The ‘Ghost Roads’ of Alan Booth:
Walking into the Unknown in Looking for the Lost
Volume 20, Issue 1 (Article 2 in 2020). First published in ejcjs on 14 April 2020.
Alan Booth’s travel writing on Japan has perhaps, in the words of Richard Lloyd Parry (2006), been ‘unjustly neglected’. In his final major work, Looking for the Lost, which was first published posthumously in 1995, Booth’s choices related to subject matter and structure suggest a highly personal subtext. Presented out of chronological order, the three narratives that comprise the work seem to have been carefully shaped in response to the circumstances of his impending death. In the first narrative, Tsugaru, Booth confronts himself in the form of Dazai Osamu. In the second narrative, Saigo’s Last March, Booth follows Saigo Takamori’s fleeting escape from impossible odds at the end of the Satsuma Rebellion, mirroring his own doomed battle with cancer. In the final narrative, Looking for the Lost, Booth pursues one possible route of the Heike (Taira) clan before they faded into history, just as he was soon to do as well.
Keywords: Alan Booth, expatriates, Dazai Osamu, Saigo Takamori, Tale of the Heike.
In January 1992, when he was forty-five years old, British writer and longtime Japan resident Alan Booth was diagnosed with an advanced form of colon cancer. A year later he was dead, leaving behind a wife, a young daughter, and a collection of three travel narratives, which was published in 1995 under the title Looking for the Lost (1). In it, Booth reflects on Japan’s past and present while walking through the Tsugaru Peninsula in Aomori, up and down the mountains of eastern Kyushu, and along the banks of the Nagara River and elsewhere in Aichi, Gifu, and Toyama, following in the footsteps (real or imagined) of Dazai Osamu, Saigo Takamori, and the Heike (Taira) clan, respectively. In doing so, he was inserting himself into a very old tradition. Travel narratives have long been a fixture of Japanese literature, and one standard approach to the form which developed over the centuries was to retrace the paths of one’s predecessors (in word if not always in actual deed), seeing what they saw and reflecting on what still remained and what had disappeared into history (see, for example, Keene 1989, particularly p. 32-35, 217-222; 1999, p. 973-974). Typically, as in the most famous Japanese travel narrative, Basho’s Oku no Hosomichi, this involved a great deal of walking, with all the sensory possibilities, hardships and opportunities for self-discovery inherent therein (for more on the connection of walking to travel culture in Japan, see Guichard-Anguis 2009). Booth was no stranger to walking; in 1977 he had traveled on foot the length of Japan and written about it in The Roads to Sata (1985). But the Booth of that account is a younger man, still unsure of his place in his adopted country and intent on following his own path. In Looking for the Lost, he is older, more settled and more confident in his abilities as a writer, and he engages with his chosen medium—and Japan—on different terms.
The result is the most mature work of Booth’s brief career, rich in observation and historical detail. Looking for the Lost was well-received by contemporary reviewers, some of whom remarked incidentally on the parallels between Booth’s choices of subject matter and his own untimely end. Notehelfer (1995), writing in the New York Times, for example, speculated that as each of the historical figures he followed died (or in the case of the Heike, effectively vanished) not long after their own journeys, Booth was possibly ‘sensing his own mortality’ as he began his. If so, he was uncommonly perceptive; each of his trips was undertaken well before his diagnosis. However, they are presented cryptically out of order in Looking for the Lost. In the first narrative, Tsugaru, Booth writes of Dazai Osamu’s visit to Aomori Prefecture ‘forty-four years before me’ (1995, p. 6), indicating that his own trip was in 1988. (He does not directly state the specific years when any of his walks took place.) In the second account, Saigo’s Last March, Booth sets out ‘109 summers after Saigo had done the same’ (p. 158), suggesting he travelled to Kyushu in 1986, two years before he went to Aomori. The walk described in the final account (which bears the same title as the book) begins with Booth visiting the International Design Exhibition in Nagoya, which was held in the summer and fall of 1989. Why did Booth choose this non-chronological arrangement? As his three journeys began in May, August and late September, respectively, it is arguable that he simply wanted the narratives in seasonal order, perhaps as a nod to the seasonal themes and elements so pervasive in Japanese literature. However, as Cooke has discussed at length, travel writing is always ‘life writing’ in some respect (2016). For Theroux, putting it in another way, ‘most of the time the traveler—the traveler’s mood, especially—is the subject of the whole business’ (2015, p. 9). This is often all the more the case in traditional Japanese travel diaries, or at least those meant to be read as literature. As Keene writes: ‘The authors of such diaries… wrote most of the entries long after the events, allowing time to filter out the kind of unimportant matters that normally fill diaries. In such a case the diary became a kind of self-exploration or even a confession’ (1989, p. 5). In Booth’s case, time served not only to filter but also to transform; with the onset of his illness, his life as a writer suddenly diverged, dramatically, from that of his past self as a traveler. As Ward (1995) and other critics noted when Looking for the Lost was released, even if cancer was still in Booth’s future while he was undertaking his journeys, it was very much a part of his present later, as he was preparing his manuscript for eventual publication. Recognition of the transience of existence is also, of course, a feature of traditional Japanese travel writing (see Carter 2006, for example, p. 24-25), but I will argue in this essay that Looking for the Lost reveals more than merely an awareness of mortality. Alan Booth seems, in fact, to have shaped the three narratives that make up this work specifically in response to his impending death; ‘the subject of the whole business’ is his struggle to come to terms with the approaching end.
Booth’s first narrative opens in Aomori, where winter is stubbornly persisting into May. His plan, which the owner of the restaurant where he has his first meal considers ridiculous, is to walk the coast of the Tsugaru Peninsula; his guidebook, in a manner of speaking, is Return to Tsugaru, the 1985 English translation by James Westerhoven of Dazai Osamu’s Tsugaru. Dazai spent twenty-three days in 1944 traveling throughout the region, where he was born and raised, under commission to write a ‘gazetteer’ but clearly with something more personal in mind. ‘Not sure of myself as a man of the city, I hoped to find my true identity in Tsugaru,’ Dazai proclaims (and Booth quotes) (1985, p. 37). The resulting book, in Booth’s view, ‘mines the vein Dazai worked best—himself, at odds with fortune and the world’ (1995, p. 11).
Consisting primarily of interactions between Dazai and his relatives, friends, and former servants, Return to Tsugaru offers little for a travel writer to follow. Nevertheless, Booth makes a thorough—one could say obsessive—attempt. He spends the same twenty-three days in Tsugaru that Dazai did, even beginning on the same day. He goes to the same towns and villages at the outset, eating some of the same food, staying in some of the same inns and visiting some of the same attractions. Later, at the point in Dazai’s trip where the Japanese author doubled back on himself, Booth walks to Hirosaki, where Dazai went to school; Owani, where Dazai had often visited when he was younger; and Aoni, where Dazai apparently did not go but to which Booth makes a detour after the lone hot spring inn in the area is described to him as ‘just like home’ (1995, p. 113). There he spends an uncomfortable evening being insulted or ignored by many of the staff, calling to mind Dazai’s own uneasy first night at his family’s home during the course of his trip (1985, p. 110-113). Near the end of the narrative, Booth spends the night in Dazai’s family home itself, which by this time has been converted into a ryokan. Finally, in what serves as an epilogue, he describes waking in the early morning in Kizukuri, where Dazai’s father was born, to the sound of a beautiful, mysterious voice chanting outside (Booth 1995, p. 144-146), improbably echoing a similar occurrence described by Dazai at the close of the third chapter in his own account (1985, p. 94-95).
Strikingly, he claims not to be fan. ‘I did not much care for Dazai, as a man or as a writer,’ (1995, p. 11) Booth writes at the start, and he makes a point of proclaiming his animus at multiple opportunities throughout the text. Booth calls Dazai a ‘fraud’ (p. 29), compares him unfavourably to the shamisen performer and fellow Tsugaru native Takahashi Chikuzan (p. 43), ascribes no positive motives for his becoming a writer (p. 43), and even mocks the way Dazai describes his clothes (p. 52). His writing at one point is dismissed as a hodgepodge of ‘fatalism, melodrama, exaggeration, and self-pity’ (p. 125), words Booth might just as well have used earlier in a derisive discussion of Dazai’s multiple bids to kill himself (p. 77-78). Booth criticises Dazai indirectly as well, writing of Tsugaru traits he admires but implying (or outright stating) elsewhere that Dazai did not possess them (p. 56-57).
Over the course of the text, however, Booth also seems determined to portray himself as a man with many of the same characteristics as this Japanese author he so professes to dislike. He dwells, for example, on his outsider status, mentioning instance after instance in which his foreignness sets (or had set) him apart, whether it is ticket sellers hiding when he appears (1995, p. 6), a grandmother at a ryokan comparing his child to ‘E.T.’ (p. 7), her grandchildren shouting ‘Gaijin! Gaijin!’ at him (p. 8), people staring at him, or the numerous occasions upon which those he meets tell him of other foreigners they have met before. Sometimes he sets himself apart, as he does in a small restaurant midway through the trip where, feeling remarkably at home, he creates an awkward situation ‘by talking about being a foreigner’ (p. 72). It wears on him, to the point that near the end he finds himself longing for ‘a place where I didn’t feel like an intruder’ (p. 144).
For Dazai, of course, feeling like an intruder was second nature. ‘I can’t even guess myself what it must be to live the life of a human being,’ he writes in the celebrated opening to No Longer Human (1958, p. 21). ‘I have not the remotest clue what the nature or extent of my neighbour’s woes can be’ (1958, p. 25). Though written in a more lighthearted tone, Dazai’s presentation of himself in Return to Tsugaru is in a similar vein. Visiting his family home in Kanagi, for example, he is immediately ‘nervous’, claiming ‘I was so startled at the difference between my brothers’ way of life and my own that I felt as if I were in the palace of the Fairy Queen or on some other planet’ (1985, p. 112).
Booth exhibits a flair for self-inflicted suffering in Tsugaru that was a defining characteristic of Dazai as well, one which Booth ostensibly has no patience for. ‘The hardships that Dazai dwells upon were sometimes genuine,’ Booth writes (1995, p. 43). ‘But more often, like his suicide attempts, his hardships were the results of a conscious choice. For all his morbid sensitivity and his emphasis on the pains of being a misfit, Dazai lived a life elected’ (p. 43). However, much the same can be said of Booth. As written above, Booth mentions again and again instances in which his foreignness comes between him and the people he encounters. However, not only had he ‘elected’ to live in Japan at a time few Westerners did so, he was drawn to areas of the country that were as rural and isolated as possible. He equally ‘dwells upon’ the physical difficulties of walking through the Tsugaru Peninsula. He writes of the icy rain that pelts down on him at the start, leaving discoloured marks on his face (p. 6-7). He has blisters on his feet by the end of the first full day; a child at his ryokan makes a comment about them, leading Booth to wonder if the boy had overheard him ‘groaning in the bath’ (p. 16). Over the course of the next several days, he reports climbing up lighthouses through more icy rain (p. 25), shivering in an unheated ryokan (p. 27), getting bitten by a dog (p. 32), suffering from windblown dust (p. 43), limping down stairs (p. 51), scalding his foot (p. 75), and having bowel problems (p. 79). There are more blisters, among other problems, to come. But no one was forcing him to walk the peninsula.
Then there is their fondness for alcohol. Dazai drinks from the beginning to the end of Return to Tsugaru, and Booth does the same in his own account. The Roads to Sata and other travel writing by Booth also feature booze prominently, but in Tsugaru it is omnipresent; he seems to take a perverse satisfaction (like Dazai) in cataloguing his own consumption. He writes of the beer he has the night before he begins his walk (1995, p. 5), the hot saké he drinks at eleven in the morning on the first day to ‘drive off the chill’ (p. 6), then the six large bottles of beer he has with dinner (p. 10). He spends the afternoon of the third day in Imabetsu drinking, just as Dazai did (p. 20), then does much the same the next afternoon before consuming his fill of saké that night (p. 28). The drinking continues, day after day, in town after town, and even in memory after memory. Booth reminisces, for example, of an alcohol-fueled New Year’s Eve in Akita in which he claims to have put away ‘approximately a hundred cups of free sake’ (p. 94), a Dazai-ian boast if there ever was one.
Even aspects of their backgrounds are shown to be similar, although not always directly. At the times of their trips, Booth points out, both he and Dazai had been divorced and remarried; both were fathers. Both lived in roughly the same part of Tokyo (1995, p. 11). Dazai was from Aomori Prefecture; Aomori was where Booth felt most at home, having been ‘born’ there as well, spiritually at least, 300 years earlier, or so he claims he had once been told by a medium (p. 36; see also Harris 2018, p. xviii). In reality, Booth had been born in London, but one aspect of his upbringing also oddly echoed Dazai’s, which in this particular case Booth declines to reveal, as Dazai had done in his own way before him. As Westerhoven explains in the translator’s preface to Return to Tsugaru (which Booth must have read), Dazai harboured suspicions (only hinted at in the text) that he was not, in fact, his mother’s son; the search for answers concerning his parentage was what drove him to find his former nanny, his supposed encounter with whom is the climax of the book (1985, p. xxiv). Booth never knew his own birth parents; he was adopted while still a baby (Harris 2018, p. xv). He speculates in Tsugaru on how being raised by a surrogate must have affected Dazai psychologically without mentioning the similarities to his own background (1995, p. 126). But Booth was aware of them, just as he was aware while working on Looking for the Lost that he, too, would die less than five years after his trip to Aomori, as Dazai did.
By the end of the text, Tsugaru reads like nothing so much as a personal reckoning; a probe, like Dazai’s book before it, of the self. Is this who I am? Booth seems to be asking, examining Dazai Osamu from every angle and putting himself in Dazai-esque situations, seemingly as tests of character. Near the end, Booth visits the hostess bar connected to the ryokan which had been Dazai’s childhood home. There he drinks and dances with a twenty-one year-old Filipina hostess, who sings ‘Love is Over’ for him (1995, p. 139-142). Dazai, a frequent visitor of hostess bars, had tried to commit suicide in 1930 with a nineteen year-old hostess; she died but he lived. Booth imagines him trying to sleep afterward, perhaps in the very room where Booth himself is staying, alone, and it seems to bring Booth at last to a kind of catharsis: ‘I slept easily… I was troubled by no ghosts’ (p. 143).
3. Saigo’s Last March
If the subtext of Tsugaru is about the confrontation with the self that may precede death, the underlying theme of Booth’s second narrative, Saigo’s Last March, concerns the confrontation with death itself, and the age-old desire to try to outwit it. It begins in Nobeoka, Kyushu, at the start of Obon, the Festival of the Dead. He is in search this time of the route of Saigo Takamori, the nineteenth century samurai who, after taking a leading role in the Meiji Restoration, became disillusioned with the new central government, particularly related to its efforts to curtail the power of the warrior class. In 1877, at the age of 49, Saigo raised an army to march on Tokyo, but after failing to advance past Kumamoto, he and his men were eventually encircled near Nobeoka at the foot of a small mountain called Enodake. Heavy fighting in the previous weeks had reduced their numbers considerably; the imperial force which had trapped them was more than ten times their size. ‘Saigo’s war was lost,’ Booth writes. ‘He was as good as dead’ (1995, p. 157). And yet, somehow, Saigo and several hundred of his men ‘accomplished the impossible’ and escaped into the hills (p. 157).
Wanting to find out just ‘how closely’ he could retrace Saigo’s route (1995, p. 158), Booth sets off on the morning of August 17th on a five-hundred kilometer hike through eastern Kyushu. However, almost immediately he runs into trouble. There is no clear path up Enodake, and he quickly becomes lost (p. 161). Spider webs block his every turn, and when he stops to rest, wasps—which he had been warned were everywhere on the mountain—swarm angrily around him (p. 162-163). When he finally reaches what he takes to be the summit, he finds no place where Saigo’s army could have conceivably encamped (p. 164). Thus does Saigo’s dramatic escape begin to take on the quality of myth; for Booth, there will be no repeating it. Two days later, he’s lost again, unable to find the path Saigo and his men had taken through the hills. The old roads elude him if they are even still there; he ends up back where he started, almost sixty hours behind Saigo’s pace (p. 177).
It only becomes harder. A powerful typhoon pushes into Miyazaki Prefecture as he is still deep in the mountains, and as Booth struggles to keep moving forward, a ‘hollow feeling’ begins to overtake him, and he is suddenly overwhelmed by ‘the numinous’ (1995, p. 216). He recalls being on another mountain, this one in Shikoku years before, and encountering a baby bird on a cliff face. The bird, still unable to fly, was about to be eaten by a snake. Thinking to save the bird, Booth put out his hand. The bird jumped on it, then jumped again, over the edge of the cliff, and fell to its death. The snake paused and then slithered away from him in a manner Booth characterises as one of ‘contempt’ (p. 217). He reflects that if there is a god—and in times like this he suspects something like one exists—‘it is a random thing, unfettered by meaning, and completely indifferent to the world’s condition’ (p. 217) (2).
Booth chases Saigo—and perhaps meaning—for the remainder of the narrative. Along the way, there is none of the animus toward the central subject that marks Tsugaru (3). Rather, the famous samurai himself, like his escape, takes on mythic characteristics. The people Booth meets have varying stories of what he looked like and what type of man he was; it is as if he was not a man at all but a god, one perhaps (we can speculate) more powerful than the random, indifferent god of Booth’s bird and snake. But a god like that might have been able to alter fate. Booth finally catches up to him at the very end, delaying until the final page his visit to Saigo’s grave and the graves of several of his men in Kagoshima, not far from the hill in the centre of the city, Shiroyama, where the remaining rebels made their last stand, and where Saigo was killed. There had been no escape after all (p. 279).
There would be no escape for Booth, either. If his own ‘last march’ had begun in January 1992 with his initial cancer diagnosis, soon afterwards he was like Saigo on Enodake: the cancer, it was discovered, had spread to his lymphatic system. By October it was in both lungs, the speed of the metastasis due, ironically, to Booth’s otherwise excellent state of health. The state of his lungs, he wrote in his newspaper column at the time, presented itself on X-rays as ‘a spectacle not unlike two Krakatoas erupting side by side’ ( 2018, p. 295). It is an image recalled in Saigo’s Last March, where Booth writes of the Sakurajima volcano showering the streets of Kagoshima—and the graves of the Satsuma rebels—with ash (1995, p. 279). Like Saigo’s, Booth’s fight had been against impossible odds. In fights against impossible odds, the odds win.
4. Looking for the Lost
‘Never on any of the days that I saw him in hospital was Alan ready for what he had long understood would be his fate,’ Booth’s friend (and noted author on Japan-related issues) Karel van Wolferen (2018, p. 302) has written, but in the final—and shortest—narrative of Looking for the Lost, which shares the book’s title, there are the beginnings of what seems like acceptance. ‘The bell of the temple of Gion tolls into the heart of every man a warning that all is vanity and evanescence’ (Booth 1995, p. 283), it begins, with Booth wandering, as if in a dream, through the ‘Dream’-themed International Design Exhibition in Nagoya. He repeats the sentence a few pages later (p. 293), for it is also one possible translation (perhaps Booth’s own, perhaps based on Kitagawa and Tsuchida 1975, p. 5) of the opening of The Tale of the Heike, the story of the decline and fall of the once-dominant Heike (Taira) clan in the twelfth century. Booth wonders what happened to them—where they disappeared to in the end—but as the question is on its face unanswerable, he sets a symbolic goal for this last journey rather than a historical one: the district of Taira, some 180 kilometres north of him in Toyama Prefecture and not far from the source of the Nagara River, which empties into the sea near Nagoya.
In this narrative, more distinctly than in the two previous ones, he is ‘looking for the lost’ both outwardly and inwardly. Outwardly, in the form of old Japan: cormorant fishing (Booth 1995, p. 303), minowashi (handmade paper) (p. 313), a traditional saké brewery (p. 315), the preserved castle town at the heart of Gujo Hachiman (p. 327), the thatched roof homes in Shirakawa (p. 353). Inwardly, through a long reflection toward the end of the journey of his efforts to study Noh theatre (p. 362-369), the reason he had come to Japan back in 1970, and the impetus for his realisation that the Japan of the Western imagination bears little resemblance to the Japan of reality. His tone throughout is largely meditative rather than sad or angry; Looking for the Lost never devolves into diatribe. Booth notes the bulldozers but also acknowledges efforts at preservation: grassroots efforts to protect the environment; local initiatives to safeguard and promote traditional buildings and festivals; craftspeople maintaining centuries-old methods of artistic design and production. Nevertheless, it is hard for Booth not to conclude that the cultural practices being preserved seem more dead than alive, as if they are ‘pickled in formaldehyde’ (p. 369).
Compared to Tsugaru and Saigo’s Last March, there is little discussion of the narrative’s ostensible subject. By the time Booth reaches Taira, walking on ‘ghost roads’ paralleling the modern highways (1995, p. 370), the Heike have become an afterthought. What had happened to them? No one knew for sure, the Taira area was as a good a guess as any other, and we are left to wonder if it really matters in the end. In the end, the implication is that what happened to the Heike is what happens to everything. On the last night of his trip, Booth takes in a performance of folk singing and dancing involving an old percussion instrument called a sasara (or binzasara). The performers are locals out to demonstrate their traditions for visiting tourists. Most of the tourists, however, are high school students from Yokohama who seemingly can’t wait to leave (p. 384-385). All truly is ‘vanity and evanescence’, including, we suddenly discover, Booth himself. On the way back to his inn, he feels a ‘niggling’ in his stomach:
(It) persisted, but it would be another twenty-seven months before they found the cancer in my gut. In the end, it was the sound of the sasara in my head that I fell asleep to on this last night of my walk: a harsh sound with a whispering cadence, caught between a crack and a sigh, like something scurrying through an autumn wood. (p. 387)
They are the last sentences of the book. Like the Heike, we realise, Booth too will vanish to parts unknown. In Looking for the Lost, he is ultimately looking for himself.
Booth had experimented with the structure of the travel narrative before; in The Roads to Sata (1985), for example, he eschews the traditional opening chapter concerning the genesis of the trip and withholds this information until the very end. In both this instance and in Looking for the Lost, the intent seems to have been the same: to keep the ‘inner journey’ largely hidden until the ‘outer journey’ was complete. Harris has written of Booth’s ‘dislike of pretension’ (2018, p. xvii), as has Ward (1995). Booth both signals his intentions and makes his own feelings on the subject of travel writing as ‘life writing’ clear enough in Tsugaru when he muses that ‘travel writing in the first person is a kind of autobiography… the chief tonal pitfall being the too-overt transfiguration of a mundane trudge through the hills into a metaphor of something mind-popping and metaphysical’ (1995, p. 123). Booth avoids this ‘tonal pitfall’ over the course of the three narratives in Looking for the Lost by relying on his final lines to point the way to an alternate interpretation of his work (4). Interestingly, these final lines might not even be true, as Booth wrote in one of his last magazine columns that it was after a trip to Calcutta in December 1990—not September/October 1989, when he travelled to Aichi, Gifu, and Toyama—that the stomach problems that eventually led to his cancer diagnosis began (Booth  2018, p. 281). If so, this seems to be further evidence of his intentions in Looking for the Lost. In the years since his death, Booth’s travel writing has perhaps, in the words of Richard Lloyd Parry (2006), been ‘unjustly neglected’; Looking for the Lost, a deeply felt collection of narratives written in the spirit of one of the oldest Japanese literary traditions, is one of Booth’s works in particular that should be revisited.
A preliminary version of this paper was presented at the 25th Japan Studies Association Conference (2019)
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[1.] An earlier version of one of the narratives, Tsugaru, was translated into Japanese and serialized in the magazine Shunkan Shincho from June 1989 to August 1990. A revised Japanese edition was published in book form in October 1992, a few months before Booth’s death.
2. Booth had written of this encounter before, as part of an article on a walk across Shikoku for the Japan Airlines inflight magazine Winds, but in this account there are no philosophical musings, and the snake slithers ‘lazily’ away (Booth  2018, 239).
3. There is also less emphasis on Booth as an outsider. He remarks, in fact, that comments related to his foreignness have become less common by this point, despite the fact that this walk takes place two years before his trip to Tsugaru, where they were seemingly very much on his mind (1995, 183).
4. These lines also, obviously, color everything that comes before them in a deep shade of elegiac sadness, much in the manner of Basho and so many other traditional Japanese traveler-poets. Booth discusses the concept of mono no aware in association with The Tale of Heike and Basho early in the final narrative of Looking for the Lost, foreshadowing the end (1995, p. 295-296).
Article copyright Patrick Foss.