Sunday, August 29, 2010

Japanland - Book Review

Japanland by Karin Muller was going to be one of my Japanese Literature Challenge reads, however, I feel I need to disqualify it as it's written by an American author about travelling in Japan.

The cover sleeve says 'From years of judo practice she knew the Japanese had a word for the seemingly effortless state of harmony she longed for: wa. Yes, wa is what she wanted. So beginning's Karins yearlong quest to deepened her appreciation for such eastern ideals as unquestioning commitment and single minded devotion to detail. With only her western perspective to guide her, though, she discovers in sometimes awkward, often awesomely funny interactions just how maddeningly complicated it is being Japanese.'

I enjoyed this book because it was so easy to read, she is quite funny at times (as she gets herself into positions that you can only laugh about), and her adventures are eye opening into the Japanese culture. As a travel book, it would rate pretty high on my account. I have travelled in Japan, and I loved Japan geographically and culturally. So I knew some of the places and experiences she refers to. But as a lifestyle book, for those who might want to search for wa too - I think she lost the plot.

Karin's search for wa started with being invited to live with a Japanese host family. She knew that her search for wa would involve a high level of discipline, yet it's just not in her make up to play by the rules. She seems to push the boundaries, at the expense of her inner search. Eventually the relationship with her host family breaks down because she is unable to live by the 'code' for the women in the household. So after 6 months with the family, she then goes out alone- but ends up sharing an apartment with another American.

During her final 6 months in Japan, she takes herself off to temples to live with monks, she spends time studying the life of Geisha's, goes to bathhouses, visits the Sumo stables, and undertakes a pilgrimage to visit 88 temples on foot. When her attempt at the pilgrimage landed her in hospital half way though, and saw her finishing the Pilgrimage by bus, I finally understood my discontent with her search for 'inner harmony'. She was prepared to complete the challenge by bus in order to say she saw the 88 temples.

At the end of the book I was a little disappointed she didn't stick to one of her many plans to become more disciplined. I was equally disappointed that it seemed to me (and I've only read this book and haven't seen any of her documentaries) her real mission was to have many different stories to tell and to make at least one documentary out of her trip. Still, a fun read with many little views into life in Japan.

For another review of Japanland see WaterBridgeReviews. To learn more about the disciplined life respected in Japan, I'd suggest reading 'Eat Sleep Sit: my year at Japan's most Rigorous Zen Temple' by Kaoru Nonomura.


Bellezza said...

I would say this qualifies for a read in the JLC4! It's interesting you say you're disappointed that she didn't stick with her plans for discipline: that's exactly how I felt with Eat Sleep Sit (or however the order goes in that novel about his life with the Buddhist monks. Which wasn't a life at all, more like a year or so. Ridiculous.)

Tamara said...

I know! but at least he remained committed for the year and didn't change his course. I'd be interested if anyone can recommend a better book about 'a life of discipline'..

Ruth said...

I confess that I do not know what wa is. :|

Jeanie said...

I simply love Japan -- went there once for two weeks ten years ago and did home stays with friends who had been here in Michigan on a sister cities program, so I got to see more "real" Japan than the typical tour. I don't know if you know this (or if I missed it in your post) but this book has been made into a several-part television series, which our public television station is currently airing. It's very good. I look forward to looking into this (and into the other Japan book listed at the top!)