Donald Richie is a noted and prolific author and consummate expatriate, an American who has lived almost his entire adult life in Japan. He is recognized as perhaps the foremost foreign observer and chronicler of modern Japanese culture and society, as attested to by his countless articles and books on the subject over the past 50 years. He is particularly noted for his works on the Japanese cinema, but his deep understanding of his hosts—and his ability to transform this understanding into penetrating prose for the benefit of others—goes far beyond that.
Fortunately for us, Richie has not limited his attention to Japan. He has also been an inveterate traveler around the rest of Asia and beyond. Travels in the East, his latest slender volume, includes several essays and articles on his various destinations over the past 10 years. This is not a guidebook, though Richie’s descriptions of what he sees and hears are eminently perceptive and useful to any traveler. Rather, his writings focus on the travel experience per se—the atmosphere, the overall "feeling" of a place, and above all how it affects him personally and inwardly. His unusual insight offers the reader a new and different perspective on what it means to be a traveler.
In his introduction he observes "To be in a new place is to find a new self … we leave behind a person grown stale with familiarity, ourselves. We find, for a time at any rate, an attractive stranger, ourselves." As he sits reflecting upon the glorious ruins of Angkor in Cambodia, he muses, "Looking and listening like this is something like meeting an unfamiliar self… It is as though we are again young." Other stops such as the great temples of Egypt and the Forbidden City in China inspire similar intriguing personal observations that will resonate with other travelers who have been there.
Richie’s approach is strongly retrospective. At every stop he searches for lessons from the past to give him and his readers greater insight into the present. He particularly delights in such relatively isolated and unspoiled spots as Bhutan, Laos’ former royal capital of Luang Prabang, and the longhouses of Borneo. He also includes a visit to the remote Pacific island of Yap in Micronesia, which few readers (other than diehard scuba divers) have even heard of, let alone seen. He says "Me, I seem to learn most from gazing backward, regarding the steadily vanishing forms of what once was and, through these, accommodating an understanding of the present." He regrets the inevitable change, even perhaps disappearance, of much of what he observes, but he does not bemoan it. Rather, he savors what is still there and draws what he can from it.
The final quarter of the book brings Richie back "home" to Japan, where he introduces us to several relatively remote and unchanged areas that one would no longer expect to find in that densely settled and heavily modernized country. These offer an unusual look back into Japanese society. He characterizes the temple city of Koya in the mountains south of Osaka as "medieval Japan." In the northern lakes region of Hokkaido he finds "… a sense of huge space, a lingering scent of wildness." He finds equally historic, essentially bypassed, spots on the Satsuma and Kunisaki Peninsulas on the southernmost island of Kyushu. These are real cultural treasures. Were it not for Richie, they might forever have remained unknown and unappreciated by non-Japanese (and perhaps even by many Japanese themselves).
Richie is clearly at his best when revealing Japan in this way, and nowhere more than in his final chapter describing the Asakusa and Yoshiwara sections of Tokyo. Here he does sadly decry the change and decline from the glitter and vitality he found there as a newcomer to Japan some 60 years ago. "My reluctance to leave is to be measured by my resistance to change… Maybe that is what I am up to: memorializing change, celebrating transience by displaying what is left; traveling toward the future, eyes firmly on the past, living in the caboose."
Readers of this book are fortunate indeed to be boarding that train with him. It is quite a ride.
Reviewed by James D. Rosenthal
Travels in the East will be available in bookstores in December 2007.