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Tatsuhiko Shibusawa : 高丘親王航海記 (Takaoka’s Travels)

While this book is the account of the travels of Prince Takaoka who was very much a historical person, and features other historical characters, it owes more, as we shall see, to Sinbad the Sailor than historical fact, as the story is clearly fanciful, with imaginary animals, strange people and events and a lot going on that clearly has little or no basis in historical reality. Interestingly, Sindbad and Takaoka are more or less contemporaries. Apart from a short story, it is the only book by Tatsuhiko Shibusawa to have been translated into English.

Prince Takaoka has been obsessed with the idea of travelling to Hindustan since he was a child. He was the son of Emperor Heizei but though only a child, he is enamoured of one of his father’s concubines, Kusuko. Indeed, despite their respective ages,there is some sexual play between the two. However, Kusuko tells him stories of faraway places and, in particular, Hindustan, where the Buddha came from. She forecasts that he will eventually go there.

However , a power struggle takes place and Heize takes the tonsure and Takaoka is no longer heir apparent. When he is in his twenties, he too shaves his head and renounces the world. Though he is a Buddhist, he remains exclusively obsessed with the idea of Hindustan. He becomes a disciple of the monk Kūkai. When he reaches his sixties, he decides to travel and applies to the Emperor for permission to travel round Japan. But the pilgrimage never happens. Instead he changes his request and asks for permission to travel to the Tang Empire. Sixty monks travel with him. Two monks, Anten and Engaku, are his key associates. However just before they are to leave, a boy comes rushing up to the ship and begs for protection as he is a slave who has run away from his master. Takaoka agrees to take him with them and calls the boy Akimaru (it means autumn)as he had had a page boy with that name.

We now follow their travels and, inevitably they have problems. Getting becalmed but also heavy winds and rain. As we head south, things will occur that we could never have imagined back in Japan. Perhaps the world itself will turn upside-down!. The first place they reach is Nhật Nam, in modern-day Vietnam. As we are to discover the political geography of South-East Asia is, not surprisingly, very different from what it is today. There we find people drinking through their noses. They get violent and try to seize Akimaru. In doing so his clothes are torn revealing that he is not a boy. She, as we shall now have to call her, remains, however, disguised as a boy.

We also meet the first of many odd animals. They spot a dugong and take it on board, something it willingly accepts. Akimaru talks to it in her language and the dugong soon learns the language and the two converse. We will meet the dugong again as well as many other exotic animals. Some are very much real but exotic to our travellers, such as elephants and tigers. Others are very much fanciful.

Anachronisms abound. The next exotic animal we meet is a somewhat temperamental talking great anteater. However the narrator comments The great anteater will be discovered roughly six hundred years from now, when Columbus arrives in what will then be called the New World. So how can we be staring at one here and now? Can’t you see its very existence defies the laws of time and space? The anteater itself gives an explanation.

From Vietnam they move to Tonlé Sap in modern-day Cambodia. In Cambodia they meet a man who offers to teke them to the harem of Jayavarman I. This is another anachronism as Jayavarman I lived two hundred years earlier. Could this actually be the more contemporaneous Jayavarman VII who built Angkor Wat but also constructed a system of lakes and canals which our heroes have to negotiate? The harem, whoever it belongs to, turns out to be something of a surprise and is guarded by a talking white ape.

We continue to Panpan in modern-day Malaysia, where we meet an animal whose diet consists of dreams.

The travels continue around places which are seemingly unknown to us but a quick check on Wikipedia reveals their modern location and political structure, so we can easily chart their travels which seem somewhat chaotic. Of course their journey is not straightforward, with becalming, shipwreck and even attacks by ghosts. However everywhere they go, they will encounter strange and imaginary fauna and flora, peoples with decidedly odd customs and often odd biology. They generally come across Buddhists on their travels. We will also find that the boundaries between the dead and the living and reality and dreams are very fluid. But will they get to Hindustan? At one point the Prince can no longer see his reflection, apparently a sign that he will die within a year and he meets Kūkai, his guru who has been dead for thirty years who confirms this. He does come up with a very highly imaginative way of making the final leg of the journey but will it work?

This is a thoroughly enjoyable and highly colourful and imaginative story. With many of the characters and places having a historical basis, it is not all fantasy, though clearly a lot is. I have no doubt that Shibusawa consulted various myths and legends, both Japanese and others, but, I have no doubt, much of the work clearly comes from his obviously fertile imagination, giving us a highly entertaining read.

Publishing history

First published in 1987 by Bungeishunju
First English translation in 12024 by Stone Bridge Press
Translated by David Boyd