Your summer holiday book – Botchan

Botchan

Natsume Soseki, one of Japan’s foremost writers, published Botchan in 1905. It’s been described as ‘probably the most widely read novel in modern Japan’ but it’s not that well known in the west. Now’s your chance to discover it.

Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s a masterpiece – it’s an easy read, a light humorous satire about a Jack-the-lad from Tokyo who gets a job as a teacher in a remote country town  (actually Matsuyama in Shikoku) whose attempts to impress the girls and his new colleagues go increasingly awry.

Make sure you get a good translation. Unfortunately the free translation available on Kindle was done in 1918 by Yasotaro Morri and the kindest way I can find to describe it is clunky. The Matt Treyvaud translation is very Americanised so is best for Americans or if you’re desperate for a Kindle version. The Cohn translation in the picture is the one I like best but it’s not on Kindle yet.

Matsuyama is the capital of Ehime Province in Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s five main islands and it’s dominated by Matsuyama castle.

Matsuyama CastleShikoku was very remote in Soseki’s day and even today it’s pretty quiet; most Japanese people have never been there. The bullet train passes it by – to get there you have to change to the Yosan Line at Okayama or else fly into Matsuyama airport from Tokyo.

If you ever get the chance to go you’ll find plenty of reminders of Botchan. The Dogo Onsen is a remarkable old building with towers and piled-up roofs with upturned corners that look like they were put together by a mad wizard. It’s the oldest hot spring in Japan and was the model for the bathhouse of the gods in the film Spirited Away. It has a room of pictures of the originals of the characters in Botchan.

Dogo OnsenMost fun is the Botchan Railway, a diesel-powered replica of the steam train in the book, that runs through the centre of the town.

Botchan Train

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