With this issue, we're introducing Longitude's Book of the Month, a monthly feature focusing on a travel title that inspires us to leave our armchairs for new destinations. This edition centers on Marie Mutsuki Mockett's Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye. The reviews and interviews are written and conducted by our editors. Our selections are culled from the regular Book of the Week feature on our blog.
Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye
By Marie Mutsuki Mockett
When her American father unexpectedly passes away, Marie Mutsuki Mockett seeks consolation in her mother's home country of Japan. Her relatives own a Buddhist temple near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, where, after the 2011 tsunami, radiation levels prohibit the burial of her grandfather, who has also recently passed away. Burdened with these personal sorrows, Mockett travels in the wake of the storm to explore the grief of others as she seeks her own path toward healing.
In her new book Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye, Mockett records her travels across the island nation. She treks around the base of Mt. Doom in search of one of the two remaining itakos — blind mediums — who can connect her with the dead, shadows a monk delivering solace to the families of victims of the tsunami and explores several temples, including one that commemorates material objects that are believed to gain souls after 100 years.
Determined to immerse herself in a culture that views her as an outsider, Mockett visits a radiation zone in a hazmat suit, undergoes training at a school for Zen Buddhist monks and participates wholeheartedly in matsuri, or Japanese festivals, like the springtime cherry blossom celebrations and a particularly poignant lantern festival, where she observes the lanterns floating in clusters with the currents, "as though some of the souls out at sea were in fact not alone but traveling home to the horizon with each other."
Throughout her travels Mockett continually explores Japanese lore — from possessed chopsticks to cremation ceremonies — in an effort to understand the Japanese way of grieving, but also to learn how to bury her own dead and, ultimately, to find peace. This wise book is an unpretentious and engaging introduction to Japanese culture and Zen Buddhism as well as an exploration of how a particular culture accepts loss and alleviates suffering.
A Longitude Interview
Author Marie Mutsuki Mockett discusses her frequent travels to Japan in the wake of the 2011 tsunami. Mockett graduated from Columbia University with a degree in East Asian Languages and Civilizations and has published a novel, Picking Bones from Ash. According to her website, her writing "often focuses on the intersection between spirituality and modernity, and the manner in which Japan and America, the world's two richest countries, have responded to unprecedented materialism and success."
Read the full conversation on our blog.
LONGITUDE: Rather than being the record of a straight chronological journey, your book gathers several different trips to Japan into one narrative. How would you describe the guiding force behind your journey as a whole?
MOCKETT: The secret structure of the book, at least for me, is that I trace the journey of the soul. I begin with the tsunami, then visit the survivors, before moving on to the souls of the dead. And then I trace where the dead go — how they disappear to the "other world," the places and times of the year when they come back, and where we can go to catch them one more time to say goodbye. I try to give a context for the Japanese beliefs, without burdening the casual reader with too much information. Hopefully as a result of this hidden structure, there is a natural emotional arc to the book.
LONGITUDE: You experience many types of travel as you move about Japan. You visit relatives, participate in festivals and journey to temples or sacred sites in what amounts to a series of pilgrimages. How does travel for spiritual reasons or to sacred destinations differ from other kinds of travel?
MOCKETT: I tend to think of travel in general as a spiritual activity. You know the Paul Bowles theory about tourists versus travelers? I hope I'm in the latter category. I love to travel. I find it always forces me to confront something about myself, or about humanity in general. Some "spiritual" destinations turn out not to be terribly spiritual at all — I've left those out of my book. Conversely, a place that does not from the outside seem to have a spiritual dimension might turn out to be profoundly moving. You can infer from what I've written that I'm generally a spiritually seeking person — it seems to be my orientation.
LONGITUDE: Window seat or aisle?
MOCKETT: Window. My son is the only person to whom I will relinquish the window seat. I am the person on the plane taking photos of islands out the window, then photographing the GPS map, and then trying to figure out what I saw via Google Earth once I get home.
On a recent flight to Tokyo, the pilots gave me their paper map so I could see the exact route we took. I'm the one asking if there's a chance of seeing any Northern Lights, and then forcing other passengers to open their shades to look outside.
LONGITUDE: You often mention feeling like an outsider in Japan. You demonstrate knowledge of Japanese language and etiquette in an effort to fit in with your maternal heritage. What advice would you give to a foreigner in Japan who is trying to relate to local culture?
MOCKETT: Japan is a wonderful country to visit for almost any traveler of any age or physical ability. It's modern but draws from very different cultural roots, so you can have the wonderful feeling of disorientation and discovery that only comes from travel while still enjoying the benefits of modern medicine and superb public transportation. Most people who travel to Japan for any extended period go through predictable highs and lows — they can't get over how clean and modern everything is and admire the Japanese intensely, before suddenly become frustrated by how "different" it is. This kind of culture shock is normal.
But. Most of all, I would say do your best to be yourself. It will be very obvious, in most cases, that you are an outsider. Smile, say thank you, pause a moment before doing something if you are uncertain of protocol. Small gestures, like learning to say "please" and "thank you" and presenting little gifts from home, go a long way. The Japanese are friendly and helpful and will generally try to give you a hand, so you can get a sense of what is going on in any circumstance.