The best novels with Japanese settings not named Tokyo or Kyoto

Who am I?

My book recommendations reflect an abiding passion for Japanese literature, which has unquestionably influenced my own writing. My latest literary interest involves Japanese poetry—I’ve recently started a project that combines haiku and prose narration to describe my experiences as a part-time resident in a 1300-year-old Japanese hot spring town that Bashō helped make famous in The Narrow Road to the Deep North. But as a writer, my main focus remains novels. In late 2023 the second in a planned series of novels set in Ishikawa prefecture will be published. I currently live in Kanazawa, but have also been lucky to call Sapporo, Akita, Tokyo, and Fukui home at different times.


I wrote...

Kanazawa

By David Joiner,

Book cover of Kanazawa

What is my book about?

In Kanazawa, Emmitt’s future plans collapse when his wife, Mirai, suddenly backs out of negotiations to purchase their dream home. Disappointed, he’s surprised to discover her subtle pursuit of a life and career in Tokyo, a city he dislikes. While resisting her efforts to move to Tokyo, Emmitt becomes drawn into the mysterious death thirty years prior of a mutual friend of Mirai’s parents. It is only when he and his father-in-law climb the mountain where the man died that he learns the somber truth and discovers what the future holds for him and his wife.

With an intimacy of emotion inexorably tied both to the cityscape and Japan’s mountainous terrain, Kanazawa reflects the mood of Japanese fiction in a fresh, modern incarnation.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Temple of Wild Geese and Bamboo Dolls of Echizen

David Joiner Why did I love this book?

Perhaps it's because I’ve lived in Fukui and have been to Echizen where the famous bamboo dolls are made that I found this novel so compelling. The novel’s uniqueness comes partly from its focus on a character who makes traditional bamboo dolls produced close to where I now live in Kanazawa, an hour north of Echizen, and part from the style of storytelling, which might be described as sparse but richly imagistic, and evocative of an all-but-lost past. The novel can easily be viewed as a modern folk tale, and moments unfold in the rural setting of 1920s Fukui that border on the mysterious-if-not-quite-supernatural. The relationship between the doll-maker and his wife is indeed strange, yet much can be extrapolated beyond that strangeness through all that’s left unsaid and un-acted on.

By Tsutomu Minakami,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Temple of Wild Geese and Bamboo Dolls of Echizen as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Temple of the Wild Geese, a semi-autobiographical account of Mizukami's childhood, tells the tale of Jinen, a Buddhist monk raised by villagers after his mother, a beggar, abandoned him. Sent to live at a temple at the age of ten, his resentment smolders for years until it explodes in a shocking climax. In Bamboo Dolls of Echizen, no woman is willing to marry the diminutive Kisuke, a bamboo artisan, until Tamae, a prostitute, comes to pay her respects at the grave of Kisuke's father. In Tamae, Kisuke sees shadows of his own mother, who died when he was young,…


Book cover of Snow Country

David Joiner Why did I love this book?

Again, I have a personal connection to the setting of this book, as I visited the same ryokan (Japanese inn) in the mountains of Niigata prefecture where Kawabata wrote much of this novel. There seem to be two types of reader experiences with this book—one in which readers feel the characters are too cold and unrelatable, and others who find a melancholy beauty in the old way people used to live and relate to each other. And there’s certainly warmth in the character of Komako, the geisha who wastes her dreams on an unrequited love, if not in Shimamura, the man who visits for long periods and plays with her heart. Snow Country contains such masterful writing that I copied it out once when I was younger in an effort to learn from Kawabata’s masterpiece.

By Yasunari Kawabata, Edward G. Seidensticker (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Snow Country as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Shimamura is tired of the bustling city. He takes the train through the snow to the mountains of the west coast of Japan, to meet with a geisha he believes he loves. Beautiful and innocent, Komako is tightly bound by the rules of a rural geisha, and lives a life of servitude and seclusion that is alien to Shimamura, and their love offers no freedom to either of them. Snow Country is both delicate and subtle, reflecting in Kawabata's exact, lyrical writing the unspoken love and the understated passion of the young Japanese couple.


Book cover of The Makioka Sisters

David Joiner Why did I love this book?

Although longer than most Japanese novels in English translation, The Makioka Sisters was a novel that in my college years helped solidify my interest in Japan and helped put me on the path of a novelist whose own works are set in that country. This has long been a novel I’ve greatly admired and is far and away my favorite work by Tanizaki. The novel, set mostly in Osaka, tells one of the most emotionally resonant and deeply engaging family stories I’ve encountered in the Japanese canon. It’s a classic story of a well-to-do family in decline at the same time that WWII is about to change the world—and Japan especially—forever.

By Jun'ichiro Tanizaki,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Makioka Sisters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Tanizaki's masterpiece is the story of four sisters, and the declining fortunes of a traditional Japanese family. It is a loving and nostalgic recreation of the sumptuous, intricate upper-class life of Osaka immediately before World War Two. With surgical precision, Tanizaki lays bare the sinews of pride, and brings a vanished era to vibrant life.


Book cover of The Woman in the Dunes

David Joiner Why did I love this book?

While the movie is admittedly a stunning achievement in cinema, the novel from which it is adapted surpasses it for the depths it plunges readers into the characters’ surreal and claustrophobic experiences and the life of the village in Tottori prefecture in which the story plays out. Truly frightening at times, the novel is of the legitimate can’t-put-down category and will stay with you long after you finish it. In my case it’s been 30 years! Kōbō Abe is a famous and influential Japanese writer, with many novels translated into English, but in my opinion this one is far and away his best.

By Kobo Abe,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Woman in the Dunes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Woman in the Dunes, by celebrated writer and thinker Kobo Abe, combines the essence of myth, suspense and the existential novel.
 
After missing the last bus home following a day trip to the seashore, an amateur entomologist is offered lodging for the night at the bottom of a vast sand pit. But when he attempts to leave the next morning, he quickly discovers that the locals have other plans. Held captive with seemingly no chance of escape, he is tasked with shoveling back the ever-advancing sand dunes that threaten to destroy the village. His only companion is an odd…


Book cover of The Garden of Evening Mists

David Joiner Why did I love this book?

This is a novel whose beautiful writing adds layers to this highly engaging story told from multiple time periods in a Malaysian woman’s life. Although the novel mostly plays out in Malaysia, it involves a Japanese character of great significance to the story and explores in engaging detail the art of Japanese gardening and the Malay experience of Japanese wartime colonialism. This is an important book, and while it won many awards, including the 2012 Man Booker Prize, I hope the book remains in the reading public’s eye for a long time. I greatly envy writing that can carry emotion this weighty while exhibiting such beauty and depth both in its character development and description of time and place.

By Tan Twan Eng,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Garden of Evening Mists as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Malaya, 1951. Yun Ling Teoh, the scarred lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the jungle-fringed tea plantations of Cameron Highlands. There she discovers Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, and its owner and creator, the enigmatic Aritomo, exiled former gardener of the emperor of Japan. Despite her hatred of the Japanese, Yun Ling seeks to engage Aritomo to create a garden in memory of her sister, who died in the camp. Aritomo refuses but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice "until the monsoon comes." Then she can design a garden for herself.…


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Brother. Do. You. Love. Me.

By Manni Coe, Reuben Coe (illustrator),

Book cover of Brother. Do. You. Love. Me.

Manni Coe Author Of Brother. Do. You. Love. Me.

New book alert!

Who am I?

As a gay man born into an evangelical Christian family, my coming out story was wrought with pain, trauma, and separation from family and loved ones. In the same year I lost my best friend in an accident. My world tumbled and I had to crawl back to a place of reckoning. Walking became my path to healing. So when my brother Reuben, who has Down's syndrome sent me a message from the isolation of a care home in the pandemic, I knew he was in trouble. Those five words - ´brother. do. you. love. me.´changed our lives. I thought I might know a way to save him.

Manni's book list on memoirs that capture the struggle of everyday life

What is my book about?

Brother. Do. You. Love. Me. is a true story of brotherly love overcoming all. Reuben, who has Down's syndrome, was trapped in a care home during the pandemic, spiralling deeper into a non-verbal depression. From isolation and in desperation, he sent his older brother Manni a text, "brother. do. you. love. me."

This cry for help, this SOS in the sand unleashed a brotherly love that had Manni travelling back to the UK mid-pandemic to rescue his brother from the care home, and together they sheltered from the world in a cottage in deepest, darkest Dorset. There began a journey of recovery and rediscovery. Little by little, the brothers had to piece back together Reuben's world, help him to find his voice and find ways for him to trust the world again. This is a book about care, about Down's syndrome, about love. It is a story of resilience and patience in a world that Reuben thought had abandoned him.

Brother. Do. You. Love. Me.

By Manni Coe, Reuben Coe (illustrator),

What is this book about?


The story of two brothers, one with Down syndrome, and their extraordinary journey of resilience and repair.

"Profoundly moving and hugely uplifting."—Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Reuben, aged 38, was living in a home for adults with learning disabilities. He hadn’t established an independent life in the care system and was still struggling to accept that he had Down syndrome. Depressed and in a fog of antidepressants, he hadn’t spoken for over a year. The only way he expressed himself was by writing poems or drawing felt-tip scenes from his favorite musicals…


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