Genre: Travel Memoir
A diary of travel through Japan.
“Patrick Colgan was born in Bologna, Italy, in 1978, of an Italian mother and British father. He began traveling fifteen years ago with an InterRail pass and never stopped since. He has been in almost forty countries and all five continents but he loves going back to Japan, where he has been (so far) seven times. When he is not travelling around the world he is a Journalist at the daily newspaper Il Resto del Carlino. He has been writing his travel blog Orizzonti for years, in Italian. He has recently started a blog in English too.”
For more, visit Mr Colgan's blog.
As a thirty-year resident of Japan, I found Patrick Colgan's diary of his travels in the country in parts entertaining and off putting. His depiction of Tokyo as a living organism fed by arteries of train lines is an evocative description of the city. However, there is far too much "WOW" throughout the book even for a casual reader or visitor.
"This streamlined metal box that when arriving at a station seems always on the verge of rising up, detaching from the track and transforming itself into a giant robot, is able to cancel space and make distances imperceptible."
He's talking about the Shinkansen bullet train. When Japan first developed high-speed rail it was a technological wonder. Today, France's TGV operates across Europe, including the author's native Italy, and it rivals JR Central in bids for foreign construction contracts. Colgan also calls the Shinkansen the pride of Japan Railways. There is no Japan Railways. It was broken up and privatized years ago.
He devotes a long section to food, but curiously restricts his comments to ramen and a food critic's favorite restaurant, which apparently is a Chinese fast food joint. Colgan's point that Japanese are meticulous in preparation of even mundane fare is well taken. However, he shortchanges the reader. Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world, and they represent globe-spanning ethnicities.
There is this befuddling line:
"The queues, sometimes as long as 100 metres, can be seen stretching around Omotesando or Ginza at lunch time…"
Really? I have seen lines as long as maybe twenty meters.
This passage is simply wrong.
"…property development, which reached its climax with the speculation bubble of the eighties that left ruins behind it. I say 'ruins' just as a manner of speaking, as the ugly buildings with an average age of 25 or 30 years are all still standing, silent witnesses of that spell of unreasonable optimism and presumption."
Development took off after prices dropped at the collapse of the asset bubble in 1990. Tokyo has been transformed over the past decade or two with, to my eye, wonderfully creative architecture from Shiodome, to Roppongi Hills, to even the hokey Venus Fort in Odaiba.
And this further comment on perceived malaise:
"What happened after the nineties is remembered as 'the lost decade' but maybe the period should be called the lost twenty, or thirty years. The country, the people - the numbers are saying it, and so is the present prime minister Abe’s extreme economic policy — haven’t yet recovered."
The so-called three arrows of "Abenomics," fiscal stimulus, monetary easing and structural reforms have largely been successful. Goldman Sachs Vice Chairwoman Kathy Matsui notes Japan has been the best performing major stock market since 2013, and she expects further advance in 2016 with double-digit growth in earnings. The Bank of Japan's adoption of quantitative easing, that is monetization of debt, was considered radical at the time, but it wasn't long before it was adopted by the Federal Reserve, which is now abandoning the practice. Japan's GDP growth has trailed that of the U.S. and E.U., but its unemployment rate of 3.6 percent compares with 6.2 percent for the U.S. and double digits in much of the E.U., according to the CIA World Factbook.
Many of Colgan's attempts at picturesque imagery struck me as tortured.
"…there is also a big glass-and-cement box. It’s grey, but it has azure stripes running through its facade reflecting the sky. It is suspended six, seven metres above ground. I already know what it contains, because it’s the third time that I have come, and maybe this is the reason I can’t stop looking at it."
He is describing the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which is built on pillars.
In a hiking trip in Hokkaido, the author has this to say about bears:
"The Asian black bear living in these valleys is no grizzly, but can be up to two and a half metres tall when standing, and if it has cubs with it, it can become aggressive: it’s their nature."
There is no mention of brown bears.
Although they are dangerous animals, Japan's black bears, tsukinowaguma, don't get nearly that big. Hokkaido's brown bears, higuma, do stand that tall, and they are, in fact, related to grizzlies. I don't see how one can write about a bear-watching trip in Hokkaido without noting the two species.
To me the most interesting passages described trips to islands south of Okinawa, but perhaps that's because I haven't been there.
Except for a two-year stint as a communications specialist at McKinsey & Co., my time in Japan has been spent as a financial journalist for Bloomberg and before that Nikkei. I am now retired and live in Yokohama.
No significant issues.
Rating: ** Two Stars
Reviewed by: Sam Waite
Approximate word count: 20-25,000 words