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.

The books I picked & why

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Temple of Wild Geese and Bamboo Dolls of Echizen

By Tsutomu Minakami,

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

Why 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.


Snow Country

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

Book cover of Snow Country

Why 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.


The Makioka Sisters

By Jun'ichiro Tanizaki,

Book cover of The Makioka Sisters

Why 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.


The Woman in the Dunes

By Kobo Abe,

Book cover of The Woman in the Dunes

Why 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.


The Garden of Evening Mists

By Tan Twan Eng,

Book cover of The Garden of Evening Mists

Why 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.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Japan, Kyoto, and Tokyo?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Japan, Kyoto, and Tokyo.

Japan Explore 318 books about Japan
Kyoto Explore 15 books about Kyoto
Tokyo Explore 55 books about Tokyo

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