The Inland Sea & 2 Other Great Travel BooksSaturday, 1 June 2013
Way back in 1990 I worked on a very thorough revision of the Lonely Planet Japan guide and my regions included the Inland Sea, the island-dotted waters sandwiched between Honshu (Japan’s major island) to the north, Shikoku (the smallest of the four big islands) to the south and Kyushu to the west. As I travelled from island to island I read Donald Richie’s The Inland Sea, not just the perfect introduction to the area, but a perfect introduction to Japan.
◄ The latest edition of The Inland Sea includes an introduction by Pico Iyer
Written in the ‘60s and first published in 1971 it captures a moment when Japan was poised on the brink of huge changes. Like any classic travel books – and this one is a classic – it’s much more than just the travel, you come away with lots of insights into Japan, the Japanese people and, indeed, into Mr Richie. Turning up in Japan in 1947 at the age of 22, soon after the end of WW II, he quickly discovered that it was a long way from Ohio, Richie spent most of the rest of his life in Japan and yet remained a curious outsider to the end. He died in February, apart from his 40-odd books he also wrote at length on Japanese cinema and the subtitles to three Kurosawa films are to his credit.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala died in April and although she was not a travel writer her Booker Prize winning novel Heat & Dust is a fine book to read while you’re travelling India. She was also an Oscar winner, for the script of A Room With a View, and played a key part in many of the Merchant-Ivory films.
Maurice Herzog died a few months earlier in December 2012 and his classic work Annapurna, accurately subtitled ‘The Epic Account of a Himalayan Conquest & its Harrowing Aftermath,’ is also not really a travel title. In fact it’s the classic mountain climbing tale and remains the best selling mountaineering title of all time. I wrote a turn-of-the-century newspaper supplement on adventurers for The Australian and included that French hero:
Mountain climbing as a distinct activity started in the last century – an English climber reached the top of a 6000 metre Himalayan peak in 1883 and another Englishman climbed 7215 metre Trisuli in Nepal in 1907 – but despite many attempts on Everest and other Himalayan giants during the 1920s and ‘30s not one of the world’s 14 8000 metre peaks had been climbed at the mid-point of the century. The conquest of Everest by Edmund Hillary and Norgay Tensing in 1953 remains the most famous ascent in mountaineering, but three years earlier Maurice Herzog led a French team to the 8091m summit of Annapurna in the first successful ascent of a Himalayan giant. The climbers were to pay a huge price for their success, trapped by blizzards on the descent Herzog subsequently lost all his fingers and toes to frostbite but his book Annapurna is one of the true mountaineering classics. Today, when well-fed trekkers have dubbed the Annapurna Circuit walk the ‘apple pie trek’, because so many trekkers’ lodges turn out that dish, it’s hard to believe that just 50 years ago simply finding their way to the foot of the mountain was a major problem for those pioneering mountaineers.