Friday, April 10, 2015

Lake Mashū

I have just finished reading Nicolas Bouvier's Japanese Chronicles (1989, translated by Anne Dickerson) a compilation of travel sketches based on his experiences in the country between 1955 and 1970.  Bouvier spent some time in the northern island of Hokkaidō, a little more than twice the size of his native Switzerland, just then becoming popular with younger Japanese tourists.  Older Japanese, he observed, 'will never go there and don't think much of it.  This island has no prestige in their eyes because it has almost no history ... this neglect has lasted for a thousand years.'  Thus one cannot find old Japanese poems and paintings devoted to Hokkaidō's most beautiful views, but this has not stopped experts codifying their qualities for tourists.  Lake Mashū is an almost pristine volcanic lake, once (according to a measurement taken in 1931) the clearest in the world, although its transparency was reduced with the introduction of sockeye salmon and rainbow trout in the fifties.  Bouvier went to see it in the late sixties:
'Mashū-ko lake lies in a crater dominated by another crater that resembles a felt hat that has been crushed by a fist.  A little like the lakes in the Swiss mountains, but wilder, with the ambiguity a volcano adds to the landscape. In the middle, a small island.  No sign of inhabitants, but an observation platform for tourists where, on Sundays in August, you can hear Osanai de kudasamaise (Be so good as not to push).  There are two other lakes in the area that rival this one, but the Mashū-ko lake is sought after for its 'mystical' or mysterious ambience (I think that it is better to understand the word shimpiteki in the first sense) - no doubt because some authority in matters of landscape has said so.  I am the only foreigner. 
'Do you find the lake mystical?' someone asked me.
'I find it very beautiful, but why mystical?'
'Because a very esteemed professor said so - when will you learn to believe?'
'When? Very good question!'
Nicolas Bouvier is best known for The Way of the World (1963), an account of the journey he made ten years earlier with the artist Thierry Vernet from Yugoslavia to the Khyber Pass.  It contains some remarkable passages of image-rich descriptive writing that seem both densely packed and lightly done. At different points it reminds me of two very different books, On the Road and A Time of Gifts (Patrick Leigh Fermor described it as 'nothing short of a masterpiece').  Vernet's striking Indian ink illustrations punctuate the text and give a sense of the landscapes they encounter (the photograph below shows my copy open at their journey on the road to Anatolia).  Bourier was inspired to travel by his childhood reading - 'at eight years old, I traced the course of the Yukon with my thumbnail in the butter on my toast'.  As the biography in the back of the Eland Press translation says, 'without waiting for the result of his degree, in 1953 he left to join Thierry Vernet in Yugoslavia with no intention of returning.'  The Way of the World covers only the first eighteen months of his travels and it was not until 1956 that he reached Japan (as described in Japanese Chronicles).  He was an advocate of  slow travel and 'proud to boast that it had taken him longer to get to Japan than Marco Polo.'

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