Japanland A Year in Search of Wa

Karin Muller

Rodale Books




304 Pages



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Looking to gain a competitive edge in her judo practice and maybe a fresh perspective on meaning in her own life, documentary filmmaker Karin Muller commits to living in Japan for a year to deepen her appreciation for such Eastern ideals as ritual and tradition. What she's after—more than understanding tea-serving etiquette or the historical importance of the shogun—is wa: a transcendent state of harmony, of flow, of being in the zone. With only her Western perspective to guide her, though, she discovers in sometimes awkward, sometimes awesomely funny interactions just how maddeningly complicated it is being Japanese.

Beginning with a strict code of conduct enforced by her impeccably proper host mother, Muller is initiated in the centuries-old customs that direct everyday interactions and underlie the principles of the sumo, the geisha, Buddhist monks, and now, in the 21st century, the workaholic, career-track salary man. At the same time, she observes the relatively decadent behavior of the fast-living youth generation, the so-called New Human Beings, who threaten to ignore the old ways altogether.


Praise for Japanland

"Muller is brash, intrepid . . . She's determined not only to track down what remains of traditional Japan but also to experience it herself—perhaps not the best way to find harmony, but certainly a better route to an entertaining book."—The New York Times Book Review

"Karin Muller achieves a kind of harmonic 'wa' in this year in Japan by following that most intense journey, that of the self, in extremity. Whether challenged by the rigors of living in the hermetic world of a Japanese family, or flung about with an island cult, she maintains her composure and delight, and so do we."—Jacki Lyden, NPR senior correspondent and author of Daughter of the Queen of Sheba

"Wa, roughly translated as 'harmony,' is a Japanese term that many foreigners try to come to terms with while attempting to understand and 'explain' the Japanese. Muller, an American documentary filmmaker with a specific interest in judo, spent a year in Japan exploring various aspects of Japanese culture, including the more archaic ones like sword-making, fire-walking, sumo, and taiko; she even undertakes what turns out to be a disastrous pilgrimage to the 88 sacred places of the Shikoku Pilgrimage (on Japan's Shikoku island) . . . She provides sometimes provocative and entertaining vignettes of contemporary society on such topics as the homeless, the expats who have washed ashore in Japan for various reasons, and her attempts to 'lose' an unwanted umbrella . . . The book release will be tied into a fall PBS companion documentary.—Harold M. Otness, Library Journal

"Having previously traversed the Ho Chi Minh trail and the Inca path, Muller retains an engaging freshness as she goes about 'prying open the doors to traditional Japan.' She observes some well-known traditional communities (geishas, samurai), some less familiar (taiko drummers, pachinko parlors) and some more recent (the criminal yakuza, the gay community). A keen listener, Muller lets an ensemble of voices speak, among them a swordmaker and a crab fisherman. She's also a participatory learner, taking on tasks like harvesting rice. The diverse activities and excursions to far-flung places make this a fine travel memoir, but it's the backbone of Muller's voyage that gives her book resonance and richness. The deterioration of her relationship with her host family is a looming presence; even as it collapses, Muller acquires an intimate sense of customary values from the urbane Genji Tanaka and his conservative wife, Yukiko. Muller's search for the traditional, culminating in her participation in a 900-mile trek to 88 sacred Buddhist temples, also shapes the narrative. Muller went to Japan to find wa: a quality of dedication, inner strength and spiritual peace. Her memoir isn't an account of achieving those goals, but it is an engrossing, rewarding record of her travel toward them."—Jodie Rhodes, Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Karin Muller

  • Karin Muller's documentaries, Hitchhiking Vietnam and Along the Inca Road, premiered in 1998 (on PBS) and 2000 (on the National Geographic Channel and MSNBC), respectively. Muller is an expert lecturer on Japan for the National Geographic Society, and her writing appears in National Geographic and Traveler magazines. She appears on Marketplace and other National Public Radio broadcasts. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.