Literary Travel and Spiritual Journeys in Japan

japanBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Wendy Nelson Tokunaga has earned well-deserved awards for her work, which mainly explores the theme of why some people feel compelled to leave their native culture and find a new one. At The Red Room, she interviews Todd Shimoda, author of the novel Oh!: A Mystery of Mono No Aware, which Tokunaga calls:

…a fascinating and compelling book that weaves themes of both traditional and modern Japanese culture. You’ll be drawn in by Shimoda’s spare but elegant prose, which reminds me of the writing style of Haruki Murakami.

It’s about Zack Hara, a young man in Los Angeles whose life is stalled in a void of apathy and depression. In search of his roots and himself, he goes to Japan, and things get worse before they get better. (Reviewer Jeff Snodgrass calls the novel “metaphysics in the guise of a pulp mystery.”) In real life, Shimoda has done incredibly abstruse work in the fields of Artificial Intelligence and so on. In this interview, he explains the concept of mono no aware, a mindfulness that incorporates intense emotional reaction to things.

Apparently, one of the less desirable avenues through which confused souls try to approach this state is the suicide club. Another avenue, a very wide and broad one, is art, which brings up the incredible, impeccable artwork by Linda Shimoda that illustrates Oh!: A Mystery of Mono No Aware.

Some people travel because of inner needs. To connect with one’s own ancestors is a frequent reason to go from one place to another. And then there are people who simply feel they were born in the wrong place. And the ones who are on some kind of vision quest. And those who just want to see a big robot, or a big Buddha. When Japan is the destination, a seeker might contemplate Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and war and peace.

In this strange story called “The World Tour Compatibility Test,” by Elizabeth Koch, two young lovers, Westerners in Japan, are in search of their own relationship. Along the way, they visit the Todai-Ji Temple, on the recommendation of none other than Kevin Dolgin. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Nostril: The Daibutsu, Nara, Japan,” is the name of the essay where they they got this idea. What people do is try to slide their bodies through the nostril of the Buddha. As Kevin notes, “the intricacies of Japanese religious practice are impenetrable.”

Daibutsu means “Big Buddha,” and Joshua Williams tells us everything a civilized person needs to know about giant Buddha statues. That’s the spiritual side. On the literary side, a writer might want to mingle with her colleagues, as Karen Kay describes in “Tokyo, Japan and the wonderland world of the Thumb Tribe.” Kay analyzes not only the literary scene but the many-faceted culture:

Japan’s new literary elite gather to sip espressos or cocktails and work on their latest bestselling novels…. sophisticated, designer-clad authors who tap out their blockbusters on their mobile phone handsets

Artists go on their own kinds of quests. They might want to track down the ancient art of Bunraku rather than depend on the imported version. Robed puppeteers in teams of three manipulate large puppets, while a narrator tells the story. Associated Press writer Alan Scher Zagier provides an in-depth explanation of this art form at Yahoo! Canada, among other places. Artists like to go see things like the giant robots or mecha that are sprouting up all over Japan. At Cartoon Leap, there’s a wonderful photo sequence of how to build one of these things.

photo courtesy of digika , used under this Creative Commons license

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