Travels with a Writing Brush: Classical Japanese travel writing from the Manyōshū to Bashō
Penguin, $24.99 pb, 382 pp, 9780241310878
Meredith McKinney, our pre-eminent translator of Japanese classics – among them Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book, the poetry of Saigyō Hōshi, the memoirs Essays in Idleness by Yoshida Kenkō, and Kamo no Chōmei’s Hōjōki (Record of the Ten Foot Square Hut) – has delivered another marvel of absorbing, elegant scholarship. Travels with a Writing Brush crosses the country of old Japan, from north to south and from east to west, and is a quintessential travel book. It goes to places, and shows them – except that the latter is not quite true; you would not go to this book to see things objectively so much as to cue to them imaginatively.
Better say that McKinney’s book names the places of highest Japanese worth, this because they have over time become poetic places, utamakura, to which travellers made pilgrimage, and from which they departed with gratitude and sorrow, treasuring the memory traces of the sacred sites. If you think of a culture map of the first thousand years of Japanese literary history, the land would glow with hundreds of little lamps lit by the poetic imaginations of travellers, each in touch with the others over time, each defined by memories from poetry, legend, and mythology.