Friday, September 22, 2006

36 Views of Mt. Fuji by Cathy N. Davidson

Like most foreigners, I'm pretty good at adapting to new situations (or I wouldn't enjoy traveling in the first place) but I'm also a bit of a misfit (or I would never have wanted to leave home).

36 Views of Mt. Fuji is subtitled "On Finding Myself in Japan". This refers to the concept of finding herself, as in learning about her own needs, as opposed to suddenly waking up and discovering that she was in Japan, one stormy day. Although, she did travel to Japan on four separate occasions, Davidson was always in Japan by choice, first as a teacher and then, later, visiting friends.

The book shares its title with a series of block prints by Katsushika Hokusai and is so named because the block prints, like her book, don't reveal the whole picture. Japan is a multifaceted culture with a complex set of traditions and unspoken rules, difficult to describe in a single book. Instead, Davidson weighed her own experiences within the culture--her travels, revelations, and even the embarrassing moments--against the culture's traditions and rules. This gives the reader a glimpse into Japanese life, while making it plain that a glimpse is all that can be had. Above all, Davidson describes how her time in Japan made a lasting impact on her choice to finally settle down in a house designed to reflect the aspects she loved most about life in Japan but which also fit her husband's and her lifestyle in North Carolina.

I particularly enjoyed Davidson's embarrassing moments because they were so unique. While traveling by bus on a rainy day, for example, she was surprised to look around and see shocked expressions on the faces of the other bus riders until she realized that all the other passengers were carefully lining up the folds of their umbrellas while she had hastily shoved hers into its cover. When it finally dawned on her what grievous faux pas she had committed, Davidson removed her umbrella from its cover and refolded it with precision; for this, she was rewarded with smiles and nods of approval. Fascinating.

Through stories like the umbrella incident, I realized that this author had uncovered my own problem with life in the South: my unwillingness to change myself into a Southerner for the sake of fitting in. There are some startling similarities; an auburn-haired Caucasian American could never be completely absorbed into a society of black-haired Asians any more than a Midwesterner without the safety net of the extended Southern family and with a personal objection to hunting and unfenced dogs can be fully absorbed into the lifestyle in Mississippi. In a way, 36 Views of Mt. Fuji simply underscored my own realization that I need to find a suitable comfort zone if I have no choice but to remain for another 20 or more years as a stranger in a strange land.

The contrast of her Japanese friends' hidden emotions versus an outpouring of compassion during times of grief was also both touching and revealing. When Davidson and her husband, Ted, ended up faking their way through a family funeral ritual after being mistaken as relatives, I thought the response of their friend was particularly poignant:

Ichiro shook Ted's hand again, in both of his. "My friends," he joked seriously, his eyes glistening, "anyone willing to embarrass themselves for a friend is a friend forever."

There were times that I found Davidson's reflections on her distressing childhood somewhat annoying, but they're part of the point. She was in Japan for good reason, to escape her past and to reveal the needs and desires on which she should focus in order to set herself on a comfortable path in the future. Most travel memoirs similarly apply lessons learned while traveling to the author's life, but Davidson was probably unusual in that she immersed herself so fully in the Japanese lifestyle that she was torn between her desire to become Japanese (which could never really occur, given her distinctive appearance) and her need for something more than Japan could ever offer her as a permanent foreigner.

In general, the book was captivating. I'd really love to get my hands on a copy of Hokusai's illustrations, and am eager to read more. Bruce Feiler's Learning to Bow will be moved up a few notches on my avalanche-prone TBR piles, thanks to this enlightening read.



  1. Even living here, and being married to one, I only catch glimpses! It sounds really good, I'll add it to my long wishlist.

  2. Nat,

    Those wish lists can get rather ponderous, can't they?

    I hope you like enjoy the book. I found it fascinating; above all, I think I learned that my eldest son (who has suddenly decided he wants to visit Japan) would terrify the Japanese. He's prone to expansive gestures and is very twitchy and chaotic. I'm going to send Daniel my copy and see if he figures that much out!!

  3. LOL! He'd probably be ok in Tokyo- they're used to us weird foreigners/gaijin here! :P

  4. Anonymous10:44 AM

    This book sounds very good, I'll have to keep it in mind.

  5. I'll tell Daniel he might survive Tokyo, then. LOL My brother-in-law goes to Tokyo frequently and he's very much like Daniel; I'd forgotten about that, since we don't see BIL much!


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