The Kingdom by the Sea

 

Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.

-Miriam Beard

A few more pages and I’ll be finished with Paul Theroux’s The Kingdom by the Sea, a travelogue of his journey around the British coast – which also included Ireland.

The book was a gift to me after I expressed a desire, hopefully sooner rather than later, to do my own travelogue of Japan. Some might ask why since I’ve lived there 18-19 out of my 25-year existence. True, I was raised in Japan. The years we lived off the navy base were more interesting than years on the base (even though the base was really convenient). I went to school on the navy base but hung out with friends off the base. Neither environment – U.S. military base and Japanese culture – were foreign to me. The military with its rigors and disciplined lifestyle was one aspect of my life, and the quiet and perceptively harmonious Japanese life the other.

If you don’t already know, I’m a halfie. Born to a white (American) father and Japanese mother. So the idea that living in Japan, or rather, on the military base in Japan, south of Tokyo, wasn’t really anything special. It was a SSDD – Same Shit, Different Day – kind of place. After I moved to the U.S., I realized how much I really missed out in learning about Japan and what made its people tick.

The basis for my Japan travelogue is really out of a desire to understand the multiple subcultural communities that live in Japan. You have the mega-metropolis of Tokyo, but even within this international city there are subcultures. I believe there are ethnic enclaves in Tokyo, and Yokohama might look like Tokyo, but I don’t necessarily think they’re the “same” in a homogenous sense. There’s also the stark differences between the high urban Tokyo area and the very rural north, like Misawa, or the touristy south like Kyoto. There are also the other islands – Hokkaido, Shikoku, Kyūshū, and Okinawa. There’s a lot to learn about the country I was raised in, a heritage I share with the people and my mom.

I’m excited about the book and I enjoyed it a lot. I’m looking into reading Dark Star Safari next, as well as other travelogues, but I also experienced disappointment with The Kingdom.

My impression of Great Britain, or its coast after reading this book was that it’s quite boring and unimpressive. Every place he visited seemed to be all the same – the weather, the bleak atmosphere, the color, the tone. Nothing really seemed interesting. The only part I started getting excited about was his time in Ireland, traveling through civil unrest and witnessing unashamed murder. But aside from the violence that erupted in Ireland, even the Emerald Isle leaves an impression of bleak, unexciting, non-existent existence. It’s not boring per se, but it’s making me wonder if trying to visit the place is still worth it.

The other issue I had with the book was his absolute refusal to “sight see”. The isn’t a tourist’s book and I get that. I don’t want my future travelogue to come off as a “tourist’s guide to (where ever)” kind of book, but it seemed like he really missed out on providing adventure by purposefully skipping out the castles and cathedrals that were on the coastal routes. Of course my opinion on this stems mostly from the fact that I’ve never been to the U.K., so any mention of a castle off in the distance made me want to know more about it. But Theroux skipped them. Even though this element was missing – at least for me – I see the value in sticking to the non-touristy sites. It keeps the focus on the everyday scenes of the people along the coast – even if almost all 350 pages or so sound pretty much the same.

All in all, I feel inspired by The Kingdom and I even have a desire now to retrace Theroux’s steps around the coast of Great Britain.

 

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