The best travel books about life in Japan

Why am I passionate about this?

Sam Baldwin spent two years living in Ono, Fukui, a rural area of Japan. For Fukui's Sake is a true account of his adventures. He has written about travel for The Guardian, The Times and The Independent and has contributed to numerous magazines and guidebooks. After returning to his native UK, he relocated to Slovenia where he writes about the adventures of restoring a 300-year-old mountain cabin


I wrote...

For Fukui’s Sake: Two years In Rural Japan

By Sam Baldwin,

Book cover of For Fukui’s Sake: Two years In Rural Japan

What is my book about?

Far from the high-tech, high-rise of the super-cities, there lies another Japan. A Japan where snakes slither down school corridors, where bears prowl dark forests and where Westerners are still regarded as curious creatures. Welcome to the world of the inaka – the Japanese countryside. Unhappily employed in the UK, Sam Baldwin decides to make a big change. Saying sayonara to laboratory life, he takes a job as an English teacher on the JET Programme in a small, rural Japanese town that no one – the Japanese included – has ever heard of. Arriving in Fukui, where there’s ‘little reason to linger’ according to the guidebook, at first he wonders why he left England. But as he slowly settles in to his unfamiliar new home, Sam befriends a colourful cast of locals and begins to discover the secrets of this little known region.

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The books I picked & why

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

Sam Baldwin Why did I love 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.

By Alan Booth,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Roads to Sata as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A memorable, oddly beautiful book' Wall Street Journal

'A marvellous glimpse of the Japan that rarely peeks through the country's public image' Washington Post

One sunny spring morning in the 1970s, an unlikely Englishman set out on a pilgrimage that would take him across the entire length of Japan. Travelling only along small back roads, Alan Booth travelled on foot from Soya, the country's northernmost tip, to Sata in the extreme south, traversing three islands and some 2,000 miles of rural Japan. His mission: 'to come to grips with the business of living here,' after having spent most of his…


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

Sam Baldwin Why did I love 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.

By Jake Adelstein,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A riveting true-life tale of newspaper noir and Japanese organised crime from an American investigative journalist. Soon to be a Max Original Series on HBO Max

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EITHER ERASE THE STORY, OR WE'LL ERASE YOU. AND MAYBE YOUR FAMILY. BUT WE'LL DO THEM FIRST, SO YOU LEARN YOUR LESSON BEFORE YOU DIE.

From the only American journalist ever to have been admitted to the insular Tokyo Metropolitan Police press club: a unique, first-hand, revelatory look at Japanese culture from the underbelly up.

At nineteen, Jake Adelstein went to Japan in search of peace and tranquility. What he got was a…


Book cover of Minka: My Farmhouse in Japan

Sam Baldwin Why did I love 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.

By John Roderick,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Minka as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1959 journalist John Roderick joined the Tokyo bureau of the Associated Press. There, he befriended a Japanese family, the Takishitas. After musing offhandedly that he would like to one day have his own house in Japan, the family unbeknownst to Johnset out to grant his wish. They found Roderick a 250-year-old minka, or hand-built farmhouse, with a thatched roof and held together entirely by wooden pegs and joinery. It was about to be washed away by flooding and was being offered for only fourteen dollars. Roderick graciously bought the house, but was privately dismayed at the prospect of living…


Book cover of Tonoharu: Part 1

Sam Baldwin Why did I love 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.

By Lars Martinson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Tonoharu as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Daniel Wells begins a new life as an assistant junior high school teacher in the rural Japanese village of Tonoharu. Isolated from those around him by cultural and language barriers, he leads a monastic existence, peppered only by his inept pursuit of the company of a fellow American who lives a couple towns over. But contrary to appearances, Dan isn't the only foreigner to call Tonoharu home. Across town, a group of wealthy European eccentrics are boarding in a one-time Buddhist temple, for reasons that remain obscure to their gossiping neighbors.


Book cover of Inaka: Portraits of Life in Rural Japan

Sam Baldwin Why did I love 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.

By John Grant Ross,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Inaka as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Inaka: Portraits of Life in Rural Japan is an affectionate but unsentimental immersion into the Japanese countryside ("inaka"). In eighteen chapters we undertake an epic journey the length of Japan, from subtropical Okinawa, through the Japanese heartland, all the way to the wilds of Hokkaido. We visit gorgeous islands, walk an ancient Buddhist pilgrimage route, share a snow-lover's delight in the depths of record snowfall, solve the mystery of an abandoned Shinto shrine, and travel in the footsteps of a seventeenth-century haiku master. But above everything, Inaka answers the question of what it's like to be a foreigner living in…


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The Last Bird of Paradise

By Clifford Garstang,

Book cover of The Last Bird of Paradise

Clifford Garstang Author Of Oliver's Travels

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Fiction writer Globalist Lawyer Philosopher Seeker

Clifford's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Two women, a century apart, seek to rebuild their lives after leaving their homelands. Arriving in tropical Singapore, they find romance, but also find they haven’t left behind the dangers that caused them to flee.

Haunted by the specter of terrorism after 9/11, Aislinn Givens leaves her New York career and joins her husband in Southeast Asia when he takes a job there. She acquires several paintings by a colonial-era British artist that she believes are a warning.

The artist, Elizabeth Pennington, tells her own tumultuous story through diary entries that end when World War I reaches the colony with catastrophic results. In the present, Aislinn and her husband learn that terrorism takes many shapes when they are ensnared by local political upheaval and corruption.

The Last Bird of Paradise

By Clifford Garstang,

What is this book about?

"Aislinn Givens leaves a settled life in Manhattan for an unsettled life in Singapore. That painting radiates mystery and longing. So does Clifford Garstang's vivid and simmering novel, The Last Bird of Paradise." –John Dalton, author of Heaven Lake and The Inverted Forest

Two women, nearly a century apart, seek to rebuild their lives when they reluctantly leave their homelands. Arriving in Singapore, they find romance in a tropical paradise, but also find they haven't left behind the dangers that caused them to flee.

In the aftermath of 9/11 and haunted by the specter of terrorism, Aislinn Givens leaves her…


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