“Takaoka’s Travels”: Adrift on the Ocean


The fantasy novel Takaoka’s Travels recounts a Japanese prince’s voyage across Asia, as he visits strange lands and becomes immersed in dreams.

Fantastic Voyage

Prince Takaoka was a son of an emperor who later became a priest. In his sixties, he set off on a journey to China and then beyond, traveling by ship toward India, but he disappeared en route. This much is true. The ninth-century history underpins the fantasy Takaoka’s Travels, a translation by David Boyd of twentieth-century writer Shibusawa Tatsuhiko’s Takaoka Shinnō kōkaiki.

Takaoka and his companions take a fantastic voyage visiting ancient kingdoms mainly in Southeast Asia, located in what are now Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Yunnan (southwest China), Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Malaysia. They encounter strange beings like baku, tapir-like creatures that eat dreams, and the honey men, who live out their last days eating nothing but honey, and whose corpses are valued for their medicinal properties.

Takaoka’s mind repeatedly returns, however, to Japan and Kusuko, his father’s consort, who stole his heart when he was a boy. It was from Kusuko that he first heard of the strange land of Hindustan; she claimed to see him taking a ship there in the future. A few years later, she was at the heart of a power struggle that resulted in her suicide and saw Takaoka removed from his position as a presumptive future emperor.

Kusuko appears in Takaoka’s dreams and nightmares, and is incarnated in characters he meets. He is haunted by the image of her throwing a ball of light toward Hindustan—a stone or egg from which she says she will be reborn as a bird. Twin characters called Akimaru and Harumaru shift between human and bird as well as female and male; they may be the same person, as well as an incarnation of Kusuko.

In Dreams

So much of the novel takes place in dreams, however, that it is difficult to say exactly what happens. A chapter of implausible events may end with the reader learning that only Takaoka experienced them. Shibusawa further disrupts reality through anachronism, with characters talking about future travelers like Marco Polo, while an anteater they meet disputes objections that its species cannot be found in Asia, and will only later be “discovered” by Christopher Columbus.

Thus, while the reader can sense the research that has gone into bringing to life the historical background (and may feel compelled to look up numerous unfamiliar place names), Shibusawa is always ready to pull the rug away and show he is not bent on academic rigor. Instead, he recreates the lost delights of exoticism, where every new destination may be magically different in the telling, and the strict truth is unimportant.

Strange Lands

Apart from his fiction, Shibusawa was known as a literary critic and a translator, and was found guilty in a notorious obscenity trial over a Marquis de Sade translation. Takaoka’s Travels was his first full-length novel, written shortly before his death; it posthumously won the Yomiuri Prize. The novel has become a cult favorite and was later adapted into a manga by Kondō Yōko.

With its many references to little-known Japanese and Asian history, this was surely not an easy book to translate. I can imagine that there were many hard choices along the way to keep the English reader from getting lost while maintaining the spirit of the text. As one small example, ancient India is commonly referred to as Tenjiku in Japanese, deriving from Tianzhu in Chinese, but Boyd opts for “Hindustan” to convey a similar effect.

Boyd’s translation is skilled, but his decision to bring Takaoka’s Travels into English is key; perhaps it was spurred on by translations into Italian and French in recent years. Just as Shibusawa shone a light on the obscure historical figure of Prince Takaoka by making him the protagonist of his 1987 novel, Boyd’s translation brings that story of dream, memory, and drifting between strange lands to contemporary readers in English.

Takaoka’s Travels

Takaoka’s Travels

Translated by David Boyd from Takaoka Shinnō kōkaiki, by Shibusawa Tatsuhiko

Published in May 2024 by Stone Bridge Press

ISBN: 979-8988688709

(Originally published in English. Banner image: The cover of Takaoka’s Travels. Courtesy of Stone Bridge Press.)

literature book review Shibusawa Tatsuhiko