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Looking Both Ways: The Use of Meiji Travel Literature in the Classroom

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Although thirty-seven years have passed since my initial visit to Japan, the memories of my first twenty-four hours in Tokyo remain sharply etched in my memory. I still can see— and feel—it all: the dark rain of the first night, the customs officials’ rigidity, the hard bed at the Asia Center, the spaghetti lunch that came when I thought I had ordered a hot dog, the embarrassment of wearing my shoes into the living room of my new apartment, the lovely sour/sweet taste of the Calpis drink my landlord served, the musty aroma of the apartment, my 22-month-old son imitating the cab driver’s sounds: ba-bi-ka-ka-do-ku, the surprising affluence of my Higashi-fushimi neighborhood, the ping-pinging of the train crossing signal.

I realize that some of the memories may be inaccurate, and that my interpretations of what things meant have changed through the years. But that does not rob the memories of their vividness; nor does it alter the fact that those first impressions created a powerful base for many of the understandings of Japan that I carry with me to this day.

That vividness, I suspect, explains why travel writings make such appealing classroom tools. The best of these accounts have a directness—and thus a power—that scholarly, seasoned analyses often lack. They reveal the outsider’s unvarnished responses to a place that is new and different. They catch the traveler when things still are surprising and interesting, when “a faint air of the exotic clings to the project.”(note 1) And that makes them gripping. And fun. Whether it is the British globetrotter Isabella Bird telling us in 1878 that she has “now ridden, or rather sat, upon seventy-six horses, all horrible,” (note 2) or the teacher Howard Swan proclaiming in 1902 that Japan’s street vendors “are all artists, often unconsciously so,”(note 3) the immediacy of the observations draws us in as readers and brings learning to life.


1. Donald Richie, The Honorable Visitors (New York: ICG Muse, 2001), 11.

2. Isabella Bird, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle and Company, 1973), 164.

3. Howard Swan, “Flashes from the East,” Taiyo 8, no. 7 (May 1902), 6.