The best books that evoke a deep, personal discovery of Japan

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a Tokyo-based writer who first came to Japan during university to live with a host family and study the language. After a stint in Shanghai, Japan brought me back in 2012 and I’ve lived here ever since. I’ve cycled across remote Okinawan islands, wandered Kyoto’s cobblestone lanes, and trekked to mountaintop temples in heavy snow. But some of my best memories have happened over homemade plum wine at a friend’s dinner table. I’ve written two books published by Moon Travel Guides and countless articles on Asia, with some being chosen for “best of” lists by The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and Real Clear World

I wrote...

Moon Japan: Plan Your Trip, Avoid the Crowds, and Experience the Real Japan

By Jonathan DeHart,

Book cover of Moon Japan: Plan Your Trip, Avoid the Crowds, and Experience the Real Japan

What is my book about?

From the world's busiest intersection to serene hot springs, modernity and tradition mingle to striking effect in Japan. My full-length country guide, Moon Japan, came to fruition after a decade of exploring these two distinct faces of this island nation, from Kyoto’s ancient temples and pilgrimages in the primeval forests of Wakayama to Tokyo’s neon-splashed cityscapes and Osaka’s street food scene, with plenty of cultural, historical, social, and spiritual context woven in. For maximum user-friendliness, the book offers a range of flexible itineraries and is tightly curated around top sights, food and experiences throughout. The result, I hope, is a studied portrait of this beguiling country and a trusty companion to help readers navigate through it.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto

Jonathan DeHart Why did I love this book?

Fêted essayist and travel scribe Pico Iyer is smitten in this account of his first year living in Japan. He comes to study the mysteries of Zen at a monastery in Kyoto, but the lofty quest doesn’t last long. Everything changes for the young narrator when he meets and falls in love with the lady of the book’s title who would later become his wife. Alongside telling the tale of this budding romance, Iyer delicately shares his wide-eyed discovery of Japan, from the quirky to the sublime, making the book a love letter of sorts to the country itself. Even today, the book’s sense of wonder conjures memories of my own experience arriving in Japan, when I too was charmed by the magic and newness of it all.    

By Pico Iyer,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Lady and the Monk as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Pico Iyer decided to go to Kyoto and live in a monastery, he did so to learn about Zen Buddhism from the inside, to get to know Kyoto, one of the loveliest old cities in the world, and to find out something about Japanese culture today -- not the world of businessmen and production lines, but the traditional world of changing seasons and the silence of temples, of the images woven through literature, of the lunar Japan that still lives on behind the rising sun of geopolitical power.

All this he did. And then he met Sachiko.

Vivacious, attractive,…

Book cover of Lost Japan: Last Glimpse of Beautiful Japan

Jonathan DeHart Why did I love this book?

In this award-winning memoir, first penned in Japanese, artist, collector, and Japanologist Alex Kerr recounts three decades of experience backstage of Japan’s rich cultural and artistic life. He rubs shoulders with Kabuki stars, art dealers, and literati, leads readers through Osaka’s demimonde, and pulls back the curtain on Tokyo boardrooms during the dizzying bubble years. But the heart of the book revolves around something more ephemeral: an ode to Japan’s fading traditional culture, found in the secluded temples of Nara, Kyoto’s hidden corners, and most palpably, Shikoku’s remote, vine-tangled Iya Valley, which Kerr made his home. This book gave me a profoundly nuanced and personal view of Japan’s well-worn beauty––slowly conceding to modernity––that I needed as a student in hypermodern Tokyo two decades ago.

By Alex Kerr,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

An enchanting and fascinating insight into Japanese landscape, culture, history and future.

Originally written in Japanese, this passionate, vividly personal book draws on the author's experiences in Japan over thirty years. Alex Kerr brings to life the ritualized world of Kabuki, retraces his initiation into Tokyo's boardrooms during the heady Bubble Years, and tells the story of the hidden valley that became his home.

But the book is not just a love letter. Haunted throughout by nostalgia for the Japan of old, Kerr's book is part paean to that great country and culture, part epitaph in the face of contemporary…

Book cover of The Inland Sea

Jonathan DeHart Why did I love this book?

Written by the 20th century’s leading interpreter of things Japanese, this travel memoir has a timeless, elegiac quality. Donald Richie lived in Tokyo, but he based this work on a series of trips through the waterways and fishing villages of the glittering Inland Sea. Beyond his beautiful sketches of the seascape itself, his warm, human interactions with fishermen, aunties, merchants, and monks give voice to a disappearing side of Japan. They also serve as a mirror into the metaphorical inland sea within himself––the good, bad, and ugly––which he freely reveals. Seeing the world Richie describes vanish evermore in the decades since, the book’s resonance only grows with age. This is why I find myself diving back into it again and again.

By Donald Richie, Yoichi Midorikawa (photographer),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"An elegiac prose celebration ...a classic in its genre."-Publishers Weekly In this acclaimed travel memoir, Donald Richie paints a memorable portrait of the island-studded Inland Sea. His existential ruminations on food, culture, and love and his brilliant descriptions of life and landscape are a window into an Old Japan that has now nearly vanished. Included are the twenty black and white photographs by Yoichi Midorikawa that accompanied the original 1971 edition. Donald Richie (1924-2013) was an internationally recognized expert on Japanese culture and film. Yoichi Midorikawa (1915-2001) was one of Japan's foremost nature photographers.

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

Jonathan DeHart Why did I love this book?

This travelogue brilliantly narrates Alan Booth’s southward trek across Japan, end to end, from Cape Soya in Hokkaido to Cape Sata in Kyushu. The book’s subtitle, A 2,000 Mile Walk Through Japan, speaks volumes. The journey, which some would call masochistic, is practically measured in blisters. We see Booth, fluent in Japanese, trudge through rain and shine along backcountry roads, from greasy spoons to lonesome karaoke bars, collapsing into countless futons along the way. His journey comes to life with colorful characters, boozy local festivals, and pithy realizations about his adopted homeland, at turns entertaining, illuminating, and hilarious. For me, this book captures the joy of discovering the salty, unexpected side of Japan. It also cements Booth’s status as one of the (unsung) travel writing greats.  

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 Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells

Jonathan DeHart Why did I love this book?

When it comes to the seasons, Japan often conjures images of the pink, transient wave of cherry blossoms that ripples through the islands each spring. Iyer, however, suggests in this mature follow-up to The Lady and the Monk that autumn, with its blazing yellow ginkos and red maples, is when Japan’s essence most clearly shines through. He brings us into a sleepy corner of Nara where he lives with his wife Hiroko, plays ping-pong with spry local seniors, and grapples with the decline of his mother-in-law and sudden loss of his father-in-law. At its core, this is a book about ageing, time, and the quintessentially Japanese knack for seeing beauty in impermanence. Having cycled through more than a decade of autumns in Japan myself, Iyer’s musings ring true.

By Pico Iyer,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In this “exquisite personal blend of philosophy and engagement, inner quiet and worldly life" (Los Angeles Times), an acclaimed author returns to his longtime home in Japan after his father-in-law’s sudden death and picks up the steadying patterns of his everyday rites, reminding us to take nothing for granted.

In a country whose calendar is marked with occasions honoring the dead, Pico Iyer comes to reflect on changelessness in ways that anyone can relate to: parents age, children scatter, and Iyer and his wife turn to whatever can sustain them as everything falls away. As the maple leaves begin to…

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Book cover of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

Ethan Chorin Author Of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Story-lover Middle East expert Curious Iconoclast Optimist

Ethan's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Benghazi: A New History is a look back at the enigmatic 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, its long-tail causes, and devastating (and largely unexamined) consequences for US domestic politics and foreign policy. It contains information not found elsewhere, and is backed up by 40 pages of citations and interviews with more than 250 key protagonists, experts, and witnesses.

So far, the book is the main -- and only -- antidote to a slew of early partisan “Benghazi” polemics, and the first to put the attack in its longer term historical, political, and social context. If you want to understand some of the events that have shaped present-day America, from political polarization and the election of Donald Trump, to January 6, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russian expansionism, and the current Israel-Hamas war, I argue, you need to understand some of the twists and turns of America's most infamous "non-scandal, scandal.”

I was in Benghazi well before, during, and after the attack as a US diplomat and co-director of a medical NGO. I have written three books, and have been a contributor to The NYT, Foreign Affairs, Forbes, Salon, The Financial Times, Newsweek, and others.

By Ethan Chorin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On September 11, 2012, Al Qaeda proxies attacked and set fire to the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, killing a US Ambassador and three other Americans.  The attack launched one of the longest and most consequential 'scandals' in US history, only to disappear from public view once its political value was spent. 

Written in a highly engaging narrative style by one of a few Western experts on Libya, and decidely non-partisan, Benghazi!: A New History is the first to provide the full context for an event that divided, incited, and baffled most of America for more than three years, while silently reshaping…

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