A Trip Around the World, Part 5

Yaroslavsky Station, Moscow

Tomorrow morning, if all goes well, my friend Chris and I arrive in Paris, and our long train journey from Vladivostok will be over.

We’ve been pretty fortunate on this trip: almost everything has gone well. We’ve stayed healthy; Chris and I are still fast friends after being together night and day for 11 days and over 8300 miles; and even the weather has cooperated, gifting us with mild temperatures and pretty skies whenever we actually had to be outdoors.

But yesterday we were in Moscow, and it was without a doubt the low point of our trip.

After four nights on the train, we were very ready to disembark, check into a nice hotel, take showers, and enjoy terra firma for a few hours before getting on our last train, the Moscow-Paris Express.

Our train from Irkutsk arrived on time at Yaroslavsky Station on Wednesday morning, and we were met on the platform by our MIR driver, a man I’ll call R. because I didn’t quite catch his name.

We were about two-thirds of the way down the platform when a policeman stepped forward, stopped Chris, and demanded to see his papers.

Chris complied. “This has happened to me before,” he said quietly to me.

R. immediately stepped in, presumably explaining to the cop that we were American tourists, that he was our driver, etc.

The cop ignored him. He and his partner, a man who might have been his twin, chuckled while they made a great show of examining Chris’s passport and visa.

The partner then stepped away to detain another group of passengers making their way from the last car of the train. It was a large group of young men who’d been on the train since Irkutsk. At every stop, they’d pour out of the train and squat on the platform while they smoked. We guessed they were Mongolian, although whether they were students or laborers we couldn’t tell.

Then the first cop suddenly seemed to notice me and demanded my papers as well. He began saying something rather urgently to me, which turned out to be a demand for a registration form we’d received from the hotel where we stayed in Listvyanka.

Since we hadn’t been in Listvyanka for four days, I no longer had that form tucked into my passport. In fact, I wasn’t at all sure where I’d stashed it. Fortunately, I found it pretty quickly in my backpack.

But the cop was still holding forth about something while R. became more and more agitated. He kept arguing with the guy, repeating something that sounded like “tourist” while the cop waved his hand like that didn’t matter and barked back, repeating a word that sounded like “registration.”

R. pulled out his cell phone and called someone (the MIR office, I presume) and started expostulating to someone about our dilemma. Meanwhile the cop just stared down at us imperiously and continued to harangue us even though it was obvious Chris and I had no idea what he was talking about.

Can I just say that everything about this guy, from his stance to his supercilious tone of voice to the smug look on his face just screamed “asshole”?

Wow, I thought. Pigs everywhere.

“I think I have my next blog post,” I muttered to Chris.

“Welcome to Moscow,” he said with a shrug.

“It probably wouldn’t be a good idea for me to take my cell phone out and start taking pictures, right?”

“That would be a really bad idea.”

R. motioned for us to follow him down the tracks. The cop walked alongside, and the two men continued to argue. Chris and I wondered whether we were being taken to the station for further questioning or what, but at the end of the platform, R. just made for the exit, so we did too, and that was that.

Meanwhile the Mongolian contingent was given the green light, so this large-ish group of Asians all left the area simultaneously. A golden horde, if you will.

Ours was a long train filled with people. I didn’t see every person on the train. But Chris and I had walked up and down that train repeatedly to make our daily trip to the restaurant car, which was at the other end, and I’d noticed no other Asians on the train besides us and the Mongolians. I can’t swear the cops hadn’t stopped any other passengers before they laid eyes on us, but I noticed them long before they noticed us, and I hadn’t seen them talking to anyone else.

In other words, it certainly seemed like the only people the police stopped from our train were Asian. It also seemed like they stopped all the Asian passengers on the train.

Welcome to Moscow, indeed.

I think that the policeman was insisting that we were missing documentation to show that our visas had been properly registered in Moscow.

Foreign visitors to Russia are required to register their visas upon arrival and whenever they show up at a new town for any length of time. If you stay at hotels, the staff normally do this for you. The guesthouse proprietor in Listvyanka had been very careful about this, making sure we had our copies of the registration before we left his property to spend the day exploring the town.

But we had literally just arrived in Moscow when the cop detained us, so there was obviously no possible way we could have secured this documentation for Moscow already. So basically it was just security theater. And garden variety harassment. And racial profiling.

Once in the safety of R.’s car, a staffer at the Moscow MIR office got me on the phone and instructed me to make sure I didn’t leave the hotel that evening without our registration forms. He also said R. would be picking us up half an hour earlier than originally scheduled in order to account for traffic.

In order to allow for any additional encounters with the police, I thought.

We had only a few hours to unwind at the hotel before catching our next train. Fortunately the Aquamarine Hotel is a really nice place. Unfortunately, at the front desk, we discovered that I actually was missing an important document, the small white departure form I’d received at Immigration in Vladivostok.

“This is a very important document,” the pretty, unsmiling clerk said in perfect English. “You must have it in order for us to process your registration.”

Thank God that cop didn’t notice I was missing this, I thought.

They let us check in without it as long as I promised to bring it down as soon as I found it. Once in the hotel room, I proceeded to empty out the contents of my purse, backpack, and suitcase onto the bed, and still it didn’t turn up.

I double-checked every pile. Still nothing. I wonder what will happen to me if I cannot find this form? I wondered. A faint tingle of panic started to make itself known in the back of my mind.

Then I started looking in all the pockets of all the things. I have a tendency to stick stuff into pockets and then completely forget about them. Twice a year, when I switch out summer clothes for winter clothes and then vice versa, I always end up with a windfall of at least $5 and sometimes a BART or Charlie ticket or unused Kleenex or even candy.

It was in the pocket of my windbreaker, which I have worn exactly one time on this trip, the morning we were in Listvyanka.

The stress of having to upend all of my luggage to find the missing form pushed the unpleasantness of the police encounter out of our heads. But in the elevator on our way back down to the front desk, we started debriefing about it.

“You said this happened to you before?” I asked Chris.

It had, he said. Once before in Moscow. And once on the Eurostar. “It’s because I’m Chinese,” he said matter-of-factly.

I couldn’t deny it. I’d seen how quickly the Russian cop reacted as soon as he laid eyes on Chris. And how quickly his partner intercepted the Mongolian passengers. Meanwhile literally hundreds of white people streamed past unmolested.

I also reflected on the fact that nearly all of my other travel experiences have been with my white husband and our two mostly-white sons, and we’ve never, ever been stopped by a cop anywhere, ever.

“This is what it must be like to be black in America,” Chris added.

I’d just been thinking the same thing.

Except that we agreed that neither one of us had actually been afraid for our safety during the incident. Call it American hubris, but standing there on the platform while this jerk lorded himself over us and our driver, we’d been pretty confident that it wouldn’t escalate past low-level harassment.

So in that sense it wasn’t like being black in America.

We took our showers, treated ourselves to a delicious dinner in the hotel lounge, repacked while watching BBC news (our first news in English in ten days—alas, Trump was still president), and met R. again in the lobby at six.

Unbelievably, the most stressful part of our day hadn’t happened yet.

The traffic was beyond hideous. Thank goodness MIR recommended we leave half an hour earlier than originally planned. We should have left an hour earlier.

I was enjoying the architecture of Moscow—the ornate old buildings, the imposing Ghostbusters-apartment-building-style Foreign Office skyscraper, the statue of Peter the Great emerging out of the the Moscow River. It was all quite wonderful, but then it was 6:30 and then 7 and then 7:30 and we still hadn’t reached the station, and our train was leaving at 7:53.

“Should we be worried?” Chris said at one point, ever the master of understatement.

Belorussky Station, Moscow (by A.Savin, Wikimedia Commons · WikiPhotoSpace)

We crossed a wide overpass, and I saw to our left what looked like a fabulous old train station, painted that distinctive Russian shade of lime-sherbet green that I’ve come to love, to the left. And then R. got off to the right and parked.

God, I hope we don’t have to run all the way over to that building we just passed, the one on the other side of the overpass, I thought.

We did.

It was at least a quarter mile. Under the overpass. Up some stairs, then down. Across traffic. Through puddles. Over some wooden planking. With our luggage. R. took my suitcase for me, and was shockingly fleet-footed for a guy his age. (I’m pretty sure he was older than me.) Through security. To the schedule board to figure out the platform. Down, down, down the platform to the right car.

Naomi Williams, Paris-Moscow Express
Incredibly relieved to have made our train for Paris (photo by Chris)

We made it, but with less than ten minutes to spare.

Did I mention that Chris and I have been training for a half-marathon?


Yeah, that’s because we’re not.

My lungs were still burning this morning.

But by then we were well on our way to Paris on the Moscow-Paris Express, having crossed into Belarus during the night.

Brest Train Station, Belarus

At Brest, some Belarussian border control folks came on—a statuesque blonde woman with enameled nails and a steely sort of beauty and an even taller man with chiseled features and very clipped English. The woman took our passports and flicked through the pages with her scary nails.

She handed my passport back to me right away, but took an absurdly long time with Chris’s passport, looking at him, then at his passport photo (which looks exactly like him), then at him, then photo, then him, then made him smile, before finally deciding he matched his ID.

He shrugged again. “We all look alike to them,” he said when she left.

Then she came back and made us leave our compartment while she made the most incredibly perfunctory search of our space. I can’t imagine what she was looking for.

But I’ll tell you what I did imagine. So help me, the whole thing looked like a setup for a porno. (“This photo does not look like you, sir. You’ll have to come with me…” “What do you have hidden in your suitcase, madam? I’m afraid I’ll have to punish you,” etc.)

Polish stamp
My favorite passport stamp

And then we crossed into Poland, and the Polish border guards came on, and—they were, well, nice. Did we have any cigarettes? Nope. Did we have any produce? Nope. And then the friendly smiling woman stamped our passports to mark our entry into the E.U., and the stamp includes a choo-choo train image, and that sort of made my day.

And tomorrow morning, we’ll be in Paris.

A Trip Around the World, Part 4

Writing on train. (Photo by Chris)

It’s Sunday, July 2, as I begin this new entry, and my friend Chris and I are back on the Trans-Siberian Railway, having traveled from Vladivostok to Irkutsk and spent a day and a half in the town of Listvyanka on the shores of Lake Baikal.

It seems like we’ve been traveling for days, yet we’re not even halfway between Vladivostok and Moscow. We’ll pass that milestone sometime this afternoon.

Akiko didn’t write that many poems about her train trip from Vladivostok to Moscow. But we do know about her Trans-Siberian journey from her account Pari made [パリまで、To Paris], which was published in four installments in the Asahi shimbun newspaper.*

And I’m really struck by the differences between our two journeys.

The end (or start!) of Trans-Siberian Railway in Vladivostok. 9288 km to Moscow!

For starters, the train was much slower in 1912. She left Vladivostok at 5 am on May 8, and arrived in Moscow at 4 pm on May 19, having spent 11 nights and 12 days on the train. By contrast, we left Vladivostok at roughly 7 pm on June 27 and should arrive in Moscow the morning of July 5. That’s only eight nights and seven days, which includes a nearly 36-hour stopover to visit Lake Baikal.

Akiko was also traveling alone. Originally she had planned to make the trip accompanied by the Japanese ambassador to England, a man called Katō. But apparently she was unable to settle her affairs in time, and he had to leave without her.

I can’t imagine how daunting it must have been to set off across Russia by herself. As far as I know she could speak no languages other than Japanese. She traveled second class and had to share space on the train with strangers with whom she could not communicate. Moreover, it had only been six years since the Russians’ humiliating defeat in Russo-Japanese War. How uncomfortable might it have been to be a Japanese passenger traveling alone through Russia?

Fine dining in the Trans-Siberian restaurant car

She did meet some Japanese people along the way. An Asahi shimbun correspondent called Yasojima met her in Vladivostok and made sure she got on the train okay. Four doors down was a Japanese man called Saitō who took her to the dining car, where she had some stew. Eventually she met an Englishman who’d spent many years working in Yokohama and could speak Japanese; he shared a meal with her as well and even loaned her money when she ran out of cash.

I am not traveling alone, of course. I considered it, but found the prospect so daunting that I kept putting off making any plans. Honestly, I’m not sure this would have happened at all if not for Chris. An experienced world traveler, he heard about my intention to do the Trans-Sib and instantly declared, “Oh, I’ll go with you!” Then kept gently bugging me about it (“So Naomi, are we actually going to do that trip?”) until I started organizing things out of sheer embarrassment.

Sometimes peer pressure is a good thing.

Neither one of us speaks much Russian besides the most rudimentary phrases. I would have preferred to know more before I arrived, and I did spend some time teaching myself Cyrillic and learning a few basics. But I had little time to study a new language in the months before I left. I also figured that my experience would more closely mimic Akiko’s if I knew almost nothing.

Of course we speak English, which is a huge advantage she didn’t have. Our drivers and guides (provided by the wonderful MIR Corporation) have all spoken excellent English; restaurant and hotel staff often speak at least a little; and even the stalwart and admirable provodnitsa who takes care of us on the train often has a smattering of words and phrases.

It’s been quite easy for me to interact with other people on the train. In my last entry, I referred to a Japanese gentleman I met between Vladivostok and Irkutsk; we met while buying boiled potatoes and cole slaw from a woman on the platform at one of our stops. Chris and I also chatted briefly with a young Uzbek soldier, on weekend leave from the army, who assumed we were from China but seemed happy to practice his English with two surprise Americans.

And I befriended a lovely couple, American citizens originally from Bangladesh who now call New Zealand home. Taufiq could speak Russian, which was very helpful, and he and his wife Shaheen were marvelous conversationalists. Our discussions ranged over everything from parenting to politics, film and literature, life histories and travel tales. I gave them one of the two copies of Landfalls I’d brought with me, and now I have friends to visit in Auckland.

Finally, Akiko was much younger than I am when she made this trip, and she had left a bunch of small children behind in Japan in order to travel to Paris to join her husband and other artists. Part of what interests me about this project is exploring the mindset of a woman who appeared to be able, at least temporarily, to put art and husband over children.

When I first wrote about Akiko thirty years ago, for my senior thesis, I was 23 years old and childless. Even then, I was struck by the audacity of her trip to Europe. Wow, I thought. Who leaves seven children, all under age ten, and travels abroad for six months?

A decade later, I was the same age Akiko was when she set off, and now I was a mother too. Wow, I thought again, but more emphatically: Wow. Like seriously. Who does that? And then, frazzled by the demands of parenting two small, rambunctious children, I’d sometimes think, I’d do it. I’d go on that train tomorrow.

But I still could not imagine leaving my children behind to go meet my husband on the other side of the world. Not for six months. Not even for a couple of weeks.

It may be cultural, it may be generational, it may be personal, it may be because we didn’t have relatives who could watch the boys for so long. But I could never have undertaken a trip of this kind while my children were young.

So it’s no coincidence that I’m doing this right after my youngest son graduated from high school. I miss my kids, but I didn’t have to leave them in anyone’s care, and I don’t feel guilty or particularly anxious about being away.

Quite a few of Akiko’s poems about the trip refer to her sadness over leaving her children for so long. She may have temporarily chosen art and husband over motherhood when she decided to go to Paris, but thoughts of her children did weigh on her. Here’s a poem she wrote after watching some kids in a playground in Europe:


Zō o ori rakuda o orite haha to yobi sono hitori dani hashiri koyokashi

If just one of them
would climb down
from the elephant
from the camel
and run to me, calling “Mother!”

My trip isn’t wholly different from hers, of course. She probably saw a lot of this:

And this:

And villages:IMG_3500 (2)

And towers:

Then there’s the tedium. My trip is shorter than hers. And I have someone to talk to. I am also not an easily bored person, and brought plenty of work and reading to do on board. Nevertheless, I recognize tedium as one of the challenges of this trip. She probably felt it too as she passed millions of birch trees on her way to Europe.

I have one more thing in common with Akiko as I make my own journey: my husband will also be meeting me in Paris. I can’t wait to see him.


Sanzen-ri waga koibito no katawara ni yanagi no wata no chiru hi ni kitaru

Seven thousand miles
to reach my lover’s side—
willow catkins were scattering
on the day that I arrived.


*Note: The details about Akiko’s Trans-Siberian trip are available from a number of sources, but the two I’ve relied on most for this blog post are Matsudaira Meiko’s 13-part series, Akiko no Pari 1912 nen [晶子のパリ1912年, Akiko’s Paris 1912], published in Tanka kenkyū [短歌研究, Tanka research] in 2000, and Mori Mayumi’s book Onna san-nin no Shiberiya tetsudō (女三人のシベリヤ鉄道, Three women on the Siberian Railway), Tokyo, 2012, Shūeisha (集英社文庫).





Around the World in 35 Days, Part 3

Sea of Japan at dawn, seen from ferry window

I’ve started composing this installment of my travel report aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway, late at night, someplace between Vladivostok and Khabarovsk.

I hope in a few days to be able to post something entertaining about this train trip, but tonight I’m going to tell you about the two-day/two-night ferry trip between Japan and Russia. This was the segment that occasioned the most anxiety for me before I set off from landlocked Davis, California.

For starters, it was the only part of the trip where I would be completely alone. My husband Dan and younger son Eliot accompanied me to Japan, and my very dear friend Chris met me in Vladivostok on Monday and will accompany me all the way to Paris. But on the ferry, I would be alone.

It would also be my first time ever at sea—by which I mean being in a vessel of some kind overnight and out of sight of land for hours at a time. This may surprise some of you who know me through my first book, Landfalls, which is about an ocean voyage. But except for a few half-day sailing excursions with my family in my teens, I’d never been out on the ocean at all.

I’ve always been fascinated by shipwreck stories. That fascination led to my first novel. It has not, however, exactly emboldened me to seek out shipboard experiences for myself.

Moreover, we’d be sailing right past North Korea. With all the saber-rattling lately between our two countries, this felt like a somewhat riskier proposition than in the past. If you’re not clear on the geography here, check out the map below.

As I said, right past North Korea.

And then there was my acute fear of seasickness.

Ever since I was a small child, I’ve been phobic about vomiting. It’s a relatively common phobia, I understand. My emetophobia is so intense that it’s hard for me to even write about it. If this were someone else’s account instead of my own, I would start feeling queasy just reading it.

When Dan and I decided to have kids some twenty-odd years ago, honestly, my fear of morning sickness and children’s stomach ailments was among my biggest concerns. In fact, we proceeded only after he assured me that he would deal with all throw-up situations with the kids, and the man was good to his word. On at least two occasions, he left work in the middle of the day to rescue me.

But I digress.

The point is that the prospect of being stuck for upwards of forty hours on a boat ride that might make me sick left me shaky with anticipatory dread. Almost as bad was the prospect of being stuck with other people who were seasick. This for me was like a vision of hell.

These days one can easily fly from Japan to Vladivostok. I found some flights that weren’t all that expensive. (In fact, I just met a Japanese gentleman on the train who’d wanted to take the ferry I took but had flown instead, worried about the North Korea situation.)

But Akiko took the ferry, and I felt like I should also. It felt like “cheating” to do otherwise.

Akiko left from Tsuruga in Fukui Prefecture, once the gateway to Europe from Japan. She was seen off at the port by her publisher and by her eldest son Hikaru.

Eastern Dream ferry

That ferry no longer runs, but DBS Cruise Ferry, a South Korean company, runs a weekly ferry, the Eastern Dream, along the route mapped out above—i.e., departing  Sakaiminato, the port town in Tottori Prefecture, at 7 pm every Saturday evening; landing at Donghae, South Korea, Sunday morning around 9 am; departing again around 2 pm; and arriving in Vladivostok on Monday at 1 pm.

It wasn’t exactly Akiko’s itinerary, but it was as close as I could get.

There was just the small matter of being really, really afraid.

So I did what I not infrequently do when faced with a dilemma: I went to Facebook, described my problem, and solicited advice.

Facebook is good for this. People came from all across the globe and political spectrum to offer me encouragement and tips. Encouragement to go for it despite my apprehensions. Lots of tips for preventing or ameliorating seasickness. And permission to splurge—if it were available and I could afford it, which luckily it was and I could—on a private cabin with my own bathroom so that whatever I experienced or endured on the ferry I could do by myself.

I went for it: I booked passage on the ferry and reserved a “junior suite.” It cost an unseemly amount of money, payable in Japanese yen only at the international ferry terminal in Sakaiminato. And I amassed an arsenal of anti-seasickness remedies: scopolamine patches, Bonine, Sea Bands, ginger chews, ginger gum.

On Saturday, June 24, I said good-bye to Dan in Sakaiminato and boarded the ferry.

And you know what? I loved it.

Grand staircase, “Eastern Dream”

I loved the Eastern Dream with its over-the-top “grand” staircase and whimsical murals. I loved the friendly, helpful staff, most of them young people from Korea or the Philippines. I loved the guy who was able to make announcements in Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and English. I loved the buffet-style meals. The food wasn’t Zagat-worthy, but it was all right, and the dining area had—well, ocean views. I loved the feel of the salt breeze when I walked out on deck. I loved the shipboard camaraderie, however temporary.

On-board security

And most of all I loved Junior Suite 1, a surprisingly spacious cabin on Deck A, with its tiny bathroom that was mine and mine only, the large bed that felt like a box spring missing its mattress, and especially, especially, especially, the enormous window that looked out on the sea. It was overcast through much of the voyage, which made the sea look silvery-gray, like mercury.

Through that window I watched Japan recede in a light rain. I watched the ferry’s wake. I saw a shark swim past, dip down into the dark water, then surface again. I saw buoys placed miles and miles from anyplace, showing us the way. Who placed them there, I wondered, and at what cost? I saw Donghae, South Korea, drift suddenly into view the next morning. Nearly everyone on the ferry disembarked, even those going on to Vladivostok, but I used the solitude to charge up my devices on board and post my last blog update.

Sailing away from Japan

Then we sailed away from Donghae into choppier seas toward Russia. I was farther than I’d ever been from anything familiar to me. My phone said “No service”—not even roaming—for the rest of the passage. My cabin was on the starboard side; I knew that if I were on the other side, I’d be looking out my window, straining to see North Korea, wondering about the mysterious dark country past which we were sailing.

I loved the solitude. I’d been worried about being on my own, but once on board, I realized it would be the only period on the trip I’d have to myself, and I decided to enjoy it. I wrote a little. I revised a little. I read a little. I studied some Russian. I wrote in my journal. I took pictures. I walked around the ferry. I drank a little vodka some Russian passengers were sharing with other travelers.

A very nice staff member had carried my bag all the way to the top when I first arrived; I wasn’t sure if I was expected to, but I gave him a tip, and when I disembarked, he made sure someone came to collect me and my bags, escorting me past two decks of waiting passengers. My appearance seemed to inflame a shouting match in Korean between some disgruntled passengers and ferry staff who yelled right back.

Best of all, I didn’t get sick. I didn’t even get queasy. I probably lucked out with a relatively smooth passage, although one shipboard acquaintance said he felt a bit nauseated during the second night. I’d applied every remedy: the scopolamine patch behind my right ear, sea bands on both wrists, a few ginger chews for good measure, a Bonine when the second night proved a bit choppier. But the truth is I actually enjoyed the movement of the ferry. It lulled me to sleep both nights. I slept quite well despite the springs I could feel right under my shoulder blades.

All in all, I’d say I had more fun on the ferry than Akiko did. Here’s one of the poems she wrote about her experience of sailing to Vladivostok on the Russian ferry Aureole:


Waga nakeba Roshia otome kite kata nadenu Ariyoru-gō no shiroki senshitsu

When I cried, a Russian girl
came and stroked my shoulder:
the white cabin
aboard the Aureole.

Port of Vladivostok

I was a little sad to leave the Eastern Dream. That’s been true of every destination of this trip so far. I’ve wished I could stay just a little longer in each place. This time I thought, if only I could stay here a couple more days, it would have been like a really cool writing residency. But we’d arrived in Vladivostok, and it was time to disembark.

Yosano Akiko memorial in Vladivostok

Once I finally got through immigration and customs, the part of my trip I organized through the estimable MIR Corporation began. I was met by a guide, Darya, and a driver, Natasha, who took me to the Yosano Akiko memorial on the campus of Far Eastern Federal University. It includes an engraved likeness of Akiko, a brief description of her 1912 visit to Vladivostok, and her poem, “Tabi ni tatsu” (Leaving on a Trip), an unusual 12-line poem she composed as she set off on her journey. (I haven’t quite managed to translate this one yet, so won’t share it at this point.)

Darya was a terrific guide, and she was willing to take me to see a number of other sights in the city. But I was eager to check into the hotel and see Chris, who’d flown in early that morning and had likely been waiting for me all day.

Chris and I have been friends for almost 30 years, ever since we were not-particularly-satisfied grad students together in Stanford’s Asian Languages Department. We’re always happy to see each other. But there’s a special joy in meeting a friend halfway around the world, in a city where neither of you has ever been.

The next evening, we boarded the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Around the World in 35 Days, Part 2

Yosano Akiko birthplace, Sakai, Japan

By the time you read this, I will likely already be in Russia. But I started drafting this post in Japan, on the shinkansen (bullet train) after leaving Osaka on Thursday, June 22, to wend my way north and west toward the port town of Sakaiminato.

I included Osaka on my itinerary because Yosano Akiko, the subject of my next novel, was from the nearby city of Sakai. The house where she was born in 1878 is no longer there, but there’s a site on one of the main thoroughfares in the city that indicates where it used to be. I paid my respects on a rainy afternoon. The poem on the plaque reads:

Umi koishi shio no tō nari kazoete wa otome to narishi chichi haha no ie

My translation attempt:

In my parents’ house
a young girl is growing up
in love with the sea,
counting up the ocean waves
as they sound from far away.


The Sakai Risho no Mori museum

Of more interest than the birthplace marker is the Yosano Akiko Museum, just a block or two south. Established sometime in the last few years, the Sakai Rishō no Mori [site in Japanese]](堺利晶の杜, which they’ve translated a bit oddly as “Sakai Plaza of Rikyū and Akiko”) actually houses two museums, one devoted to Sen no Rikyū, the 16th-century tea ceremony master, and the other, upstairs, to Akiko.

I don’t know that I learned new facts of her life (which was reassuring, as it suggests I’ve done my homework). But I saw things I’d never seen before, like photos not found on the Internet or in the biographies I’ve consulted, as well as gorgeous first editions of her many publications.

Akiko’s modern-Japanese translation of Tale of Genji

Here are photos of three publications of particular interest to me: The first is volume one of her four-volume translation into modern Japanese of The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu’s sprawling 10th-century tale of the lives and loves of Heian Period courtiers. Genji would be an artistic and personal touchstone for Akiko throughout her life. She rushed the first two volumes to press in the months before she left for Europe; the publication no doubt helped fund her trip.

Pari yori (From Paris)

The second book is Pari yori [パリより, From Paris], a non-fiction memoir of the trip co-written with her husband Hiroshi, who had gone to Paris six months ahead of Akiko. I believe this book may include (or may even be wholly comprised of) dispatches the famous literary couple sent from Paris and that first appeared in the Tokyo-based Asahi shimbun newspaper.

Natsu yori aki e (Summer to Autumn, 1913)
Case for Natsu yori aki e (Summer to Autumn)

And the third book is Natsu yori aki e [夏より秋へ; Summer to Autumn], Akiko’s 1913 poetry collection, which includes over 200 poems Akiko composed about her journey. I’ve spent much of the last year translating these into English. Partly it’s research; Akiko recorded many of her impressions about the trip in her poems. And partly it’s to provide my new novel with epigraphs. Here’s a sample poem from the collection, along with my own attempt at translation:


Koi suru ni mutsukashiki koto nani nokoru sanzen-ri sae hitori ni te koshi

What difficulty
of love remains to me now?
I made my way here,
traveling alone over
seven thousand miles.

The museum also has a short, soundless video of Akiko holding one of her grandchildren. Honestly, she looks too young to be a grandmother already, but I may be projecting how old I’m likely to be before I have any grandchildren myself. Akiko’s dressed in kimono and looks happy. The baby is bundled in many layers and wears an expression of great infant seriousness.

It’s odd to see film footage of someone who’s been gone a long time and that you only know through scholarship and photographs. It reminded me of being at the Jack London Museum in Glen Ellen, California, where one can watch (or could, anyway, when I visited more than 15 years ago) a short film of Jack London, taken shortly before he died in 1916. There they are, preserved in black and white, so much alive yet out of reach.

Even eerier, I think, is hearing the voice of a famous deceased person who’s not, you know, a film actor. The Akiko museum has two such recordings. In the first, she’s reading from her own translation of The Tale of Genji. I believe this is a recording she completed in the 1930s at the Columbia Records office in Tokyo.

In the other, she’s reciting her own poetry. But it’s not really a recitation or reading so much as chanting. The “tune” follows a pattern of rising and falling tones that’s repeated for each poem.

It put me in mind of plainchant, which I sang some during my years with the Holy Innocents Episcopal Church choir in San Francisco. Once you know the pattern, you can apply it to any Psalm. Likewise Akiko’s chanting sounded as though it might be applied to any tanka [短歌], the common Japanese poetic form that consists of 31 syllables arranged in sets of 5-7-5-7-7. Akiko wrote in many different poetic forms during her very productive life. But tanka comprise the chief part of her oeuvre.

I felt a rush of emotion on hearing Akiko’s voice that I did not feel anywhere else—not standing on the site of her birthplace or seeing old family photos I had not seen before or watching her show off her new grandchild for the camera. There was something so intimate about holding the handset to my ear and hearing her. And something daunting about it too. Would I—could I—do right by that voice?

I’m certainly going to try. Meanwhile, I’m off for the next stage of my own journey. As I complete this blog entry, I’m on the ferry for Vladivostok. I was most anxious about this segment of the trip, but so far it’s been fine; I’ll try to write about it soon.

It was raining lightly as I boarded yesterday evening, so I’ll leave you with this poem from Akiko’s Summer to Autumn:


Kasa akete ware kashizukinu shima no hito fune o agareba gin no ame furu

A kind islander
opened up their umbrella
and waited on me.
As we climbed aboard the ship,
a silver rain was falling.
[All photos in this entry by Dan Fuchs.]

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/.

Our Year in Reading 2016

Rabih Alameddine, Christian Kracht, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Books we both read and loved

This was the year my husband read more—a lot more—than I did.

There were two simple reasons for this: He read more, and I read less.

He joined two book clubs in 2016, which explains, at least in part, his impressive list. He read so many books this year that he spent over an hour typing up and annotating his list. Then, after handing me the notebook where we record our completed books, he suddenly cried out, “Wait! I need that back. I skipped a whole page.”


I don’t have any excuse for my poorer showing. I read a couple of real tomes, and I read a lot of newspaper and magazine articles, but I just didn’t read very many books.

So that’s one of my New Year’s resolutions: read more books. Especially poetry. I read shamefully little poetry this year.

I always highlight the few books Dan and I both read in the same calendar year. This year that distinction goes to a record three books, which, miracle of miracles, we both loved: Rabih Alameddine’s The Angel of History; Christian Kracht’s Imperium; and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby.

Herewith, our lists:

Naomi’s list

  • Mary Volmer, Reliance, Illinois. Mary is a friend; I was honored to blurb the book too. An engaging historical novel about the lives of women in the 1870s.
  • Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies. I should have loved this. I expected to. But I didn’t.
  • Ben Lerner, 10:04. I was asked to describe this novel the other day at a dinner party, and I couldn’t. Not because I couldn’t remember it, but because it somehow defies summation. I loved it. I’d love to write a similarly description-defiant book one day.
  • Sara Majka, Cities I’ve Never Lived In. Beautiful debut collection of short stories.
  • Lafcadio Hearn, Kwaidan, In Ghostly Japan
    Weird, scary stories for a weird, scary year

    Lafcadio Hearn, Kwaidan. Hearn was a Greek-American writer who spent the last 14 years of his life in Japan and published several books that include, among other things, wonderful retellings of Japanese ghost stories and folk tales. I read a lot of Hearn this year for a new project of mine.

  • Anne Enright, The Gathering. A penetrating, gorgeous novel that reflects, in part, on how children with the same upbringing can end up with utterly different outcomes.
  • Matt Sumell, Making Nice. A hilarious, heartbreaking collection of linked stories. You all should read it.
  • Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek . Reading Dillard is always simultaneously inspiring and humbling. I end up with a head full of writing ideas and a deep sense of my own limitations. This book, which somehow I’d never read before, did not disappoint in that regard.
  • Christian Kracht, Imperium. A marvelous literary romp that plays wantonly with history and narrative expectations.
  • John Keene, Counternarratives. A fascinating collection of stories that challenge everything—the reader, received histories, received narratives. Includes “Rivers,” a kind of sequel to Huck Finn.
  • Shawna Yang Ryan, Green Island. I love novels that teach me something. I did not know anything about the important history of 20th-century Taiwan before I read this riveting book.
  • Janis Cooke Newman, A Master Plan for Rescue. An engaging World War II novel set in both New York City and Berlin.
  • Hannah Kent, Burial Rites. Haunting novel set in Iceland in the early 19th century.
  • Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members. Light epistolary novel.
  • G. Rowley, Yosano Akiko and the Tale of Genji. Scholarly work read for another one of my current writing projects.
  • Lafcadio Hearn, In Ghostly Japan. More short stories and essays from late-Meiji Japan.
  • Lori Ostlund, After the Parade. A novel that broke my heart and made me laugh out loud over and over.
  • Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby. Unsettling modern fairy tales set in Soviet Russia.
  • Garrard Conley, Boy Erased. This timely memoir tells the story of the author’s experience with “gay conversion therapy.”
  • Brian Doyle, The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World. I’ve been a fan of Doyle’s fiction and essays for years and was thrilled to be asked to blurb his new novel. It’s coming out in March.
  • Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji, translated by Edward Seidensticker. I have an intense love-hate relationship with this book, which I wrote about here when I finished Royall Tyler’s translation two years ago. I’m trying to read all of the major English-language translations. Two down, two to go.
  • Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries. Winner of the 2013 Booker Prize. A book impressive for its length and complexity; I suspect it needs a second reading to really “get,” but I wasn’t willing to give the book even more time.
  • Kristi Abbott, Kernel of Truth. This “cozy mystery,” which was actually written by my friend Eileen Rendahl, got me through a terrible bout of insomnia in the unsettling weeks preceding the election.
  • Rabih Alammedine, The Angel of History. Astonishing.
  • Villanelles, ed. Annie Finch and Marie-Elizabeth Mali. A beautiful volume, part of Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series. Turns out really good villanelles are hard to write. Other than the famous villanelles I already loved and a few new examples, I was mostly disappointed.
  • Patricia MacLachlan, The Poet’s Dog. A lovely children’s book, ideal for the young dog- and poetry-lover in your life. Tied up a bit too neatly at the end for my taste.
  • Jane Austen, Mansfield Park. This fall I started listening to audiobooks at bedtime. The practice became a lifesaver after the catastrophe of the election.

Dan’s list (the comments are his, not mine)

  • Saadat Hasan Manto, Bombay Stories. Translated from the Urdu, a collection of Manto’s classic stories of 1930s Mumbai.
  • Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Fun for a Davis resident, as most of the action takes place here.
  • Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge. Read for book club, not a crowd-pleaser.
  • Edward St. Aubyn, Lost for Words. Something of a failure of a satire of the British book-award industry by the author of the much more gripping Patrick Melrose novels.
  • Sebastian Faulks, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells. Largely captured the original Wodehousian flavor.
  • Harry Matthews, Tlooth. I will read pretty much anything by Matthews, the first American member of Oulipo.

    Vikram Seth, Golden Gate
    Worth reading again — and again
  • Vikram Seth, Golden Gate. Rewards re-reading. This was my third go-through.
  • Viet Than Nguyen, The Sympathizer. Perhaps I was not as bowled over by this as everyone else (including the Pulitzer committee) because I am so accustomed to reading work told from the perspective of someone not from the U.S.
  • Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See. Met expectations—which were high.
  • Julian Barnes, Arthur and George. Pretty good, except for the ending.
  • Cory Doctorow, Little Brother. A lot of YA fiction is great. This was not in that category.
  • Steve Silberman, Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. Fascinating, especially the early history of Asperger’s work.
  • Michael Azerrad, Our Band Could Be Your Life. I’ve been meaning to read this history of 1980s punk forever, and it was a lot of fun.
  • Claire Vaye Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus. Regretfully, could not enjoy this alternative-universe novel of California drought.
  • Donald Shoup, The High Cost of Free Parking. Non-fiction. A revelation.
  • Phil LaMarche, American Youth
    Dan’s pick for best underrated book

    Phil LaMarche, American Youth. Plucked from a list of novels recommended by other writers, a taut, naturalistic story deserving of more attention.

  • David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. This slim volume collects four essays on bureaucracy, which probably could have been edited down into one.
  • Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails. Felt like the author couldn’t quite decide if she wanted to write a straight-up intellectual history or something more entertaining.
  • Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories. Also worth re-reading every decade or so.
  • Christian Kracht, Imperium. A small, delightful, but ultimately tragic story of obsession and paranoia.
  • Gabriel García Márquez, Collected Novellas. Any opportunity to read García Márquez should be seized.
  • David Graeber, Debt: the First 5,000 Years. Non-fiction. Deservedly a classic.
  • David James Duncan, The Brothers K. Too long and much too much about baseball.
  • Svetlana Alexievich, Zinky Boys. I see why she won the Nobel.
  • Roald Dahl, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar & Six More. Dahl needs no explanation.
  • N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season. Totally deserved the 2016 Hugo it won.
  • Janette Sadik-Khan & Seth Solomonov, Streetfight. Non-fiction. Lessons for improving cities.
  • Albertine Sarrazin, Astragale. Not great, but tremendously interesting. And a brilliant ending.
  • Hope Jahren, Lab Girl. Non-fiction. A story of a scientist and a friendship.
  • N.K. Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate. This sequel to the Fifth Season is if anything even better.
  • William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury. I’ve tried to read Faulkner before and given up. Could it be that I’ve matured enough to read him?
  • Ursula K. LeGuin, Buffalo Gals and other Animal Presences. Not the best work by the American who really should have won this year’s Nobel.
  • Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, There Once Lived a Woman who Tried to Kill her Neighbor’s Baby. Surreal short stories.
  • Rosa Brooks, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. Another book that would have succeeded better as an article in the Atlantic.

    Clarice Lispector
    Everyone’s favorite Jewish-Ukrainian-Brazilian writer
  • Ogden Nash, Versus. A nice break from the previous two.
  • William Gibson, Spook Country. Started kind of weak, but improved as it went along.
  • Clarice Lispector, Complete Stories. Everyone’s favorite Jewish-Ukrainian-Brazilian writer. Fascinating to follow her work from her late teens to her late 50s.
  • Rabih Alammedine, The Angel of History. What more can be said about this amazing, funny, sad book.
  • Ben Winters, Underground Airlines. Not Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, but that’s up soon.

And the Nobel goes to…

Ill: N. Elmehed. © Nobel Media 2016
Ill: N. Elmehed. © Nobel Media 2016

When the Swedish Academy announced this morning that Bob Dylan was their choice for this year’s Literature Prize, people went crazy in exactly the ways you’d expect: his die-hard fans were jubilant; many writers and literature-lovers expressed open dismay; and others jumped into the fray to defend the award and call out the naysayers for snobbery and narrow-mindedness.

I think one can be nonplussed or even disappointed by this decision and remain innocent of elitism or parochialism or of suggesting Dylan is anything less than awesome. Sure, song lyrics are poetry, which makes it literature. Still, I don’t think the expectation that the award go to people who’ve spent their lives making, you know, books, as their principal occupation, is necessarily misplaced or snobby. Continue reading