Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa

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9781594862236: Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa

Looking to gain a competitive edge in her judo practice and maybe a fresh perspective on "meaning" in her own life, documentary filmmaker Karin Muller commits to living in Japan for a year to deepen her appreciation for such Eastern ideals as ritual and tradition. What she's after―more than understanding tea-serving etiquette or the historical importance of the shogun―is wa: a transcendent state of harmony, of flow, of being in the zone. With only her Western perspective to guide her, though, she discovers in sometimes awkward, sometimes awesomely funny interactions just how maddeningly complicated it is being Japanese.

Beginning with a strict code of conduct enforced by her impeccably proper host mother, Muller is initiated in the centuries-old customs that direct everyday interactions and underlie the principles of the sumo, the geisha, Buddhist monks, and now, in the 21st century, the workaholic, career-track salaryman. At the same time, she observes the relatively decadent behavior of the fast-living youth generation, the so-called New Human Beings, who threaten to ignore the old ways altogether.

Broad in scope, intimate in relationships, and deftly observed by an author with a rich visual sense of people and place, Japanland is as beguiling as this colorful country of contradictions.

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About the Author:

KARIN MULLER's four-hour documentary series on Japan will air on public television in fall 2005. Her previous documentaries, Hitchhiking Vietnam and Along the Inca Road, premiered in 1998 (on PBS) and 2000 (on the National Geographic Channel and MSNBC), respectively. Muller is an expert lecturer on Japan for the National Geographic Society, and her writing appears in National Geographic and Traveler magazines. She appears on Marketplace and other National Public Radio broadcasts. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Review:

Having previously traversed the Ho Chi Minh trail and the Inca path, Muller retains an engaging freshness as she goes about “prying open the doors to traditional Japan.” She observes some well-known traditional communities (geishas, samurai), some less familiar (taiko drummers, pachinko parlors) and some more recent (the criminal yakuza, the gay community). A keen listener, Muller lets an ensemble of voices speak, among them a swordmaker and a crab fisherman. She’s also a participatory learner, taking on tasks like harvesting rice. The diverse activities and excursions to far-flung places make this a fine travel memoir, but it’s the backbone of Muller’s voyage that gives her book resonance and richness. The deterioration of her relationship with her host family is a looming presence; even as it collapses, Muller acquires an intimate sense of customary values from the urbane Genji Tanaka and his conservative wife, Yukiko. Muller’s search for the traditional, culminating in her participation in a 900-mile trek to 88 sacred Buddhist temples, also shapes the narrative. Muller went to Japan to find wa: a quality of dedication, inner strength and spiritual peace. Her memoir isn’t an account of achieving those goals, but it is an engrossing, rewarding record of her travel toward them. Agent, Jodie Rhodes.
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From The New York Times:
EARLY on in her yearlong stint in Japan, Karin Muller went to see the yabusame, the samurai archers who effortlessly hit bull’s-eyes while riding horses at full gallop. Most observers watched respectfully from the sidelines, but Muller positioned herself directly below the target so she could film what was coming straight at her. “The arrows have two-inch, bulbous wooden tips, more than heavy enough to take off the top of my head,“ she writes. “The horse streaks by. The arrow punches into the target six inches away. I feel like William Tell’s son.”

Muller is brash, intrepid and more than a trifle wacky. In her previous books, “Hitchhiking Vietnam” and “Along the Inca Road,“ she describes motorbiking along dirt roads, being thwacked with a live guinea pig and picking her way between land mines. But Japan offers a very different challenge. Here the minefield is the country’s complicated system of social mores -- and her difficulty involves figuring out how to fit in or, at the very least, avoid giving offense.

Ostensibly Muller is “in search of wa,“ the harmony that underlies Japanese society, but she’s also making a television documentary on a very tight budget. She’s determined not only to track down what remains of traditional Japan but to experience it herself -- perhaps not the best way to find harmony, but certainly a better route to an entertaining book.

Muller arranged to stay at the home of Genji, a wise and wealthy businessman who is an adept at communicating “no” without ever saying it. He has a black belt in judo, and so does Muller. (It is partly her interest in the sport that inspired her visit.) But she quickly discovers that the unquestioned ruler of her new home is Genji’s wife, Yukiko, a fearsomely prim and proper middle-aged woman who insists on teaching Muller the correct way of doing things -- making her line up her knives and forks in the right drawer, iron her socks and underwear. Eventually, despite Muller’s efforts to please, she offends Yukiko so seriously that she knows she must leave.

In Muller’s year in Japan, she dines with sumo wrestlers, shoulders a shrine in a procession for a religious festival and even tries fire-walking. When she sees farmers harvesting rice, she grabs a scythe and follows them into the muck. In one very funny episode, she tries and fails to get rid of a large umbrella, a gift that’s “about as useful as a stick of firewood.” (The Japanese are so unfailingly helpful that whenever she tries to leave the umbrella behind, someone always eagerly retrieves it.)

Readers who know Japan will spot the occasional error and may wonder, in places, whether an element of fiction has crept in. Why, for example, does Muller arrive starving after a three-hour train ride when food is always sold on long-distance Japanese trains? And why does her first home base, Fugisawa (perhaps a misspelling of Fujisawa) -- a quaint place with kindly policemen, where parents anxiously arrange dates for their marriageable daughters -- seem more like the Japan of 30 years ago than Japan today? But none of this detracts from the book’s charm.

Muller’s strength is her fresh eye. She watches as crowds in Osaka “waterfall” down the station steps; when her hostess is annoyed, “Yukiko shoots me a look that would drop a cockroach in its tracks”; and when Muller is thrown in a judo match, her “body hits the ground with a sound like a wet frog thrown against a piece of tile.” It isn’t at all clear that Muller actually does find wa, or that she was even looking for it in the first place. She does, however, succeed in completing her documentary

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