Karin Muller,
A Year in Search of Wa

(Rodale, 2005)

Karin Muller is a documentary filmmaker in her late 30s who immersed herself in Japanese culture for a year. Her book alone was worth the journey, so I can't even begin to imagine the resulting film (a four-hour public television series).

Muller is one of the most respectful visitors to a foreign country I've ever read about. She truly jumps in to her new homeland, working diligently to fit into the social protocols. She tries again and again to live the delicate, serene life of her host mother Yukiko, but repeatedly fails to impress the woman. When interviewing a geisha, she has dozens of personal questions that she forces herself to suppress because they would violate the geisha value of iki. When offered the opportunity to witness samurai mounted archery (yabusame), our author spends a 16-hour day in the sun without meals, but also without complaints, because she is so honored at the opportunity. In one city, Muller uses the public baths, following all the rituals of pre-cleaning and moving between different-temperature baths without regard for an Americanized form of modesty. Finally, her year in Japan culminates in a week-long pilgrimage (alone, on foot, in snowy weather) through the 120 temples of Shingon Buddhism.

Muller's memoir is a terrific treatment of one of the most isolated cultures of the modern day. She gets unparalleled access to many traditional arts and modern struggles of Japan -- the Kyoto geisha, the training and lifestyle of sumo wrestlers, the attempts at an arranged marriage for the ultra-modern daughter of her host family, intense and painful (and nearly demoralizing) judo training at various locations, local shrines in Asakusa, the forge of a 24th-generation swordmaker, the gay underground in Japan, even the intense social protocols of the Japanese homeless. It is her quiet devotion to fitting in, and her insurmountable personal will, that allows Muller to win over the members of this isolationist society, and the reward is that the reader gets to read about her journey on the pages of this book.

In addition to recounting her personal experiences, Muller provides a historical perspective on her adopted country. She's obviously done her research, and it pays off in the form of a compelling narrative about a year in search of wa (harmony).

by Jessica Lux-Baumann
21 October 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.