The best books for understanding Japan and the Japanese

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

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Alan Booth

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. 


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Japanese Pilgrimage

By Oliver Statler

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.    


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Japan, a View from the Bath

By Scott Clark

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! 


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Basho and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary

By Makoto Ueda

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.


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Pictures from the Water Trade: An Englishman in Japan

By John David Morley

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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