The best books for understanding Japan and the Japanese

Craig McLachlan Author Of Tales of a Summer Henro
By Craig McLachlan

Who am I?

I have a passion for Japan and the Japanese stretching back over four decades. I’ve done a lot of wandering around my wife Yuriko’s home-country – walked the 3200km length of it; hiked across it from the Sea of Japan to the Pacific, climbing all 21 of its 3000m peaks; broken the record for climbing its 100 Famous Mountains; walked around the 88 Sacred Temples of Shikoku Pilgrimage; and journeyed around the Saigoku 33 Temples of Kannon Pilgrimmage – and written books on all these adventures. I’ve co-written Lonely Planet’s “Japan” and “Hiking in Japan” guidebooks since the late 1990s, covering everywhere from Hokkaido to Okinawa.

I wrote...

Tales of a Summer Henro

By Craig McLachlan,

Book cover of Tales of a Summer Henro

What is my book about?

Henro, or pilgrims, have been walking around the 88 Sacred Temples of Shikoku Pilgrimage for 1200 years. They follow in the footsteps of the great Buddhist saint Kōbō Daishi, who achieved enlightenment on Shikoku, as they try to do the same. It’s a long journey, 1400km in all, with its 88 little goals – make that 89 – for the pilgrim traditionally walks back to Temple 1 to complete a circle. A circle is like the search for enlightenment, never-ending. While these days, most henro travel by car or bus, there are still walking henro out there making the effort.

I was a walking henro in the sweltering summer of 1995, and Tales of a Summer Henro is the story of my pilgrimage. Every journey will be different, but I tried to adhere to the advice of Kōbō Daishi – “do not just walk in the footsteps of the men of old, seek what they sought”.

The books I picked & why

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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?

This is fascinating and enjoyable read. Alan Booth so inspired me to go out looking for ‘the real Japan’ that I went out and did the same – walked the 3200km length of Japan and wrote a book about it. I’d lived in Japan before I read Booth’s book, but I hadn’t even glimpsed the Japan that he was immersed in on his journey. As Booth said, when you walk, you talk to everyone you meet, you see the real beating heart of the country. You get behind the ‘tatemae’, the outer face of the country that Japan wants to portray to the world – and you get to see the ‘honne’, the hidden or private face of Japan that few visitors are privileged to see. 

Japanese Pilgrimage

By Oliver Statler,

Book cover of Japanese Pilgrimage

Why this book?

After walking the length of Japan, I still wasn’t satisfied. I still needed to find more of ‘the real Japan’. Shikoku was the natural next step, and Statler enthralled me with the story of his personal search for enlightenment on the 88 Sacred Temples of Shikoku pilgrimage. Not only that, his book tells you how to undertake the pilgrimage in a traditional manner, delving into its history and ‘pilgrimage culture’. This book is entertaining, enlightening, and extremely inspiring – so much so, that after reading this, you might be heading off to Japan and Shikoku on your own search for enlightenment.    

Japan, a View from the Bath

By Scott Clark,

Book cover of Japan, a View from the Bath

Why this book?

After 40 years of bathing in onsen (hot springs), our local sento (public bathhouse), and all sorts of equivalents, I’ve come to understand that bathing in Japan is a lot more than a way of keeping clean – it’s an immersion in culture as well as hot water. I found Clark’s book fascinating and often found myself muttering “ah, yes, he’s right” to myself, as I looked back on my bathing experiences in Japan. Historically, bathing is not something to be undertaken alone, but in groups, be they family, friends, or workmates. Some of my best experiences in Japan have been the daily ritual of taking my children to our local sento and becoming friends with locals in our neighborhood. “Hadaka no tsukiai” – friends in nakedness – nothing is hidden! 

Basho and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary

By Makoto Ueda,

Book cover of Basho and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary

Why this book?

Matsuo Bashō is considered the most influential figure in the history of hokku (or haiku) poems and this book brings them to life with excellent English translations and commentary. I particularly enjoy Bashō because he was a traveller. He didn’t just sit and write poems in comfy surroundings. He hit the road and wrote about his experiences, be they good or bad. In many ways, they are the humorous, spontaneous, gritty writings of a fatigued experiencer of life. One of my favourites - “My summer robe, there are still some lice, I have not caught”. Ueda’s book is brilliant and allows English speakers to glimpse Bashō’s true thoughts as he rambled about the countryside in 17th century Japan.

Pictures from the Water Trade: An Englishman in Japan

By John David Morley,

Book cover of Pictures from the Water Trade: An Englishman in Japan

Why this book?

Morley writes from experience in this intriguing look at the “mizu-shōbai” – the “water trade”. “The water trade?” I hear you ask. “Mizu-shōbai” is one of those lovely euphemistic Japanese terms that has no meaning to the uninitiated foreigner, even if they have academically studied the Japanese language, but is a term that is infused in daily Japanese life – the night-time world of cosy bars, cabarets and dare we say it, brothels. This book is a look into the murky evening world that few foreign visitors get to see, even if they have heard rumours of its’ existence. It’s a “Japan-by-experience” book that is highly entertaining, often hilarious, and may provide insights that set you to sail for Japan at the first opportunity.

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