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Time for a review of a book I’ve just finished…

Travel and philosophy are soulmates.  It must be all that waiting around at airports, the long bus journeys, the existential anxiety of being away from home in an unknown, and unknowable, place.

I picked up Atomic Sushi by Simon May, expecting ‘travel writing’ and a wittily insightful guide to Japan’s food, culture and people.  But while there was wit in abundance, I didn’t imagine I’d be pausing so often to consider philosophical questions.

The author lived in Japan while teaching philosophy at The University of Tokyo.  While the book is presented as a portrait of Japanese life and its people, filtered through his own experiences, travel writing is not really his calling – he can’t resist philosophizing. 

After witnessing the death of a Japanese friend’s elderly father in a dingy hospital room, he casts his mind back to an open coffin he encountered in a Moscow monastery some years earlier.  Seeing the dead body had made him feel vital and bursting with health, “as if death were the final proof of the almost unbelievable reality of living”. 

So the contents of this book might contravene the Trade Descriptions Act, but if you like a bit of inspirational philosophy (and I do), you’ll find it to your taste.

He ends his year in Japan with his philosophical assumptions challenged: “Is much self-knowledge possible if… we have no stable continuous self to know, no inner core that remains untouched by our constantly changing social roles and environments?”  Phew… that’s a Big Question, and we’ve come a long way from the wedding parties and prostitutes’ dens of earlier in the book.

For him, the Japanese are essentially practical folk.  Their values are not like Western ones, but are humane and sound in their own way.  Is ‘pity’ as virtuous as we think it is, he seems to suggest in the closing pages?  Perhaps he’s thinking of his soon-to-be-bereaved Japanese friend, who stiffened when he tried extending a comforting hand.  Pity could be seen as a way of imposing your attitude on another person.   For the friend, this disciplined exterior is the real him; he is feeling upset inside, but thoughts eventually catch up with our actions.

Atomic Sushi is presented in short chapters, many of them self-contained episodes.  Like any good travel book, it tells us something fresh about the human spirit and diversity.  You don’t need to love Japan, or sushi, to appreciate it. 

Atomic Sushi - book cover