Book Review: Hitching Rides with Buddha

If you travel enough, you start to find that some hotels maintain book exchanges where hotel guests can "borrow" a book in exchange for leaving a book. While in Costa Rica, our hotel, The Tamarindo Diria, had a small book exchange located near the staircase on the way to our room. I dropped off a copy of Ciao, America! by Beppe Severgnini and picked up a copy of Hitching Rides with Buddha by Will Ferguson. Despite any Buddhist undertones, the book provides a witty and fascinating portrait of life in Japan.

The premise of the book is simple - the author sets upon a journey from Capa Sata in the south to Cape Soya in the north to follow the sakura or the blooming of the cherry blossom. As you read the book, you soon find out that tracking the cherry blossoms seems to be a national obsession in Japan.

I find that reading about Japan and the Japanese people is simply eye-opening. The more I read, the more I want to visit. Until then, I have to live vicariously through these types of travelogues. The book is filled with countless little vignettes of interactions with Japanese people as well as what it's like being a gaijin in Japan:

I wended my way through and the crowds parted like the sea before Moses. Women eyed me with intent indifference. Schoolchildren openly gawked, jaws gaping. Men watched my every move as though I might pull out a handgun and start shooting at any moment. Old women bowed with perfect precision, not a degree too low, not a degree too high. You could use the bows of Japanese grandmothers to chart the entire Japanese social hierarchy, from outcast to outsider, from doctor to lawyer to Emperor.

"A foreigner, look!" A flock of high-school girls burst past in a flury of nervous laughter, and boys, brave after the fact, whispered "Harro!" to the back of my head. "Ah, we have an international guest from America here today," said the disembodied voice of the PA system, the voice of a decidedly tinny god. "Maybe he will sing a song for us later."

That I, so average and unexceptional, should cause a stir among these bright crowds of costumes gives a new perspective on the idea of exotic. I remember a trip to a Japanese zoo, and how the children turned their backs on the caged wildebeest and watched me instead. More interesting than a wildebeest, became my personal motto after that. It was oppressive at times. When your face doesn't fit the national dimensions you find yourself in an observer-affected universe; your presence alters actions, and the very act of observing changes that which is observed. You cannot slip by unnoticed. You cannot forget the pigment you present to the world. If nothing else, Japan has taught me what it is like to be a visible minority."

The book is quite funny although Ferguson's synicism can sometimes grate on you. Despite being a hefty 410 pages, the book is a relatively quick read. Yes, the dimensions are a bit large for a briefcase when traveling but the entertainment factor makes it worthwhile.

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