Haruki Murakami’s novel, Kafka on the Shore, follows the journeys of two individuals; an old man named Nakata, and a 15-year-old runaway who goes by the name “Kafka”. The two characters travel from their hometown of Nakano Ward in Tokyo, Japan to a city called Takamatsu on one of Japan’s smaller islands, Shikoku. While the two characters do travel along real routes and visit real locations in Japan, Kafka on the Shore is as much a metaphysical journey as it is a physical one. The respective journeys of the novel’s two main characters reflect these two aspects. While both characters make a physical trek to Takamatsu, the difference in routes they take is reflective of not only the characters’ distinct personalities, but of the nature of their respective journeys.
Both Kafka and Nakata start out in Nogata, Nakano Ward in Tokyo, Japan. Kafka lives here with his father, a sculptor, and a man whom Kafka feels estranged from, whose physical characteristics he hates sharing. “I'm stuck with my father's long, thick eyebrows and the deep lines between them.” (Kafka pg. 5). On the day Kafka turns 15, he runs away from home, choosing to go to Shikoku, a small, southern island off the coast of Japan’s main island. “There's no particular reason it has to be Shikoku, only that studying the map I got the feeling that's where I should head." Initially driven by an unknown force toward Shikoku, Kafka rationalizes his decision because he has no connection to the island, therefore making it the last place anyone would look for him. "It's far south of Tokyo, separated from the mainland by water, with a warm climate. I've never been there, have no friends or relatives there, so if somebody started looking for me--which I kind of doubt--Shikoku would be the last place they'd think of.” (Kafka pg.11).
The young runaway takes a straightforward trip from Tokyo to Shikoku, stopping only once to change buses. Kafka takes a bus line from Tokyo to Kurashiki, then from Kurashiki to Takamatsu, a city on the northern tip of Shikoku. The nature of his initial departure reflects his initial characteristics; he is a straightforward and goal-oriented young man, who has been planning to run away from home since he began middle school.
Kafka’s tendency to stay in one place once he has reached it reflects the nature of his journey as internal; Before leaving Tokyo he spends time in his father’s study, conversing with a character called The Boy Named Crow, and once he has reached Shikoku he spends most of his time in the same handful of places. Kafka’s journey is pretty much contained once he reaches Takamatsu. He stays in the station hotel for a few nights, then befriends the staff at a privately owned library, the Komura Memorial Library, and starts living there. His journey is shaped by the reflections and realizations that come out of his time spent with the library staff and by himself.
Like Kafka, Nakata also begins his journey in Nakano Ward, Tokyo. Nakata has been left mentally disabled after an incident during his childhood which put him in a trance-like coma, and lives on a subsidy from what he knows as “The Governor”. In order to supplement his income to pay for eel, his favorite food, and to pass time, Nakata helps people in his neighborhood find their lost cats. One search for a lost cat named Goma leads him to a house he’s never been to before, in an area of town he’s unfamiliar with. There he meets a mysterious man who calls himself Johnnie Walker, and who kidnaps cats, kills them, and eats their hearts. Johnnie Walker brings Nakata to his home in order to make Nakata kill him, and it is at this point Nakata realizes he has a larger calling in life. After killing Johnnie Walker, Nakata reports himself to the police and realizes he must leave his home in Nakano Ward.
Nakata’s journey, in contrast to Kafka’s, is very roundabout. Driven by a similar unknown force toward Shikoku, Nakata was left mentally handicapped after an accident during his childhood, and cannot read maps; he has no clue that his final destination is Shikoku, unlike Kafka. The old man travels by hitching rides with various truck drivers, and he makes frequent stops along the highway. “Nakata… made the rounds of the trucks in the parking lot, asking for a ride. I'm heading west, he explained, and I wonder if you'd be kind enough to give me a ride?” (Kafka pg 183). This reflects Nakata’s character as a trusting old man who relies on the kindness of others to get him where he needs to go. In contrast to Kafka’s trip to Takamatsu, Nakata has no set destination in mind; he only knows that he must travel west. He has no idea that his destination is Shikoku, unlike Kafka, and makes his journey simply following his internal compass.
Kafka’s time spent at the Komura Memorial Library is punctuated by a few separate occasions in which he visits several other locations on Shikoku. One early morning, Kafka wakes up in the bushes outside a shrine, his shirt covered in blood, and goes to stay with a girl named Sakura who he met on the bus in Kurashiki. He travels by dark to the Lawson’s convenience store a couple blocks from Sakura’s apartment, and spends most of his time trying to regain his composure. On two separate occasions, he stays at a cabin in the mountains of Kochi, on the southeast coast of Shikoku, for about a week or two at a time. He reaches this cabin by riding with one of the library staff, a young man named Oshima, and can only leave when Oshima returns to pick him up. The cabin, though far from Takamatsu, is a self-contained location. Kafka doesn’t stray far from the cabin during his time spent there, and spends most of his time reflecting. Aside from these forays outside of Takamatsu, Kafka spends most of his time at the Komura Memorial Library. Kafka’s journey after arriving on Shikoku can be summed up by his dialogue with The Boy Named Crow at the beginning of the book, before he leaves Tokyo.
“And you really will have to make it through that violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm. No matter how metaphysical or symbolic it might be, make no mistake about it: it will cut through flesh like a thousand razor blades. … And once the storm is over you won't remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive… But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won't be the same person who walked in. That's what this storm's all about.”(Kafka pg. 2)
The general direction in which Kafka on the Shore moves is westward. While both Kafka and Nakata must deal with their own internal and external problems, the directional pull of the novel seems to be westward-bound. The first instance of the word “west” is in an early chapter, in which Nakata’s grade school teacher reports the incident which leaves him mentally disabled. “I think it must have been just after ten in the morning when I saw a silver light far up in the sky… That light moved very slowly in the sky from east to west.” (Kafka pg. 14). After seeing the light, Nakata and his fellow classmates fell to the ground, unconscious. The other children regained consciousness later with no lingering effects, but Nakata remained unconscious and had to be hospitalized. After waking up, he had lost the ability to read and write, but had gained the ability to speak to cats.
The westward direction of the mysterious light which caused Nakata’s accident may not have meaning in and of itself, but it fits with the directional pull of the story’s main events. After his accident, Nakata is hospitalized in Kofu, a town to the west of Tokyo and west of the town he went to school in. The mountain on which the accident occurred, Owan Yama, was “a short walk to the west of the school” (Kafka pg. 16), and both Kafka and Nakata travel west from Tokyo.
It is from this that it can be assumed the Komura Memorial Library is in the western half of Takamatsu city. The library has a strong pull for both Kafka and Nakata, and since they seem to be pulled westward it would make sense for the library to be in that direction. Nakata, travelling with a truck-driver in his mid-20s named Hoshino, scours the city before finding the library, “circling the western half of the city” (Kafka pg. 363). Though it is a fictional library, it’s presumably in a residential area, not one with heavy foot-traffic. It is near a shrine, though it isn’t likely to be the same shrine Kafka wakes up at, his shirt covered in blood. The shrine Kafka wakes up at is farther away from the library, because he has no clue how he got there or where he is when he comes to.
Nakata and Hoshino spend a lot of time driving around Takamatsu, guided only by Nakata’s inner compass.
"But what the heck are you looking for?" Hoshino asked after they'd eaten.
"I don't know. But I think--"
"--that you'll know it when you see it. And until you see it, you won't know what it is." "Yes,that's correct."
(Kafka pg. 361)
Because the pair drives around somewhat aimlessly, there is no good way to map their travels. Nakata tells Hoshino that “Anywhere is fine”, and that he can “Just circle around the city” (Kafka pg. 361), so the route they take is fairly ambiguous.
On the topic of Nakata’s travel companion, Hoshino, the man does a fair amount of travelling on his own. He is a truck driver who picks Nakata up on his way to Kobe, then decides to take some vacation days and travel around with the old man. Similarly to Kafka and Nakata, Hoshino is driven by some unknown force to fulfill a duty he himself is not completely aware of. However, mapping Hoshino’s own journey would take away from the journeys of Nakata and Kafka. Much like Nakata, Hoshino wanders around aimlessly during his free time, and though he does make a few stops, their locations are left fairly ambiguous. He meets a man called Colonel Sanders outside of a beer hall, which it can be assumed would be close to the hotel he and Nakata stay at, but is otherwise non distinct. Colonel Sanders takes Hoshino to a shrine, which is an important location in that it helps move Nakata’s mission along, but which is in an ambiguous area. No directions are mentioned when Hoshino travels on his own, which fits with Nakata’s “I’ll know it when I see it” way of doing things.
While Murakami creates an easily traceable route for his characters to follow, ultimately it is not the locations of events but the direction which is the most important. Though Shikoku and Takamatsu are important locations for the characters, it is only by chance. At one point when Hoshino asks, "If you don't find what you're looking for in Takamatsu, then what?" Nakata responds, "If we can't find it in Takamatsu, then we'll have to look farther out." (Kafka pg. 363). Because of this, though the names of cities and directions are precise and easy to follow, exact locations are ambiguous and, more often than not, completely fictitious. Perhaps Murakami means for the story to be relatable to anyone; though the reader knows where the story takes place and where the characters go, the exact locations described in the novel could be found anywhere in Japan. Libraries, chain restaurants, beer halls, and shrines are not distinctive to one area of Japan, making them easy to visualize for readers.
Ultimately, the journeys of both Kafka and Nakata are not anchored to a specific location. The directional pull of the novel, the individual cities and rest stops, are all just the background for a much denser and more complex story which is characterized by interactions between characters and their own inner struggles and revelations. Kafka on the Shore is an easily mappable novel as far as cities go, but the true meaning lies not in the locations of the story but in the movements of the characters themselves, even if those movements are not anchored to real places.