The best books on travel in premodern and modern Japan

The Books I Picked & Why

Breaking Barriers: Travel and the State in Early Modern Japan

By Constantine Nomikos Vaporis

Breaking Barriers: Travel and the State in Early Modern Japan

Why this book?

Vaporis’ Breaking Barriers gave me the background knowledge to understand how developed the system of travel was in Edo Japan. Both in relation to the infrastructure and the regulations imposed by the Bakufu under the Tokugawa regime. I was particularly impressed to learn about the sankin kotai, which is the travel expeditions of the regional lords (the daimyo) for their mandatory alternate residency in Tokyo, and the different protocols and checks across the roads.

Despite the harsh laws of the Tokugawa’s system of roads, barriers, relays, and permits, I was surprised to discover the social reality of the roads and how travelers managed to overcome the regulations and escape from social restrictions. I also enjoyed the multiplicity of sources that Vaporis is using to describe the culture of the road beyond the official records: from diaries and literary sources to woodblock prints.  


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Tokyo, Form and Spirit

By Mildred S. Brandon, James R. Walker

Tokyo, Form and Spirit

Why this book?

Tokyo, Form and Spirit was the catalogue for an exhibition at the Walker Center in 1986 with contributions of the most important Japanese urban writers of the 1990s: Henry Smith, Kenneth Frampton, Donald Richie, Marc Treib, Chris Fawcett to name but a few. While I never saw the exhibition, the perspective of the authors created a mental scaffolding that shaped my understanding of the transition from the feudal to modern Japan. Henry

Smith is reading the city of Edo through a bipartite scheme characterized by the sky and the water, or how the city was viewed differently from above, as incarnated by the gaze of the samurai and other authorities, and from below, typically by the commoners who enjoyed life across the city’s waterways. He then searches for this structure in today’s Tokyo where the city’s skyline is dominated by wirescape and high-rise edifices, and the water has almost evaded. Smith’s perspective offers a powerful way to read the visual and material production of the city in light of social stratification bridged with the fundamental human need of sociability and place attachment.

Kenneth Frampton whose critical modern architecture has shaped generations of architecture students was also the critic who introduced to me Japan’s late modern architecture. In this volume he speaks about the work of five important Japanese architects, Tadao Ando, being the most influential for me. For Frampton, Ando is an architect who is critical to the ever-increasing consumerism of the modern city, and his domestic architecture offers introspective domains and spaces of respite for the inhabitant. Refusing the nostalgic ethos, Ando uses sparingly Japanese traditional elements like shoji and tatami while his work is more memorable for its reinforced concrete walls, both continuing and departing from sukiya style architecture. While other architects of the 1990s offered an apotheosis of the bustling Japanese city, an enclosure is the touchstone of Ando’s practice.


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Tokyo: A Spatial Anthropology

By Hidenobu Jinnai, Kimiko Nishimura

Tokyo: A Spatial Anthropology

Why this book?

Tokyo by Jinnai Hidenobu was influential for me both as a source of information about the history of Tokyo and for its methodology of research. The author discovers the city via walking and traveling across its water routes, an experiential methodology which he first developed in his study of Venice. With the assistance of visuals, both historical and newly drawn based on his field observations, Jinnai explores modern-day Tokyo. His starting point is that Tokyo seems an anomaly when compared with other world cities in its lack of historical structures which is attributed to a series of wars and disasters that radically transformed the city’s physical environment.  

The impressive discovery of this inquiry however is that despite the perceived newness of Tokyo, the spirit of Edo (Tokyo’s name during the Tokugawa period, 1600-1868) has not vanished in today’s modern city. Through this book, we learn that the differences between the high city and the low city of Edo still survive, and we also learn that Tokyo is a hilly city, characterized by a complex intersection of plateaux and valleys, an understanding that might be obscured for many today due to the extensive use of the subway. One of the most interesting chapters is the “Cosmology of a City of Water” where the authors take us on a journey along the Sumida River.

Here the author recollects the markets, amusement centers, and open waterside spaces of Tokyo in the Edo and Meiji eras with the assistance of a fascinating array of woodblock prints from Illustrated books of the city during these periods. All this is to claim that the most interesting places in today’s Tokyo are often those that “slipped through the net of urban planning bent on modernization” and to advocate that planners should view the city as a lived space rather than as a space of development.


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Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan

By Marilyn Ivy

Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan

Why this book?

I was extremely lucky to conduct my PhD research on Tokaido road in the 1990s. Books by scholars of Japanese Studies like Marily Ivy were extremely influential and opened my eyes to aspects that would not have been visible to me otherwise. 

The Discourses of the Vanishing was one such book that dispelled deeply rooted myths of Japan, especially the belief that Japan is a fully modernized country, that Japanese society is monolithic, and that Japan’s most noteworthy locales are its highly urbanized areas. What brought me to the book was Ivy’s examination of the Exotic Japan campaign of Japan’s railways in the late 1980s. This campaign was woven with powerful notions of furusato (nostalgia for one’s native place), neo-Japonesque exoticism, and other imaginary references of post-bubble Japan meant to appeal to women as new targets of Japan’s consumption campaigns.

Across the book’s six chapters, Ivy also takes us to Japan’s mountains such as Mount Osore, introduces people at the margins of Japan’s society, such as blind mediums who are recalling the dead and itinerant troops, and speaks about ideas, nuances, and ideologies that might not be highlight visible in today’s megalopolis but are haunting the nation from its premodern past.


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Excursions in Identity: Travel and the Intersection of Place, Gender, and Status in Edo Japan

By Laura Nenzi

Excursions in Identity: Travel and the Intersection of Place, Gender, and Status in Edo Japan

Why this book?

Laura Nenzi’s book discusses the role of travel in the formation of identity, using primary sources that derive from travel accounts of Edo Japan. Nenzi looks at personal travel diaries and brings an anthropological view on the subject seeing travel as a self-discovery process, while also paying attention to differences in the experience of the literati travelers and the less educated commoners for whom, with the rise of the market economy, the roads and their pleasures became more accessible. This brings to life the changes in the earlier literati tradition of the meisho (famous places) with the rise of commodification of both products (meibutsu) and religious practices.

Nenzi’s most unique contribution is shining a light on the travels of women, which still remain an elusive subject in historical narratives of Japan. Nenzi shows that the hierarchies of Edo Japan were defied by the transgressive potential of travel, as the roads offered possibilities for escape from the everyday social restrictions. In this book, Nenzi weaves literary accounts together with visual material, genres that shaped both individual and collective spatial imaginaries in Edo Japan.


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