The best travel books about life in Japan

Sam Baldwin Author Of For Fukui’s Sake: Two years In Rural Japan
By Sam Baldwin

The Books I Picked & Why

The Roads to Sata: A 2000-mile walk through Japan

By Alan Booth

Book cover of The Roads to Sata: A 2000-mile walk through Japan

Why this book?

Though written in the mid-80s, Alan Booth’s account of walking the entire length of Japan remains one of my favourite books on Japan. Fluent in Japanese, Booth passes through the country, closely observing its smallest details and quirks, largely of rural life, reporting what he sees, smells, hears and feels on his journey.

Funny in some parts, graceful and poetic in others, anyone who has spent extended time in Japan will knowingly nod and chuckle, recognising many of the traits, situations and irritations that he alludes to. How much of the rural charm that Booth captured so well, has now faded into history, is hard to say. But I like to think that the innkeepers, bear hunters and fisherman that Booth speaks of are still going about their ways, keeping this bucolic side to Japan alive. Overall, Roads to Sata is a well-painted, funny and realistic portrait of Japan, and is amongst the most enjoyable books on Japan I have ever read.

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Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan

By Jake Adelstein

Book cover of Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan

Why this book?

In stark contrast to Roads To Sata, Tokyo Vice is a grim and gritty exposé on the Tokyo underworld that shows there's much more to Japan than sumo, sushi and Hello Kitty. Written by Jake Adelstein, an American fluent in Japanese who spent 12 years working as a crime reporter for a leading Japanese daily newspaper, we get to see the dark side of Japan.

Following the exploits of the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia), Adelstein explores an underworld of murders, prostitution and human trafficking - a Japan that few people realise exists. Both fascinating and disturbing in parts, we learn how entwined organised crime is in Japan, how the Yakuza are viewed by the public and how they operate as legal entities - with registered offices and even business cards.

Tokyo Vice is a truly fascinating read for anyone interested in Japan, the mafia or crime. But beware; you'll never see the Land of the Rising Sun in the same light again. A TV series based on the book is in the pipeline, so expect interest in this title to grow.

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Minka: My Farmhouse in Japan

By John Roderick

Book cover of Minka: My Farmhouse in Japan

Why this book?

Minka is the true story of an American AP correspondent who, reluctantly at first, fell into buying a 250 year-old traditional Japanese farmhouse for a pittance (it was in an area soon to be flooded by dam construction) had it disassembled, transported, and re-built in the rural outskirts of Tokyo.

It's an insight into two aspects of Japan; firstly the rural, artisan side as Roderick befriends a family from Gifu and uses many of the rural folk from the prefecture for their carpentry skills, and secondly it provides us with an interesting view on some of the high society that Roderick mixes with, being a well-connected ex-pat (Hilary Clinton once visits his house!).

Roderick writes with a good deal of humor, and his love and knowledge of Japan makes him a welcome guide as he takes us through the quirks and curios of Japan during the ‘60s and ‘70s. The passion Roderick has for his house, the land, and the people of Japan, makes Minka an inspiring tale that may get you thinking about your own building dreams. Recommend for those who have a love or interest in rural Japan, beautiful old houses or just Japan in general.

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Tonoharu: Part 1

By Lars Martinson

Book cover of Tonoharu: Part 1

Why this book?

I recommend this three-part series of graphic novels for their beautiful artwork and painstaking attention to detail. Illustrator Martinson has a superb knack for observing the smallest aspects of the Japanese environment, with every frame bursting with the minutiae of everyday Japan.

The story follows ‘Dan’ a downbeat American, working as an English teacher in Japan who is experiencing severe isolation in his host country. Dan’s attitude to his new life is at the very extreme end of the culture shock spectrum, whereas in my experience, most foreigners embrace life more than he does, and therefore enjoy a more balanced experience. However for the artwork alone, I recommend the three part Tōnoharu series which are truly beautiful works, and make a worthy addition to any Japanophile's library.

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Inaka: Portraits of Life in Rural Japan

By John Grant Ross

Book cover of Inaka: Portraits of Life in Rural Japan

Why this book?

This anthology contains a collection of 18 different accounts by non-Japanese authors who have all spent extended time living in rural Japan. Arranged geographically, from Okinawa to Hokkaido, the book offers a diverse view of pastoral Japan, allowing readers to get insight into some of the less commonly known aspects of the country.

The topics covered range from Buddhist pilgrimages, to pottery; abandoned Shinto shrines to record snowfalls; romance to ryokan. This is a great book for anyone who’s interested in learning about life outside of Japan’s megacities. Most of the authors included have written other works, so it’s a great taster to sample some different flavours of storytelling, to see which pique your interest for more.

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