Non-Guide Books to Accompany You in Japan

I am right now sitting in a coffee shop in Portland, USA where they play American folk songs and I try to write this post on books about Japan. While the components of my current setting may all seem to be very unrelated to each other, Portland – and more specifically Powell’s Book Store in Portland – is the reason why I am now writing this post. I have been here in Portland for couple of weeks now visiting some very close friends and hanging out a lot at Powell’s, one of the finest book stores in USA carrying a great selection of used books, which are all in near perfect condition. You can find a hard copy book compiling Thomas Mann`s letters for under USD 5! (and there is no sale tax in Portland). During my afternoon visit to Powell’s yesterday, I noticed that there is a great selection of books by Japanese authors, which made it into the list of “staff favorites” including Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami – a very good read to accompany you in any trip to Tokyo. Powell’s also has separate sections devoted to some of the countries and as you can guess, I spent a lot of time checking out each book at Japan section. Japan is no doubt culturally one of the most fascinating countries but it can be very challenging to get a deeper understanding of its culture and traditions if the level of your Japanese skills is “0” just like me. While I occasionally got lucky to have the company of an English speaking resident of Japan during my travels in the country, books also helped me a lot not only to enjoy my visits even more but also to partially overcome language related challenges and dive a little bit deeper into the Japanese culture. So I thought that it may be a good idea to list some of the books that helped me to better understand Japan.  So this list includes some of my favorites and would not it be great if this list got expanded with your favorites that you can note in the comments section below? (P.S: Instead of the photos of the book covers, I took the liberty to use some of the photos that I took during my four visits to Japan in the last six years.)

# 1 An Artist of the Floating World

An amazing read by the latest Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro (born in Japan but now a citizen of United Kingdom). The book focuses on the life of a retired painter and his relationship with his two daughters. One of the daughters is already married whereas the other one goes through the cumbersome match making procedures in post-World War II Japan. Ishiguro`s novel takes you through izayakas in Tokyo, make you listen to sake fueled dialogues between an art teacher and his students, get a glimpse of the art scene of the time before and after the war and understand how the traditional Japanese neighborhoods have been transformed over the years. Through the regrets of the books hero, you also get a sense of how tragically a war can divide a nation. An Artist of the Floating World is among the books that I definitely want to read again and especially while traveling in Japan. I read few other books from Ishiguro and “A Pale View of Hills” is another good one focusing more on the characters rather than the events of the period. On the other hand, ss the author also openly says that it is not among his favorite works, “When We Were Orphans” felt a little rushed with a focus to have a movie made out of the book and is hardly a favorite. 

# 2 Lost Japan: Last Glimpse of Beautiful Japan

Do not read this great book by Alex Kerr during or before your first trip to Japan. Let yourself get amazed with the country first, fall in love with it blindly without noticing any of its unpleasant sides. If you love Japan in your first visit, it is very likely that you will keep visiting (the country is known to have an addictive effect on people). You may with your second visit to Japan (when there are less butterflies in the stomach) start noticing certain things about that country, which are not all that fascinating and only if you are already at that stage, Alex Kerr`s book will be a great supplement to confirm your doubts about the country that you once madly fell in love with. Do  not worry though, by that time, even though the butterflies may long be gone, your love for Japan will already be deep enough that you will continue to love it no matter what. Alex Kerr still lives in Japan if that helps. Lost Japan is a great read to dive into the world of a man who is madly in love with Japan but is also not afraid to criticize the country and tell us how it changed over the years.

# 3 The Old Capital

An amazing alternative guide to Kyoto by Japans first Nobel prize winner Yasunari Kawabata. This is a quite short novel telling the story of a family running a kimono house in Kyoto and which takes you through almost every landmark in Kyoto (Arashiyama included!). The book has an interesting literary structure where milestone events take place so quickly (and in one short sentence!) that it makes you focus on the details rather than the events. Another great book by Yasunati Kawabata is Snow Country – telling the love story between a rich man and a geisha in a hot spring village in the mountains of Japan. I read both books during my latest visit to Japan and Old Capital is more ideal if you are looking for something to also act as a non-traditional guide to the country.

# 4 Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto

I read this one when I was traveling in Gifu prefecture in the winter of 2016. This is an autobiographical story from a quite famous travel writer Pico Iyer about his days in Kyoto and love affair with a married Japanese women. It is a very captivating read giving you insight about the expat life in Japan, taking you inside family homes in Kyoto but also and more interestingly allowing you to witness the dynamics of a romantic relationship between a westerner and a Japanese person. Some of Pico Iyers remarks about the women in Japan are thought provoking  but it is too difficult to judge as the book focuses on a very personal experience. I wonder how they did not make a movie of this book yet as it is also a great movie material.

# 5 A Wild Sheep Chase

I sure love Murakami even though he is not my absolute favorite (his Norwegian Book is among my all time favorite books though).  I find his writing style a little too pretentious sometimes and cannot stop thinking that a lot of stories also serve to praise himself (like Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage). Anyways, his books are however still great companions to any trip to Japan and he is one of the reasons why I first visited Hokkaido in the middle of the winter. Part of the story in his strange book Wild Sheep Chase takes place in Hokkaido and I particularly like his description of the imaginary and mystical Hokkaido hotel called Dolphin Hotel. The way Hokkaido is described by Murakami in his book passes you such a strong feeling of secludedness. That feeling was so strong that I thought I would be the only one sitting in a regional train in Hokkaido bound for north when I first visited the island in the winter of 2015. It did not quite turn out to be like that and I could barely find a seat but the below trees in Biei may definitely be getting their share of secludedness especially in winters.

# 6 Fear and Trembling

It has been so long since I read the books of the Belgian author Amelie Nothomb, long long before I visited Japan and at an age I still cared enough to keep up my French (she originally writes in French but all her books are translated into English and also into Turkish). Nothomb was born in Japan (her father was a diplomate) where she returned for work in her early 30s. Fear and Trembling focuses on the work environment in Japan and walks you through the unpleasant work environment that women in Japan – and particularly a foreign one – can be exposed to. While I made it sound like such a dark story, she uses a very funny language and with her words, manages to caricutarize the unpleasant situations she experienced. Fear and Trembling is the best known one of her many books focusing on Japan.

# 7 Kitchen

A book by Banana Yoshimoto. No – her real name is not Banana but that is what she picked as her author name. Her short novel Kitchen, while touching upon the topic of what kitchen means for a home,  focuses on the grief we suffer after losing a loved one and bring together very alternative characters. Yoshimoto is one the best known authors of contemporary Japanese writing and I need to read more books from her to understand if her writing style appeals to me or not. Kitchen is any case a quick and captivating read that I engaged in during a short stay in Tokyo. As a side note for Turkish readers, the book also reminded me a lot of “Mutfak Cikmazi” by Turkish author Tahsin Yucel, a book telling the story of a man spending all his time in the kitchen to overcome a painful break-up.

#8 Another Kyoto

Another book by Alex Kerr. While Another Kyoto may at first look and feel like a small encyclopedia including many boring details – I ensure you that it is a lot more than that. I am grateful – as a big Kyoto fan – to Alex Kerr for this book, which really add so much to sightseeing in Kyoto. His book has separate sections focusing on walls, toris, gardens and many other components of Japanese culture that you will redundantly see during any visit to Kyoto and feed you with such fine details that will really help you to better appreciate what you are seeing. Alex Kerr has a very captivating writing style, which makes you read technical details about Kyoto walls in the same exciting manner as if  you are reading a thriller.

#9 Strange Weather in Tokyo

Just like Old City is to Kyoto, this great read by Hiromi Kawakami is a great alternative guide to Tokyo. The story focuses on an intense relationship turned into love between a young women and her former high school teacher whom she calls “sensei”. I strangely read this one during a winter to Lofoten Islands and immediately wanted to travel to Japan once again. The story follows the change of seasons in mainly Tokyo walking us through all things Japanese starting with warm sake and continuing with iced cold beer (well this one may not be purely Japanese but they sure love it a lot in Japan!). I also read the more recent the Nakano Thrift Shop by the same author. While it took me sometime to start enjoying the book, once you get into the quirks of the characters almost half way through the book, it becomes a very engaging read. 

#10 Makioka Sisters

Last but not the least – if you will read one book about Japan, it may be Makioka Sisters by Tanazaki. Telling the story of an Osaka family and the three sisters while walking you through the generations in Japan and also the role of the women in the society. It is an amazing read and everyone will easily find a character to relate to. Again, if you have time only for one about about Japan, my preference would be Makioka Sisters.


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