She wrote, “I first read Karin Muller while backpacking through Vietnam in 2003 — her first book “Hitchhiking in Vietnam,” which I acquired at a second-hand bookshop in Hanoi, filled in many of the cultural gaps that my guidebook neglected. If only I’d had Muller’s latest tome, “Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa” to read during my visit to Tokyo several years ago.
I’d never felt so self-conscious and out of place, wandering the megalopolis as an Amazonian foreigner, suddenly hyper-aware of the graceless, noisy way I shuffle my feet as I walked alongside the whisper-soft Japanese. As it turns out, Muller — a former Peace Corps volunteer and National Geographic staffer, accomplished documentary filmmaker and Renaissance woman — would have been able to relate.
More than a personal account of a year spent trying to understand the intricacies of closed Japanese culture, Muller’s book serves as a safety blanket of sorts, even a travel companion, and it’s often filled with the confessions, obsessions, woes and wonder of a diary. Muller writes with crystalline honesty about the rollercoaster of triumphs and setbacks she experienced in Japan. But it’s the author’s self-deprecating wit, keen observations of Japanese relationships and liberal dose of humor that make this book a pleasure to read.
At 34, Muller found herself at the peak of her travel writing and filmmaking career, working at National Geographic on a documentary series for the society’s global television channel (she produced a documentary version of “Hitchhiking Vietnam” as well as “Along the Inca Road,” which was also a book). But as many a clock-punching cube dweller can understand, Muller had a gnawing sense that she was missing out on something. “I certainly wasn’t going to find [the meaning of life] here, in the tiny cubicles bathed in fluorescent light and the eight-year wait for a coveted underground parking spot,” she writes.
So off she went to the Land of the Rising Sun. The desire to perfect her judo in the land of its origin was the obvious ticket inside and an outward goal of a journey that quickly turns into far more. Roughly the first two-thirds of the book detail Muller’s experiences with her Japanese host family and impeccably proper host mother. “Although Japan welcomes tourists, it almost never allows them more than a superficial glimpse of its culture and traditions,” Muller writes early on, and the reader has the feeling, somehow, that if anyone can break inside, it will be her. But Muller’s difficulties adapting to life with her host family are soon apparent, with her host mother, Yukiko, drawing all her shortcomings into painfully stark relief.
Muller builds a sense of anticipation as she awaits some sign of acceptance, for that Eureka moment when the complexities of Japanese social interactions and the modern culture’s formidable ties to its past somehow part like the Red Sea to embrace a well-meaning foreigner…”