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Although I grew up in Kansas, I’ve had a long interest in Japan with many points of contact along the way. A Japanese history course at the University of Kansas, a two-year Army tour in Okinawa, visits to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a climb up Mt. Fuji, a sabbatical in Japan studying the Japanese Constitution, and about 20 trips to Japan visiting my wife, Miyo, and taking trips with her in her home country.  But never had we gone to the far or “deep north” of the largest of the four main Japanese islands, Honshu.

Several years ago, I happened upon the excellent travel book by Lesley Downer, On the Narrow Road to the Deep North: Journey into a Lost Japan. 300 years after haiku master, Basho’s, trip to the “deep north,” Downer tried to follow in his footsteps, walking and hitchhiking, eating flowers and sautéed grasshoppers, amongst other things. Before reading her fascinating book, I had not known of Basho. Matsuo Munefusa (1644 – 1694) was the most famous poet of the Edo period (1615 – 1868) in Japan.  His disciples built him a rustic hut and planted a banana plant (basho in Japanese) in his yard. Basho’s disciples called his house the basho house and Basho liked the term so much he changed his last name. Since then, he has been known as Matsuo Basho and his poetry is internationally renowned.

More… “Looking for Basho”

Fritz Snyder, J.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Law at the University of Montana. He has written about the Montana and Japanese Constitutions, the links between great works of literature and the Supreme Court, and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. He has also climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro.

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The railway combined rapid movement and the possibility of transportation across large distances. As difficult it is to imagine today, in the age of jet travel, the transition from stagecoach to train was a rocky one. In 1843, after the railway lines from Paris to Rouen and Orléans had been inaugurated, German-Jewish writer Heinrich Heine wrote:

What changes must now occur in our way of viewing things and in our imagination! Even the elementary concepts of time and space have begun to vacillate. Space is killed by the railways, and we are left with time alone. … I feel as if the mountains and forests of all countries were advancing on Paris. Even now, I can smell the German linden trees; the North Sea’s breakers are rolling against my doors.

In the words of cultural historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch, the railway created “a revolutionary rupture with (all) past forms of experience.” His book The Railway Journey remains the eminent source. The railway freed travel from the constraints of human and animal muscle power (and stench) and — to the extent that the network expanded — from geography itself. It also introduced a number of new sensory and psychological experiences. In this context, the mechanical vibration from the engine was seen as particularly threatening, often inspiring fears that the train would derail. Drivers complained about “the trepidation of the machines, the regular but perpetual movements that it transmits to the entire body and to the lower extremities in particular,” as a French article about influences on the health of train conductors recapitulated in 1857. Some early drivers came up with arrangements to cushion the shocks and jerking vibrations, but over time they got used to them. First- and second-class passengers profited from upholstery, but for some time they still suffered from fatigue as a result of the unfamiliar movements. Train passengers also experienced a sensation of disorientation, but gradually got accustomed to the new mode of travel.

More… “Adventure and Pain…”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His most recent book is Birdmania: A Particular Passion for Birds. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, and Best American Travel Writing. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.

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A man in tattered clothing jumped into the car as the train lurched forward violently, sending him unintentionally crashing into a group of five women near the door. They radiated femininity in their colorful Indian outfits and ornate jewelry, but their soft faces contorted with fury as they unleashed unexpected hell onto this imposter. Suddenly the women were screaming and beating this man. As quickly as he had leapt onto the train, he was thrown off. The concrete platform seemed to do him no harm; he bounded up immediately and pursued the train, cursing the women who cursed right back at him.

From my seat, I watched the spectacle with wide eyes.

“It happens every day, on every train. Sometimes it’s a lot worse,” a lady wearing an elegant salwar-kameez, a traditional Indian outfit, sitting next to me said in a dialect of Gujarati, since my expression… More…