Book Reviews

Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa by
Karin Muller

Rodale Books (USA)

Travel writer Karin Muller begins Japanland with an introduction explaining her dissatisfaction with life. "I was thirty four and I wasn’t getting any younger. I’d already blown through half a dozen careers, learned six languages and forgotten three, and tried my hand at everything from flower arranging to flying ultralights." What would be the solution? Japan, as it turns out. Muller decides she will go to the country to discover "inner peace" or wa, as the Japanese would have it. Her commitment to judo over the years is her ticket in: through a judo connection, she launches on a year-long sojourn to find the ever elusive wa that is missing in her life. What Muller in fact is doing is going on an adventure and writing about it or filming it, as the case often was, for National Geographic. Does she find wa? No. But a search for inner truth is always a good way to start a book and Muller’s intent seems sincere enough—although perhaps not as serious as her appetite for adventure—to get a reader engaged. 

As a narrator, Muller is funny, vulnerable, informative, and entertaining. What she says about Japan is layered with a sense of self-deprecation and awareness of her own awkward position in the society as a foreigner and a woman. In a culture where women’s roles are still pretty confining, the independent Muller sticks out, but she is not overly critical. For example, she is understands how fundamentally she cannot be under the thumb of her host mother the way she knows she should be—a particularly funny incident involving Muller’s jogging at night provides a classic illustration—but instead of disliking her host mother, Muller only expresses regret at her inability to conform to the roles expected of her and of women in general in Japan.

Eventually, Muller and her host family part ways, at which point Muller goes on full tilt into various adventures including a mountain trek with an ascetic alpine cult known as the Yamabushi, visiting a remote mountain village that stages a kabuki play in the snow using its own residents as actors (similar to the passion play presented in Oberammergau), and going on a famous pilgrimage in Shikoku. The latter adventure puts her in hospital with pneumonia. She recovers and ends up right where she started—at a judo dojo—where an old master, after flipping her over and over again, gives her some wise words. This is just the right ending to the book, but whether Muller has found wa or not is beside the point, a moot consideration after all the reader has been through with her in Japan’s cities, villages, and seacoasts. For an adventure book, Muller delivers a witty and entertaining glimpse into the world of Japan, whirlwind tour as it is, and proves herself an accomplished travel writer in the process. 

Reviewed by Sally Ito