Literary walks in Kansai
In Japan (and maybe in other places, too, but I wouldn’t know) there is such a thing as a literary walk (bungaku sanpo), where you go strolling around the places described in a piece of literature.
With all the allusions to American music, literature and culture in general, Murakami Haruki’s novels are actually quite well grounded in a very Japanese scenery, if you know where to look for it. For example, Hear the Wind Sing (1979) would make a lovely material for a literary walk around one of the neighbourhoods of Ashiya, near Kobe. The elements that form the background of the story — the monkey cage in a tiny park where the protagonists crash their car one night, the tennis courts and their rhythmically pounding balls, the river flowing by and into the sea —you can find them all around Uchide station, just as in the novel, i.e., as nondescript as they are characteristic to Japan’s suburbia, hence fairly easy to miss both when reading the novel, and while walking past them. Unless you do the latter in conjunction with the former!
A more obvious example (perhaps even too obvious?) is Kawabata Yasunari’s The Old Capital (1962), basically a guided tour of Kyoto. It’s been said that its publication actually spurred renewed interest in the city. The characters walk through the scenery of Kyoto, and the narrator’s (sometimes a bit pedantic) descriptions miss almost none of the famous tourist spots: Kiyomizu Temple, Heian Shrine, Kyoto Botanical Gardens, Nishiki Market, Gion, Yasaka Shrine, Shijo Bridge, etc. The novel also takes the reader to the environs of Kyoto(e.g., Kitayama and Saga), and unveils some less well-known gems, such as the garden hidden behind Heian Shrine, which I’d never thought to visit before reading The Old Capital, but is definitely worth a stroll or five.
There’s another, less well-known novel that’s set in Kyoto, published around the same time as Kawabata’s, an “evil twin” of sorts: Minakami Tsutomu’s Temple of the Wild Geese (1961), an intriguing blend of detective story and autobiographical novel, combining elements from two different temples (Zuishun-in and Tōji-in) where the author had lived as a novice with his knowledge about the intricacies of temple life and the debauchery of the priesthood, in order to create the perfect backdrop for a perfect murder.
As a matter of fact, it’s actually Zuishun-in that’s normally credited as the stage of the “dirty deed” described in the novel, because it is home to the geese fusuma panels mentioned at key points throughout the story — even though, it later came to light, the young novice didn’t actually have access to that particular room, and, in a bizarre coincidence, Minakami had misremembered the pheasants on another room’s fusuma as geese! But, as I was reading, I realised something was off: the distances didn’t add up, the directions were wrong… After carefully observing the moss growing on five gingko biloba trees west of Kyoto University’s Clock Tower and the position of the moon at 9 pm the second night after the autumn equinox… well, of course not — after getting myself dizzy with maps old and new (by the way, this is a cool site that allows you to “walk around” 1930s Kyoto), I landed on Tōji-in as the actual location of the novel, and decided to go on a literary-detective walk to confirm my hunch.
On site, I was pleased to find all the topographical details where the novel had told me they’d be: Mt. Kinugasa visible (albeit slightly obscured by a newer building) from the temple’s garden, the tea room on a small mound across the main hall, the lake with a little island in the middle and carp swimming around, etc. I could even see the eerie space under the building (that plays a very important role in the novel, but… no spoilers!)
Of course, every piece of literature creates its own world, and it’s often either impossible and unnecessary to compare it to the real world (some might even say that this straight out kills the fun!) I am usually the type who likes to let the fictional spaces I find in books grow randomly and organically in my head, based on some vague idea I might or might not have about the actual setting (oh, I forgot to mention, I read almost exclusively realistic fiction). In this particular case, though, I felt I should see “the lay of the land” with my own eyes because much of the way the perfect murder is carried out hinges on the location and architecture of the temple. All in all, I recommend both the book, and the literary walk — try to go in fall, when the leaves at and around Tōji-in must be gorgeous (it was a bit too early when I went).