Review: The Roads to Sata, A 2000-Mile Walk Through Japan, by Alan Booth

The cover of The Roads to Sata by Alan Booth

Japan seems to inspire long walking trips; pilgrimages are an old and respected tradition. Even by that standard, what Alan Booth did is remarkable: he walked from the northernmost tip of mainland Japan (Cape Soya on the island Hokkaido) to the southernmost tip (Cape Sata on the island Kyushu), a distance of more than 3000 kilometers. The rules he imposed on himself were straightforward: the entire distance should be traversed by walking. By necessity, there was one exception: he crossed the Tsugaru Strait between Hokkaido and Honshu by ferry. Everything else he did on foot: he even crossed the waters between Honshu and Kyushu by walking a tunnel.

The book describes his daily adventures while traveling, finding a place to sleep, participating in local events, and visiting the local attractions.  His descriptions are often like movie fragments:

Twenty piglets lay one on top another in a sty, flapping their pink ears and trying to sleep. In the house next-door an elderly woman in kimono lay on the floor in front of a huge color television, snoring through the later afternoon news. A girl at a shop I stopped in spent five minutes admiring the hair on my forearms, and a man with a red nose told me that he’d saved two million yen as a wedding present for his son. Evening drew on: fishing boats purred past the winking red lamps of tiny harbours. Across the bay the amber lights of the city of Kagoshima flickered in behind the dark lava slopes of the volcano, and as on the first road of my journey — that hot June road — so here on the on the last, an old man said to me “Gokurosan (thank you for taking the trouble).” (Page 277)


The local attractions emphatically included places that sold beer or sakè, so much so that an unkind reviewer called the entire trip a `2000-mile pub crawl’. Although this was an exaggeration, Alan was an experienced bar visitor, which brought his own advantages:

There is an ancient dispute among the men of Tohuku as to which of the six prefectures produces the best sakè. The keenest rivalry is between Akita in the west and its larger Pacific-coast neighbor, Iwate. The men of Iwate state flatly that their sakè is better because their rice is better. The men of Akita counter that their sakè is better because their water is better. I have studiously avoided taking sides in this dispute because I have found that, by maintaining a noncommittal silence, I have cup after cup of free sakè urged upon me in an effort to elicit the judgment I shall never give. Solomon in all his glory lacked this simple wisdom, or perhaps wasn’t thirsty. (p. 90)

Of course Alan did more than just sample the local alcohol. In his book he takes us through the rural Japan of 1977: Japan had recovered from the war, and although the war had left mental and physical scars, it was now a fading memory. The country was prospering, and the economic stagnation of the 1980s was still in the future. Rural Japan, Alan’s preferred domain, was prospering as well, and it was coping with the modernisation that was sweeping over Japan in its own way:

As I walked on through the villages I began to take more notice of the posters in shop windows. In the camera shops Yul Brynner was advertising Fuji Film and Candice Bergen was cocking a Minolta. In the grocers’ shops Kirk Douglas, Paul Newman, Pat Boone, and Telly Savalas were sniffing different brands of instant coffee. In the clothing shops Alain Delon, Peter Falk, James Coburn, and Giulliano Gemma were all sporting Japanese three-piece suits, and in the chemist’s Charles Bronson was splashing himself with a Japanese after-shave called Mandom. Sophia Loren was straddling a Honda, Olivia Hussey was pursing Kanebo lips, and Jimmy Connors had just won a tournament without needing to remove his Seiko watch. In the sakè shops a varied crew that included Orson Welles, Sammy Davis, Jr., Herman Kahn, Paul Anka and Alexis Weissenberg all vied in their praise of Suntory or Nikka with phrases like “Quel bon whisky.”

“We don’t see many foreigners here,” explained the old lady as she peddled off. “That’s why the people stare at you. That’s why the children shout.” (Page 53)

Being stared at was indeed a problem throughout the journey. Although not as bad as Isabella Bird’s experience a century earlier, when entire villages would drop everything to stare at her, it was clear that Alan was a curiosity for many people: they stared at him, children ran after him, he was asked lots of silly questions, people tried their English on him, and for many people throughout the journey he was a gaijin (foreigner) first and foremost.

He stayed mostly in minshuku or ryokan, although in rare cases he used his sleeping bag in a hut or outdoors. Getting a room at a ryokan was not always easy. He regularly had to enter into discussions like the following (ryokan normally offer dinner and breakfast as part of the deal):

“Are there any rooms free?” I asked with an encouraging smile.
“Well, yes, there are, but we haven’t got any beds. We sleep on mattresses on the floor.”
“Yes, I know,” I said. “I’ve lived in Japan for seven years.”
“And you won’t be able to eat the food.”
“Why, what’s the matter with it?”
“It’s fish.”
“I like fish.”
“But it is raw fish.”
“Look, I’ve lived in Japan for seven years. My wife’s Japanese. I like raw fish.”
“But I don’t think we’ve got any knives and forks.”
“Look…”
“And you can’t use chopsticks.”
“Of course I can. I’ve lived in Japan for…”
“But it’s a tatami-mat room and there aren’t any armchairs.”
“Look…”
“And there’s no shower in the bathroom. It’s an o-furo.”
“I use chopsticks at home. I sit on tatami. I eat raw fish. I use an o-furo. I’ve lived in Japan for seven years. That’s nearly a quarter of my life. My wife…”
“Yes,” moaned the woman, “but we can’t speak English.”
“I don’t suppose that will bother us,” I sighed. “We’ve been speaking Japanese for the last five minutes.” (page 108)

In this case he got the room, but in other cases the ryokan would against all logic be fully booked or there were other unfathomable problems that somehow made it absolutely impossible to provide him with a room. Speaking fluent Japanese made the problem less acute (albeit more visible), but it brought its own problems: some people simply refused to believe that a foreigner could speak Japanese: one man even had a friend repeat his sentences word for word to `translate’ them. In other cases he was treated like a speaking dog: he was the center of attention, he even got free drinks, but everything he said was greeted with comments between the Japanese about how well he spoke the language, and the content of what he was saying was completely ignored. Alan recorded these encounters with a mixture of exasperation and wry amusement.

In return, Alan amused himself by noting the surreal use of English:

[…] The bill she brought me was a stiffer test because, unlike the menu [in Japanese], it was printed in what the restaurant imagined to be English. There was a space to tick off “ko-rudorink” (cold drinks), another for “hott dorink,” and the total was scribbled under the word “aum”, which I took to be a misprint for “sum”, and not some esoteric name for the Godhead. (Page 206)

At other places he encountered MENEW, Herusu Sentaa (Health Center), Saikuringu Taaminaru (Cycling Terminal), shiizun ofu (off season), and bars and cafes with names such as LesuTo Hausu NipPonCafe Terrace Love Love (on the menu: Love Love pudding), a bar My Happy Noodle Taken, a vending machine called Nuts is Best, and shirts with texts such as Contact Puck , TIT CYCLIST (No, No, the owner said, it stands for Tokyo Institute of Technology), and Magic Moment Beauty Parlor.

Of course not everyone treated him like he came from another planet. He met a lot of friendly, helpful, and wise ryokan owners, bar keepers, shop owners, and fellow travellers and customers, and he enjoyed their company a lot. He helped celebrate victories and defeats of the local sports teams, he was welcomed as a long-lost family member by people he had never met, he helped to run bars, and often he simply was a honoured client or guest. Although it is never stated in the book, it is clear that was one big reason the trip was rewarding for him.

Landscape was another reason. Early in his journey he writes:

In all my journey I found little to compare with the hills and valleys of Akita, and for all the heartaches of the northern winter I envied the people who looked out at them each day. (p. 83)

Although he is not as fulsome in his praise in other areas of Japan, he was clearly enjoying the forests, mountains, and vistas of rural and agricultural Japan in many places.

Part of Alan’s trip was in August, the season of the O-bon, the three-day festival to honour the spirits of the ancestors. People come to their birth town, they clean the graves of their ancestors, and bring tables and food to the graves to have a meal with these ancestors.  A Bon Odori (Bon dance) is organised, and the festival ends with fireworks, by floating paper lanterns down the river, or an other ritual involving fire, such as Kyoto’s bonfire. Alan participated in the Bon dance in several places, and in one place even impressed the locals by playing the taiko drum rather well during one dance. He explains how he did this:

The taiko is an instrument that demands more than technique. It is an obstinate instrument. It will resist and resist the drift of the music until the sheer energy of the man who plays it at last excites the god in the drum, and the rhythms then flow naturally from him till his arms grow weak with exhaustion.The wise player circumvents the drum’s resistance by taking so much sakè into his body that the god in the drum has no alternative but to assume command at the outset. (Page 78)

This secret formula worked well for him:

[…] Then, when my turn came, I stepped up to the drum, saluted it with the sticks, and whacked it.

The crowd went silly. “Look at this! Look at this! A gaijin! A gaijin playing the taiko!” Flash guns went off, crates were upended, parents pushed their children forward and craned their necks and stamped and clapped, and I felt the sakè curl in my stomach and grinned at the drummer on the left of the drum, a middle-aged man who said “Yah!” and grinned back, and the god in the drum was kind to us both.

I have no idea how long I played. Twice the left-hand drummer changed and twice the drumsticks slipped out of my hands. When I came away I was drenched in sweat, and I sat on a bench with a towel round my head, guzzling sakè and laughing like an idiot. (Page 79)

As was to be expected, the trip was sometimes very hard. The physical demands were high, and it took him a few weeks to get into shape. The mental demands were perhaps even higher. A quiet sunny walk along a beach or a beautiful forest is one thing, but rain, dirty and dangerous roads, or getting lost can easily drain all the joy out of the journey. At several points in the trip the problems, the soaking rain, the dull slogging through industrial wastelands, or the sense of alienation got to him. Perhaps the worst moment was somewhere halfway through the trip, and it was triggered by a small train that brought on the strong urge to take it and go home:

When I reached Sapporo I thought I had done something respectable, and at Hakodate I thought I had done something uncommon. At Niigata I thought I had done something admirable, and at Kanazawa something remarkable. At Maizuru I thought I had done something astonishing, and I expected to reach Shimonoseki feeling that I had done something incredible. But watching this little train rattle across its bridge […], I wondered whether I would reach Cape Sata knowing I had done something mad. (Page 178)

He continued his walk, but the darker undertone in his descriptions would take a long time to fade. The darker undertone was also caused by the changing of the seasons. Alan started his trip in late June, and by the time he watched that little train, he was in the 80th day of his trip, it was early September, and summer was slowly dwindling into Autumn.

The only place where he met with outright hostility was in Hiroshima. Even before he entered the city the locals had been telling their stories; all he could do was listen in silence. During his visit to the Peace Park museum a man took offence to his presence there, a westerner among the photos of the horrors of the atomic bomb, and he tried to pick a fight with Alan. Alan was pained rather than provoked, and a bystander intervened, so the incident ended peacefully, but it was clear that in that area the war wounds were far from healed yet.

The total trip took 128 days, or about four months. Alan kept records of the distances he walked, and according to these estimates, he walked at least 3300 kilometers.

The route

The book contains maps of his entire walk, one for each of the three islands he visited: Hokkaido, Honshu, and Kyushu. The GPX trace shown below is based on the towns mentioned in these maps, with an occasional addition from the book text. Finding the location of these towns was not always easy, since some names have since been changed, municipalities have been merged, and non-Japanese map information of Japan can be incomplete or inaccurate. Nevertheless, I believe that the shown traces are a very good approximation of Allan’s real journey.

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Reading the book

The book as reviewed here is The Roads to Sata, A 2000-Mile Walk Through Japan, by Alan Booth, in the edition of 1997 by Kodansha America, Inc., ISBN 978-1-56836-187-1. The page numbers after the quotes in this review refer to the pages of that edition.

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