by Esme Rose for Fukuoka Now
Andrew Thomson’s new book, Bridge to the Gods: Tales from Kyushu, is a wonderful dive into Kyushu’s history, food, and community. Andrew’s father, Peter Thomson, was a professional golfer who won the prestigious Open Championship five times. It was this that led to Thomson’s interest in Japan. His father was invited to go to Japan in 1955, and his visit “began his lifelong affection for Japan and its people.” Growing up in Australia, Andrew’s father encouraged his study of Japanese at school, and as a teenager, he visited the country for the first time.
Andrew went to university in Australia and Japan and met his wife – who is from Hita, Kyushu – when he returned to Tokyo in the late 1980s. It was this meeting which eventually led him to move to Kyushu in 2012. In the time in between living in Japan, Mr. Thomson became a lawyer, mastered Chinese, served as a government minister in Australia for six years, and practiced law in the USA, Saudi Arabia, and China.
The book looks at Kyushu’s history through accounts of Andrew’s travels and life there. He shows a knack for asking the right questions to the right people and unearths all sorts of hidden gems around Kyushu. For example, the book discusses Japan’s earliest rice and tea plantations, which were in Kyushu. Andrew’s accounts of their history weave his own experiences of agriculture in Japan, as well as the names of the various museums he visits.
Another area of history covered in the book are the lives and deaths of the shockingly young men who served as kamikaze pilots (or tokkotai) during World War Two. Andrew visits museums which discuss the history of the war but also talks to people from the communities which the young men came. In visiting Takashima in Nagasaki Prefecture he traces the area’s history back to the shipwrecked Mongols, the original kamikaze. The chapter on the kamikaze, as well as the rest of the book, shows the reader a brilliant and holistic take on how to travel around Kyushu for those who love Japanese history.
As well as traveling around Kyushu, Bridge to the Gods also focuses on Andrew’s parents-in-laws’ community in Hita, and in particular the lives of his aged parents-in-law. He regularly spends weekends staying with his mother and father-in-law in Hita, and through them, we get an insight into what life in Kyushu has been like over the twentieth century. Particularly moving is the visit to his mother-in-law’s childhood home – a place she hadn’t been back to in decades.
Both with and without his mother and father-in-law, Andrew visits many onsen (hot spring) around Kyushu, both famous and lesser known. Through his eyes, we get to see how the communities around onsen towns change, and how the waters in each town differ.
Another aspect of life in Japan which the book covers is religion. Bridge to the Gods covers not just Shinto but also looks at the religious interpretation of Confucianism in Kyushu, seen through the Confucian temples found in the region. It also looks at the history of Christianity in Kyushu. This was the subject of Scorsese’s 2016 film Silence. In looking at Shinto, Mr. Thomson offers the reader an interesting selection of shrines to visit, but also looks at how Shinto fits into everyday life in Japan. When wild boar become a pest on his local estate, Andrew initially suggests culling the animals, but as his research into Shinto continues, he re-evaluates and comes to understand some of the local committee members’ resistance to killing the animals.
Last, but certainly not least, Andrew names all of the wonderful restaurants he visits as he travels around Kyushu. These restaurants are where he has some of the conversations at the heart of the book – about his love of sumo, meetings with clients he helps through his law practice and about Japanese culture in general. If you are interested in finding out about some of the culinary treasures which can be found in small towns and villages around Kyushu, this book is a great read. In particular, Andrew discusses some of his favorite spots around Hita such as Takara-ya champon and Sofuren yakisoba.
The rare opportunity to read about how people in rural Kyushu view and relate to their own history in English is a brilliant one, and I would encourage any residents of or visitors to Kyushu to pick up a copy if they can.
Available online here: www.ryanpub.com.au/bridgetothegods.htm