The Only Gaijin in the Village by Iain Maloney provides a totally different view of Japan to the usual fast-paced, high-tech, wild and wacky descriptions of the country most books adhere to.
After reading Around the World in 80 Trains last month, which featured Japan, I was desperate to immerse myself in another book about one of my favourite countries.
Japan will always have a special place in my heart. It was where I did one of my most difficult (in terms of language/culture) solo trips at the age of 21, getting into all kinds of mishaps along the way. Plus, it was where Mr A and I had the most magical three-week honeymoon.
While we did spend some time in the mountain village of Ainokura during our visit, I’m aware that it’s traditional glasshouses still make it a tourist hotspot. So I was excited to pick up a book which would show a different side of life in Japan.
The Only Gaijin in the Village follows a year of Maloney living in rural Japan. The Scottish writer and his Japanese wife decide to move there after he’d spent more than a decade living in the country. This obviously meant that he could speak the language.
However, there was still so many customs and traditions of Japanese life that he was set to learn. As well as the interest of neighbours in their business, which includes Maloney trying to bring his garden under control, the couple are also expected to contribute to village life.
Plus there are insights into the, frankly quite terrifying, garden wildlife, as well as things like weather systems and earthquakes.
A slower pace
The first thing we discussed in #travelbookclub was that the book is understandably quite different to those which document the high-speed of city life.
Personally, I enjoyed that the slower pace reflected rural life in Japan. Some of the chapters force you to slow down and contemplate a different side to the stereotypes of Japan.
We also talked about how Maloney had written his book after 12 years in Japan. We considered whether it would have been very different to one he’d perhaps written after just a year there.
I think that this was definitely the case. Having read a snippet Maloney shared from an old blog written when he’d first arrived in the country, his previous account was much more stereotyped. I think speaking the language and marrying a Japanese woman changed his experiences, as well as where he now lives.
Nature plays an important role in the book. So our next question was about why Maloney chose to structure his book around the seasons.
I felt that the seasons became more important to him when living in a village. A lot of his life now revolves around them, such as his planting schedule in his garden, in a way that it wouldn’t in the city.
Something else we discussed during our chat was whether anything about life in rural Japan surprised us.
I was really interested in the voluntary aspect of life in a village. Each household is expected to take turns in things like litter picks and cleaning the communal hall. What makes this funny is that because the Japanese are so tidy and respectful, much of this is for show.
The final question of the evening was about which elements of the book we most enjoyed.
For me, the chapters about Maloney’s neighbours and family members were the most interesting. I think a sense of community is really important when you’re planning to stay long-term in a country. So I enjoyed reading about his progress as he settled in.
One of the things I love most about running a book club is that you get to see different reactions to a book. While I enjoyed The Only Gaijin in the Village, I did at times feel like its structure was quite jarring in places. This made more sense when the author revealed that it had begun life as a weekly column in a newspaper. However, another member of the group said it was one of her favourite travel books she’d ever read. I love hearing this from people, as it just goes to show that every reader has a different response to a book.
If you’d like to join #travelbookclub next month we’ll be reading The Salt Path by Raynor Winn. We’ll be discussing it on June 3 at 9pm BST.
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