Around the World in 35 Days, Part 1

Yosano Akiko

The subject of my next novel, another historical project about an epic journey, is the Japanese poet and feminist Yosano Akiko (1878-1942).

In 1912, at the age of 33, Akiko left her home in Tokyo and traveled by herself to Paris. This alone was unusual enough. Ever since the 1880s, a stream of Japanese artists and intellectuals had been making their way to the West, some to Europe, some to the U.S., but very few of those travelers were women. And fewer yet traveled alone. (In fact, I don’t know of any Japanese women before Akiko who traveled alone outside of Japan; if any of my readers know of precursors, please let me know!)

Akiko was, moreover, a married woman with seven children, all under age ten. Her husband Hiroshi (also known as Tekkan), a high-maintenance individual who was a poet of less renown than his wife, was already in Paris. Akiko had sent him there in November of 1911, hoping the trip would recharge him emotionally and artistically.

Akiko & her husband in Europe

Six months later she left the children in the care of a sister-in-law and departed for Europe herself, taking a train to the port city of Tsuruga in western Japan, boarding a ferry for Vladivostok, then riding the Trans-Siberian Railway all the way to Moscow before switching to another train that brought her to Paris. She and Hiroshi spent four months together, traveling through western Europe while meeting Japanese and European artists (the most memorable of whom would be Rodin). In September of 1912, she boarded a ship in Marseilles and made her way home. Meanwhile, she composed over two hundred poems about her trip; most of them have never appeared in English.

This journey is the subject of my next novel, which I’m calling Akiko in Paris. For the past year, I’ve been engrossed in research and translation. Over the next year, I hope to complete a draft of the novel.

And right now I’m recreating the Tokyo-to-Paris part of her trip in person. I flew into Tokyo on Tuesday afternoon. Next week I board a ferry for Vladivostok. From there I’m taking the Trans-Siberian all the way to Moscow. Another train will take me to Paris, where I’ll arrive the first week of July.

Here’s a photo of me in Yokohama in front of the Hikawa-maru, a restored Japanese passenger ship similar to the one that Hiroshi took to and from Europe, and that Akiko sailed back from France.

Before I leave Japan, I’m diverging from Akiko’s itinerary by taking one of several side trips. I spent last night in Mishima to visit an old college friend and his family. And I’m writing this on board the shinkansen (bullet train) on my way to Fukuoka, the city in Kyushu where I was born and spent part of my early childhood. I haven’t been there in 29 years.

I plan to post weekly-ish updates about my trip and its connections to my project. If you’re interested in following my progress, I invite you to sign up to follow my blog. You’ll get an e-mail notice whenever I post something new. You can also follow me on Twitter at @naomiwilliams, Instagram at @naomijwilliams, or Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/NaomiWilliamsWriter/.

4 thoughts on “Around the World in 35 Days, Part 1

  1. I am looking forward to reading your account. I am currently about 30,000 words into a story about a Japanese woman who travels to America in 1927 and then to Europe. The story will end (so far) in 1939 in Poland. It is about her adventures as she experiences the 1920’s and 1930’s. The dust bowl, depression,Bonnie and Clyde and then as a translator for the League of Nations. Right now she is in Spain in the early stages of the Spanish Civil War.

  2. Sounds fascinating Naomi, I look forward to reading it! This very amateur student of history needs some perspective on Japanese culture of the period from a feminist point of view, which I think has been sadly overlooked. Your trip sounds epic as well, and what a great way to gain insight for your new work, which I’m sure will rival Landfalls in its quality and depth. Happy trails, and good luck!

    1. Thank you! I’m hoping to explore some of that historical context for the book. This period in Japanese history is interesting in that there was, simultaneously, a great flowering of the arts & of progressive ideas but also lots of censorship & suppression of dissidents.

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