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Atomic Sushi: Notes from the Heart of Japan    by Simon May order for
Atomic Sushi
by Simon May
Order:  USA  Can
Alma, 2007 (2006)
Hardcover, Paperback
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Simon May, a professor of philosophy at the University of London, was invited to teach at the University of Tokyo. Tempted he tells us by the sushi - 'a year of unlimited access to those glistening strips of the world's freshest fish draped over beguilingly tepid, gently vinegary, sticky rice' - he accepted, and experienced 'the powerful quirkiness of ordinary things in Japan'. Readers are fortunate in that he shares this insider's perspective (at least as much of one as a non-Japanese can attain) through a series of entertaining vignettes in Atomic Sushi: Notes from the Heart of Japan.

Atomic Sushi's contents are book-ended by chapters on the (mind-boggling) bureaucratic nightmares (including but not limited to arcane written instructions for stool sampling) that began before the journey started and continued long after the year was over - amusing, I'm sure, only in retrospect. May states that the university administration's Byzantine formalities were imported from Bismarck's nineteenth century Germany. He goes on to comment on the ubiquity of the comic book in Japanese commuting and passengers' ability to nap standing up; his fall from grace with a Japanese sushi master after noticing a rat in his restaurant; being accused by a mega-corporation's Managing Director of being a European Union spy; flying goldfish and high-tech toilets on the rampage in a volcanic spa; cleanliness in public and lapses in private places; the role of a Japanese wife; Seitai healing; New Year in Kyoto with a Zen Abbott; a courageous deathbed experience; a disastrous blind date; the death of a gay man in rural Japan (the chapter entitled Four Gangsters and a Funeral); and a wedding in Hiroshima.

In his Preface, Simon May tells us he wrote the book as 'a series of snapshots' not only of a country in a time of transition, 'but also of the challenge Japan presents to our self-understanding as Westerners. For, in many ways, travel is about learning how to return home afresh: about finding one's way back to oneself.' I enjoyed reading his book for that insight alone, but he provides many more, from the fascinating to the bizarre. He concludes by telling his readers that 'Japan is stubborn proof that we inhabit a world where people can hold thoroughly un-Western values and yet have a deeply successful, resilient and, in different ways, humane culture.' If you have ever traveled to Japan or plan to go there, then you must read Atomic Sushi, a very thoughtful - often philosophical - piece of travel literature.

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