A Year in Search of Wa

Karin Muller


“I must admit I'm fascinated by this latest crop of young Japanese men and women. Their world is a cross between the set of a futuristic movie and the pages of a teen magazine. It's a place where new fads appear and disappear in hours, and keeping up with them is a full-time occupation; where everyone is obsessed with what everyone else is wearing. It's also a place so cutting-edge and creative that its inventions regularly take the world by storm, from amine cartoons to manga (comic books) and Tamagotchi (virtual pets); where foreign marketing representatives arrive on bended knee to interview fourteen-year-old girls about the next global trend in consumer electronics.”

The book under consideration this month is Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa. Written by Karin Muller, it's the distillation of a year she spent in that country, traveling from its teeming cities to its quiet countryside, and discovering just how maddeningly complicated it is to be Japanese. Wa, the Japanese word for the seemingly effortless state of harmony that was all too lacking in her life, was what drove the author on her voyage of discovery. She continues:

“It's a world within a world – the hidden face of Japan that exists alongside ordinary businessmen and housewives on bicycles. It's almost an alternate reality, like the geisha and the sumo; a subculture that is part of society and yet lives by its own rules and frame of reference.”In another chapter, Ms. Muller tells of watching a traditional craftsman work at his trade:

“The buckwheat-noodle maker begins work promptly at eight in the morning. He kneads a large bowl of flour and water, squeezing the granulating mixture between his blunt fingers until it becomes a dry, springy dough. He pulls off a lump the size of a Danish and uses a simple wooden dowel to roll it flat. The blob becomes a plate and then a pizza, flipping, twisting, spreading out across the table. Ten minutes later it's a perfect three-foot circle, barely thicker than a credit card. He folds and folds again, then pulls out a knife and cuts the dough in precise, two-millimeter increments. He weighs each single portion before twisting it into an artistic figure eight and setting it aside to boil. By noon – three hours later – he's made enough noodles for thirty-five servings.

”From the streets of Tokyo and Kyoto to the mountains of Hokkaido and the pottery studios of Tamba, Ms. Muller encounters Japan and the Japanese. Homeless street cleaners, a retired geisha, the genial, elegant Mr. Tanaka (her host father and judo instructor) – all are described with wit, warmth, and precision. While Japanland may not inspire you to travel there, be sure to read all about it, anyway.

Copyright © 2005, S. Halversen.
All Rights Reserved.