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What is Tatsuhiko Shibusawa's "Takaoka's Travels" about?

Updated: May 1

Takaoka's Travels by Tatsuhiko Shibusawa is a beloved gem in Japanese literature that has captivated readers for decades. Winner of the Yomiuri Prize and recipient of the 2022-23 William F. Sibley Memorial Subvention Award for Japanese Translation, the novel continues to enthrall readers, earning its status as a cult classic in Japan.


A blend of historical fantasy, adventure, and surrealism Takaoka's Travels whisks readers away on a thrilling adventure to ninth-century India, where Prince Takaoka, now a monk, discovers a world of marvels and perils. 


We follow Prince Takaoka and his companions as they encounter strange creatures and mystical phenomena. From a white ape guarding bird-women to dream-feeding beasts and a dog-headed man with foresight, each encounter brings new wonder and excitement. Yet, amidst the allure of beauty, Takaoka learns its dangers as he is drawn to captivating sights like perfectly shaped pearls or giant blood-red flowers, revealing the peril they hide. 






The author, Tatsuhiko Shibusawa (1928-1987)
The author, Tatsuhiko Shibusawa (1928-1987)

Written by Tatsuhiko Shibusawa (1928-1987), a counterculture icon of the 1960s, Takaoka's Travels reflects his lifelong fascination with the mystical. A prolific translator of French literature, Shibusawa was known for his translations of the Marquis de Sade and the French surrealists as well as his essays, which deal with topics ranging from dreams to the occult.





Tatsuhiko Shibusawa in Bungo Stray Dogs
Tatsuhiko Shibusawa in Bungo Stray Dogs

Anime enthusiasts may recognize Shibusawa from a character inspired by and that shares his same name in the anime Bungo Stray Dogs.


Written as Shibusawa was dying and only published after his death, Takaoka's Travels, his one and only novel, is often seen as a prime representation of all that fascinated the author throughout his life.  



Translated into English by David Boyd, best known for his translations of Hiroko Oyamada's The Hole, and Mieko Kawakami's Breasts and Eggs (among others), readers worldwide will finally be able to embark on the extraordinary pilgrimage that is Takaoka's Travels this year.


Takaoka's Travels by Tatsuhiko Shibusawa, translated by David Boyd will be available in both print and digital May 14th, 2024. Get your copy here.


Read a sample from Takaoka's Travels below.



 


Dugong

On the twenty-seventh day of the first month in the sixth year of the Xiantong era, Prince Takaoka set sail from Guangzhou on a ship bound for Hindustan. By the Japanese calendar the year was Jōgan 7, and the Prince was sixty-five. At his side were two monks from Japan, Anten and Engaku, both of whom had accompanied the Prince during his time in Tang.

Guangzhou was one of the liveliest ports along the South Sea, rivaling even Jiaozhou, or Lūqīn, as it was known to the Arabs. As far back as the Han dynasty, when it was known as Panyu, the port of Guangzhou traded in a great many precious goods: rhinoceros horn, elephant ivory, tortoiseshell, pearls, jade, silver, bronze, amber, aloeswood, cardamom, and more. In Xiantong 6, the port was as vibrant as ever. Moored cheek by jowl were ships from Hindustan, Arabia, Sinhala, Persia—there were even Kunlun boats from the Southern Lands. The men of the port were no less exotic, with eyes and skin of all shades and colors. Suntanned sailors stripped to the waist bounded across the decks in a veritable showcase of the world’s races. Although it would still be four centuries before Marco Polo or Odoric would travel to this part of the globe, there were already white savages on some of the ships. Even for the spectacle of the strange people passing through, the port of Guangzhou was a wonder to behold.


In broad strokes, the Prince’s plan was to leave this port aboard a small ship and head southwest via the route known as the Guangzhou–Haiyi Road. He and his companions would then disembark in Jiaozhou, the heart of the Protectorate of Annan, whereupon they would follow the Annan–Hindustan Road to their destination. But this road was forked: One path led over the mountains of Annan toward Funan in the south, and the other wound through Kunming and cut across the Dali Plain, ending in Pyu to the southwest. The Prince and his men had yet to decide which path they would take. Moreover, it was not out of the question to continue the voyage by sea. Sailing past the coasts of Champa, Chenla, and Panpan on the Malay Peninsula, they could round the Cape of Luoyue and enter the Indian Ocean through the Strait of Malacca. But whether going by land or by sea, all routes harbored unforeseeable dangers. Thus, little could be gained by planning ahead. For now, the Prince and his fellow monks would cast their fates to the wind and go as far south as possible. There was no need to think any further than that.


It is never very cold near the equator, even at the height of winter, and the wind was warm. Prince Takaoka stood on the deck, his back straight as ever. He was well into his sixties but appeared at least ten years younger. As he looked out over the bustling port from which they were about to depart, a child slipped between the legs of the men carrying cargo. The Prince and Anten both spotted the boy as he made his way onto the ship, and exchanged puzzled looks. Like the Prince, Anten had the bearing of a contemplative monk, but he was a sharp-eyed, brawny man of about forty years.


“Mere moments until our departure and an unexpected visitor drops in on us!”


“I’ll go and have a look, Miko.”


The boy who was dragged before the Prince had bright cheeks and delicate limbs like a girl. Right away, Anten began to question him in the local language. Despite his appearance, Anten was in fact a highly skilled linguist who regularly served as the Prince’s interpreter. The boy gasped for breath as he explained: “I’m a slave and I’ve run away from my master. Should my pursuers find me, they will almost certainly kill me. I seek shelter for but a moment. If this ship were to set sail for some remote place, however, so be it. I would not regret leaving this land, not in the least. If you should allow me to stay and bail bilgewater, I would be grateful beyond words.”


Such was the boy’s earnest plea.


The Prince looked to Anten and said:


“It would seem that a little bird in need has flown into our arms. How can we turn him away? Let’s bring the child with us.”


At this, Anten voiced his concern:


“As long as he doesn’t slow us down. . . . If you wish it, Miko, I suppose I have no objection.”


Then Engaku joined in:


“We could never be so cruel as to abandon him. This is a voyage to Holy Hindustan, after all. It must be the Buddha’s will.”


Just as the three monks had reached an agreement, the shipmaster yelled from the stern:


“Unmoor! Hard to starboard!”


As the ship slid slowly into the heart of the bay, two or three men on the wharf who appeared to be searching for the slave boy shouted in their direction. Overjoyed at narrowly escaping with his life, the boy threw himself at the Prince’s feet, choking on tears. The Prince took the boy by the hand and said:


“I will call you Akimaru. Until a few years ago, I had a page by that name who fell to the plague back in Chang’an. You can be my second Akimaru.”


In this way, the Prince’s entourage grew to three: Anten, Engaku, and young Akimaru. Engaku, by the way, was five years Anten’s junior. He was a polymath, well versed in Daoist medicine and herbalism, and his encyclopedic knowledge had won him the Prince’s respect on numerous occasions.


The ship set sail for the Leizhou Peninsula and Hainan Island. It drifted across the open sea like a solitary leaf, speeding and slowing as the wind willed. At times, the water seemed still as oil. . . . Was the ship moving or simply floating in place? At other times, the ship was blasted across the water at such a speed that it seemed the vessel would surely blow apart. It was as though the wind and waves in these parts had some sort of mysterious power, a force that no ship could possibly resist. Every day, like clockwork, terrible squalls buffeted the ship, encompassing the travelers in curtains of slate-gray rain and making it impossible to tell sky from sea; at times, the ship seemed to be flying through the air. Struck by the mystique of the ocean, the Prince said, to no one but himself:


“As we head south, things will occur that we could never have imagined back in Japan. Perhaps the world itself will turn upside-down! But I mustn’t be alarmed. As we approach Hindustan, things will only become stranger and stranger. And isn’t that exactly what I wanted? Hindustan approaches! Rejoice! Soon it will be within my grasp.”


At the prow of the small ship, the Prince was showered by spindrift as he spoke. His words, spat out into the darkness, were snatched up by the wind and broke into pieces as they tumbled across the sea.



The Prince was a child, no older than five or six, when he first heard of Hindustan. The name made him quiver with sweet intoxication. It was a philter to the boy. None other than his father’s consort, Fujiwara no Kusuko, had whispered those three syllables in his ear at night.


Before the Prince’s father came to be known as Emperor Heizei, Kusuko and her daughter had entered the Eastern Palace as attendants. In no time, Kusuko apparently stole the Crown Prince’s heart, and when he later ascended to the throne, their attachment became increasingly evident, despite Kusuko already being a married woman. Those years saw the height of Kusuko’s favor. Night after night, she shared a bed with the Emperor. There were rumors that Kusuko had beguiled him, though she remained unshaken by the scandal. At the time, the Emperor was thirty, at the peak of his manhood. No one knows how old Kusuko was. We do know that she had a daughter whom she had intended to present to the court for marriage to the Crown Prince, which meant her daughter had to have been of marriageable age. Thus Kusuko was likely somewhat older than her lover. And yet she didn’t seem to age. It was curious how perfectly she retained the radiant beauty of youth. As suggested by the name Kusuko, which contains the character for medicine, she had a profound knowledge of traditional herbs; she was no less an expert in the art of lovemaking. And, if the rumors were true, she drank cinnabar and made use of secret arts to maintain her appearance.


We also know that, at the time, the word “kusuko” was used as a common noun to refer to poison-tasters. That this word would become Kusuko’s name tells us much about her character.


As it happens, it was also during the reign of Emperor Heizei that the hundred-volume herbalist text Formulae of the Daidō Era was compiled. Medicines and poisons, we must not forget, played a crucial role in the power struggles of the day.


Emperor Heizei was very fond of his young son. He often took him out with Kusuko on trips to the nearby mountains. In court and at home, the Emperor often allowed Kusuko and the young Prince to remain in his company. Unbeknownst to the Prince’s mother, the boy often stayed at Kusuko’s home with his father. Kusuko didn’t need to endear herself to the boy. She easily won his heart, and the two settled into the sort of closeness often enjoyed by partners in crime, as if they were sharing some secret. On occasion, when the Emperor had to attend to an official matter, Kusuko chose to sleep beside the Prince. Lying next to him, Kusuko told him all kinds of stories, animating his young dreams.


“Can you tell me the name of the realm beyond the sea, Miko?”


“Koryŏ.”


“Right, Koryŏ. And what about the one beyond that?”


“Tang.”


“Tang. Right again. They also call it Cīnasthāna. And then comes?”


“I don’t know . . .”


“Really? Far, far beyond Tang, there’s a land called Hindustan.”


“Hindustan . . .”


“Right. The land where the Buddha was born. In Hindustan, there are fantastic animals in the fields, curious plants in the gardens, and celestial beings in the sky. And that’s not all. Everything in Hindustan is the opposite of what it is in the world we know. Our day is their night, our summer is their winter, our up is their down, our man is their woman. In Hindustan, rivers run backward, and mountains sink deep into the earth like massive holes. What do you think, Miko? Can you imagine so strange a place?”


Kusuko loosened her silk kimono as she spoke, revealing a breast. She took the Prince’s hand and placed it on her chest. This had been a custom of theirs for some time. Kusuko would smile and slip her hand between the Prince’s legs, cupping his testicles, rolling them around like a pair of Baoding balls. The Prince was in ecstasy but remained perfectly quiet, allowing everything to happen as Kusuko willed. Were it not Kusuko—had it been one of the many other women serving at the palace—the Prince would surely have shuddered in disgust and pushed her away. That this never happened only shows that, as indecent as it may sound, there was not a hint of coquetry or debauchery in what Kusuko did.


 

Takaoka's Travels by Tatsuhiko Shibusawa, translated by David Boyd will be available in both print and digital May 14th, 2024. Get your copy here.

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