The best books on travel in premodern and modern Japan

Why am I passionate about this?

I am an architect from Greece who traveled to Japan in the 1990s as an exchange student. Visiting Japan in the early 1990s was a transformative experience. It led me to a career at the intersection of Japanese studies and spatial inquiry and expanded my architectural professional background. I did my PhD on the Tokaido road and published it as a book in 2004. Since then I have written several other books on subjects that vary from the Olympic Games to social movements. In the last 16 years, I've taught at Parsons School of Design in New York where I am a professor of architecture and urbanism. My current project is researching the role of space and design in prefigurative political movements.


I wrote...

The Tôkaidô Road: Travelling and Representation in EDO and Meiji Japan

By Jilly Traganou,

Book cover of The Tôkaidô Road: Travelling and Representation in EDO and Meiji Japan

What is my book about?

The Tokaido Road bridges my two interests: travel and Japan. I love reading travelogues and thinking about the role of travel in our individual and collective imagination. The Tokaido road connects Tokyo with Kyoto and it was a much-celebrated road in Japan’s Edo era (1600-1868). It become a densely urbanized megalopolis in the post-WWII period. In this book, I study the transition of the Tokaido road from the Edo and Meiji eras. I look at everything from maps, to guidebooks, to woodblock prints, to gardens, textiles, and photography.

The book also brings to life the broader “movement culture” of the Edo period with its post-stations and multitude of characters (samurai, merchants, courtesans, poets) who travelled along the road, as well as the transformations that the establishment of the railway brought to travel and to the landscape of Japan’s coastal region with the advent of modernity.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Breaking Barriers: Travel and the State in Early Modern Japan

Jilly Traganou Why did I love 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.  

By Constantine Nomikos Vaporis,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Travel in Tokugawa Japan was officially controlled by bakufu and domainal authorities via an elaborate system of barriers, or sekisho, and travel permits; commoners, however, found ways to circumvent these barriers, frequently ignoring the laws designed to control their mobility. In this study, Constantine Vaporis challenges the notion that this system of travel regulations prevented widespread travel, maintaining instead that a "culture of movement" in Japan developed in the Tokugawa era.

Using a combination of governmental documentation and travel literature, diaries, and wood-block prints, Vaporis examines the development of travel as recreation; he discusses the impact of pilgrimage and the…


Book cover of Tokyo, Form and Spirit

Jilly Traganou Why did I love 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.

By Mildred S. Brandon, James R. Walker,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Essays discuss the evolution of Tokyo's art and architecture from the seventeenth century to the present and the coexistence of technology and tradition


Book cover of Tokyo: A Spatial Anthropology

Jilly Traganou Why did I love 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.

By Hidenobu Jinnai, Kimiko Nishimura (translator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Tokyo: destroyed by the earthquake of 1923 and again by the firebombing of World War II. Does anything remain of the old city? The internationally known Japanese architectural historian Jinnai Hidenobu set out on foot to rediscover the city of Tokyo. Armed with old maps, he wandered through back alleys and lanes, trying to experience the city's space as it had been lived by earlier residents. He found that, despite an almost completely new cityscape, present-day inhabitants divide Tokyo's space in much the same way that their ancestors did two hundred years before. Jinnai's holistic perspective is enhanced by his…


Book cover of Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan

Jilly Traganou Why did I love 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.

By Marilyn Ivy,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Deep anxieties about the potential loss of national identity and continuity disturb many in Japan, despite widespread insistence that it has remained culturally intact. In this conjoining of ethnography, history and cultural criticism, Marilyn Ivy discloses these anxieties, as she tracks what she calls the vanishing: marginalized events, sites and cultural practices suspended at moments of impending disappearance. Ivy shows how a fascination with cultural margins accompanied the emergence of Japan as a modern nation-state. This fascination culminated in the early 20th-century establishment of Japanese folklore studies and its attempts to record the spectral, sometimes violent, narratives of those margins.…


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

Jilly Traganou Why did I love 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.

By Laura Nenzi,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In the Edo period (1600-1868), status- and gender-based expectations largely defined a person's place and identity in society. The wayfarers of the time, however, discovered that travel provided the opportunity to escape from the confines of the everyday. Cultured travelers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries wrote travel memoirs to celebrate their profession as belle-lettrists. For women in particular the open road and the blank page of the diary offered a precious opportunity to create personal hierarchies defined less by gender and more by culture and refinement.After the mid-eighteenth century - which saw the popularization of culture and the rise…


You might also like...

Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

By Gabrielle Robinson,

Book cover of Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

Gabrielle Robinson Author Of Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Retired english professor

Gabrielle's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Gabrielle found her grandfather’s diaries after her mother’s death, only to discover that he had been a Nazi. Born in Berlin in 1942, she and her mother fled the city in 1945, but Api, the one surviving male member of her family, stayed behind to work as a doctor in a city 90% destroyed.

Gabrielle retraces Api’s steps in the Berlin of the 21st century, torn between her love for the man who gave her the happiest years of her childhood and trying to come to terms with his Nazi membership, German guilt, and political responsibility.

Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

By Gabrielle Robinson,

What is this book about?

"This is not a book I will forget any time soon."
Story Circle Book Reviews

Moving and provocative, Api's Berlin Diaries offers a personal perspective on the fall of Berlin 1945 and the far-reaching aftershocks of the Third Reich.

After her mother's death, Robinson was thrilled to find her beloved grandfather's war diaries-only to discover that he had been a Nazi.

The award-winning memoir shows Api, a doctor in Berlin, desperately trying to help the wounded in cellars without water or light. He himself was reduced to anxiety and despair, the daily diary his main refuge. As Robinson retraces Api's…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Japan, Tokyo, and culture?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Japan, Tokyo, and culture.

Japan Explore 463 books about Japan
Tokyo Explore 84 books about Tokyo
Culture Explore 107 books about culture