Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Review: Hitching Rides with Buddha

Hitching Rides with Buddha: A Journey Across Japan
Will Ferguson

Note: This review pertains to the Canadian edition published in 2005 by Knopf Canada under the original title that the author wanted to use. The American and UK editions are entitled Hokkaido Highway Blues. (Also, the UK paperback edition is an abridged version of the original manuscript.)

There is a zen maxim that goes "if you should meet the Buddha on the road, kill him."

That is only one of the countless tidbits of Japanese culture and history that Will Ferguson expertly weaves into his travel memoir.

Mr. Ferguson worked as an English teacher in Japan for five years—an occupation where countless of his Canadian brethren find themselves temporarily employed. It's not uncommon, especially in British Columbia, to know at least one person in your circle of friends who has either worked in Japan or knows someone who has.

However, Hitching Rides with Buddha isn't about teaching English in Japan. (Regardless of how most of its information could have only been passed on by a resident foreigner.) But it's not a tourist account of an unbelievable week in Tokyo, either.

The premise is simple: one cherry blossom viewing party, Will Ferguson got really drunk and declared he would follow the Cherry Blossom Front from Cape Sata at the very southern tip of Japan all the way to Cape Souya at the very northern tip of Japan. Then to one up himself, he added that he was going to hitchhike.

The cherry blossom—sakura—is a cultural phenomenon in Japan. They track the percentage of blossoms as they bloom across the country, starting at the southern tip of Kyushu. The sakura cause celebration and drunken revelry, but they signify the transient happiness of life. They bring joy, but symbolize melancholy.

After three years of stalling, Mr. Ferguson sets out, and thus begins an island-by-island journey through Japan fueled by the kindness of strangers.

For the past three years, I've sought to explain Japan to people who have never been there. To fully vocalize the "lovehate" that it inspires in its foreign residents. Three years of struggling for words that a fellow Canadian has already written down for me.

Hitching Rides with Buddha is an entire book of True Tales of Japan. Humorous, touching, and heartbreaking, this is part travel guide, part memoir, part Japanese history course, and part cultural primer. Mr. Ferguson uses a dry wit and doesn't mince his words, but he is also deeply poetic and capable of weaving vivid, beautiful phrases that convey visual and emotional meaning.

For example, in one of my favorite passages, he refers to Matsuyama castle as a cupcake with too much icing. Yet you understand why its a relevant metaphor. (Matsuyama, Shikoku is the only place that our journeys intersected.)

Mr. Ferguson did not spend time in the same places that I lived, so through his words I have travelled with him to villages and cities that I never had the opportunity to see.

For someone who has lived in Japan, this is a book brimming with nostalgia and bound to bring up memories of your own travels and experiences as a gaijin. For someone who has only ever visited the metropolitan centres or never been to the land of the rising sun, this is the heart of Japan laid out in approachable and endearing English.

It is, by far, the best book that I have read this year.

Rating: A++

1 comment:

Sorcha Chumomisto said...

i will one day read this book. knowing me, i will read it on the flight over to japan, years from now when i am actually able to afford it.