of Japan to the other lasted 128 days. Despite harsh weather conditions at times, and despite kind offers from strangers, Booth managed the journey entirely on foot, refusing the temptation of trains, buses, and lifts in passing vehicles. He walked all day, and took refuge in local ryokans (Japanese style inns) most nights, favouring them over Western style hotels as a futon for the night usually came with an evening meal. Along the way he met locals, some of which he befriended, others he merely tolerated whilst they marvelled at his foreignness.
Why walk across Japan? Why live in Japan at all? These were questions which bothered Booth throughout his journey, and remained unanswered. He began the trip looking for answers, hoping to perhaps better understand himself and Japan, but after 128 days he was none the wiser, according to his book.
This is a story about the journey rather than the destination. Whilst each town Booth passes through is described, some in more detail than others, some with more affection than others, Booth’s story has a momentum that keeps the reader moving too. Nothing is dwelled on for too long – tomorrow will be another town with a new set of people. One theme which cropped up repeatedly throughout the book was the way in which people, most often school children, reacted to Booth when they saw this strange foreigner walking through their rural town. I imagine in 1985 it would have seemed quite odd to see a weather worn gaijin suddenly appear, and to then hear that foreigner speaking fluent Japanese must have been even more of a surprise. Like many foreigners in Japan, Booth seemed irritated by the way in which he was treated as an outsider by some of the people he encountered. Some were rude, by all accounts, even refusing to let him stay the night because they couldn’t believe he would be able to eat Japanese food without causing a fuss, but for the most part it seemed that the people he met along the way treated him kindly and respectfully.
Imagine doing a journey like this! I feel, as I did when I finished Downer’s book, inspired and itching for an adventure. If I won the lottery I would seriously consider embarking on a journey like Booth’s, although I imagine it would be a very different journey some 30 years later. What better way to know and understand a country and its people than to walk through it? Although, as the book concludes, perhaps one can never hope to understand Japan at all.