The best books for understanding Japan and the Japanese

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”.

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The books I picked & why

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

Craig McLachlan Why did I love 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. 

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 Japanese Pilgrimage

Craig McLachlan Why did I love 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.    

By Oliver Statler,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'Japanese Pilgramage' is Oliver Statler's account of walking the Shikoku Pilgrimage, a thousand-mile trek around the fourth largest island in Japan following the path of an ancient Buddhist master. It is a fascinating story of a spiritual journey that shows the many sides of Japan.


Book cover of Japan, a View from the Bath

Craig McLachlan Why did I love 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! 

By Scott Clark,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Japan, a View from the Bath as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A study of the significance of bathing in Japanese mythology and the historical development of communal bathing.


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

Craig McLachlan Why did I love 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.

By Makoto Ueda,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This book has a dual purpose. The first is to present in a new English translation 255 representative hokku (or haiku) poems of Matsuo Basho (1644-94), the Japanese poet who is generally considered the most influential figure in the history of the genre. The second is to make available in English a wide spectrum of Japanese critical commentary on the poems over the last three hundred years.


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

Craig McLachlan Why did I love 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.

By John David Morley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Pictures from the Water Trade as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For several years, John David Morley immersed himself in Japanese life, from learning "Shodo", the art of calligraphy, to frequenting the night-time world of the "water trade", its brothels, clubs and bars. This book is the tale of an Englishman's journey into the enigma of Japan.


You might also like...

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…


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