The "my experience of Japan" book is a genre replete with choices. However, most of them are by men so it’s always refreshing to find one by a woman.
The author of Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa appears to have a habit of going from one country to another, writing books and/or making documentaries – in addition she has done ones on Vietnam and the "Inca Road" and according to her website is now spending time in Africa so I’m sure we can expect something on that destination soon. Nice work if you can get it, as they say, but the downside is that her book comes across a bit as if Japan is a "project" for her – in the "Let’s find someplace really exotic and write about it" vein.
For those of us interested in Japan, that kind of exoticism approach can get rather tiresome. Even the cover, featuring the title printed on the red lips of a maiko (apprentice geisha) feels trite. However, the author is a very good writer, who has interesting experiences and writes about them engagingly, and that makes this book worthwhile.
The portrayal of her home stay family and her complicated relationship with them is a particular highlight. It’s realistic and vivid, both sad and very funny, showing how an idea that sounds good on the surface "let’s show some hospitality to a nice young foreigner" turns out to be a lot more complicated when you put it into action. The mother of the family is particularly well drawn, and not necessarily flatteringly so.
One does have to wonder though how the home stay family feels about having their lives bared to the world in this way. (Surely they weren’t expecting themselves to be written about when they agreed to host Ms. Muller. Or were they?) That seems to me to be a danger of the documentary approach – that everything is ok to describe to the world, just as every animal you see on safari is ok to photograph. But in this case, I have to admit that I enjoyed this voyeuristic glimpse into a Japanese family and what their everyday lives are like, and the description of the cultural contrasts between them and their young American guest. The father reminds me a bit of some Japanese businessmen I have met and I wonder if their homes lives are like these…
Also particularly interesting were the author’s accounts of visiting a master of Japanese sword-making and his young foreign apprentice, participating in a street festival, and making the traditional pilgrimage to the temples in Shikoku. There is definitely a lot of color in this book, even if the author sometimes seems a bit too whiny and insufficiently appreciative at times.
I wouldn’t recommend this book as the primary way to get information about Japan and its culture, as it’s not a comprehensive overview and definitely comes from a particular point of view. But for those curious about Japan, or for Japan fans like me who can never seem to get enough of seeing Japan from yet another angle, this is an enjoyable read.