Book Review: “Manabeshima Island Japan” by Florent Chavouet

By | November 12, 2015

Tuttle Publishing offered me the opportunity to provide an early review of Florent Chavouet’s travel guide, titled “Manabeshima Island Japan”, and I jumped at the chance. After all, the book wasn’t coming out until Dec 1, 2015, and it’s funny subtitle of “One island, two months, one minicar, sixty crabs, eight bites, and fifty shots of shochu” had me very curious about what this book had to offer.

From very early on, it was clear this book was more of a personal travel journal than a typical travel guide. Instead of “this place is great to eat at” and “this is a must-see tourist site”, the book chronicles Florent’s experiences on this little island in Okayama prefecture (岡山県) which at present has population of around 300.

He reports on places he saw (a middle school), things he did (went fishing), things he ate (ongiri), random objects he found (broken bowl), and who he met. In particular, this descriptions of people and their personalities shows a keen observational sense.

The descriptions of his experiences are very well written, with a jolly tongue-in-cheek attitude that make you smile as you read them. This book was originally released in French in 2010, and I have to give a round of applause for the excellent translation job done. I know barely a word of French but this is is one of the most natural translations I’ve seen in some time.

But I think it’s time I reveal the most amazing thing about this book – the artwork. Though there is a good amount of text on most pages, I feel that the text is actually supporting the beautiful hand-drawn pictures rather than the other way around. Florent’s ability to make photographically-detailed sketches is amazing, especially considering how fast he must do them (there is over 100 pages in the book) and how some of them must have been done from memory. The various people he has met are also illustrated skillfully, with good attention to what makes each of them unique, although they are feel a little more cartoony than the rest of the art. My favorite are the handful of building and city scene sketches. You can see a few of the illustrations from the original French edition here, though the quality of the images on that site isn’t that great.

While the book does not focus on trying to teach Japanese, there is enough of it strewn throughout, plus a page at the end which gives a list of vocabulary. If you are new to Japanese you may pick up a few words this way, and if you are more experienced in the language you’ll get some satisfaction when you pick up on the words he doesn’t directly explain, like the phrase “kso” that appears a few times. (This means くそ, literally “shit” but also used as a curse word just like it is in English).

I admit I was a little disappointed when I discovered Florent had two interpreters with him on the trip, though given that I think he did a pretty good job on the Japanese phrases. I did spot a few mistakes, like the number “4” written as “chi” several times, though I can’t say if this one specifically was more of a translation error.

What I love about this book, besides the great observation and descriptive abilities of the writer, is that it really makes me feel like I am traveling to Manabeshima Island. Florent has done a superb job at selecting interesting subject matter such that a sense of everyday life oozes from many of the scenes in this book. For example, the “morning schedule” section (pg. 30) that describes a few of the inhabitants daily schedules around a port. There is also much space dedicated to animals, whether it be the territories of various cat gangs or crabs bickering.

For those interested in Japan or traveling off the beaten path, this book is a rare and unique perspective on travel that is sure to delight you. You can get it an the usual places: on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

The author also wrote “Tokyo On Foot”, and though I haven’t read it myself, it has received much praise so may be worth checking out as well. The quality of the pictures seemed a bit lower, which is good since it means Florent is improving his style as he goes. If so, I can’t wait for his next work!

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