Japan: six travelogues
Some of the best books to read if you are travelling to Japan. Or if you have just returned and want to keep travelling with your imagination.
Ok, I have written a short travel book about my seven trips to Japan. And this made me think about all the pages I have read about this amazing country that has become such a big part of my life. I have read many books about the country, but there aren’t many travel books about Japan. Are these the best books on Japan from a traveller’s perspective? I am not sure, but these are some of my favourite travelogues and travel memoirs set in Japan.
1. Ghost Train to the Eastern Star – by Paul Theroux
All travel is time travel. Having just arrived in Japan, I felt I had travelled into the future, to a finished version of all the cities I’d passed through on this trip.
I love the way Theroux travels, the way he writes. I love his irony (even when it becomes sarcasm), his sharp, piercing point of view. And this is probably my favourite among his books, even if he doesn’t seem to understand much of Japan but somehow he manages to show interesting sides of the country, and some of its darker shades in a way that is completely different from authors that fell in love with it. But before arriving in Japan (at the end of the book) Theroux travels by train through all Europe and Asia. And this is what’s more fascinating about this book, at least from an European’s point of view. It shows what’s, literally, in the middle between Europe and Japan. This is why it’s first in this list.
Theroux meets local authors in all the countries he visits, in Japan he meets the famous novelist Haruki Murakami and the great Pico Iyer.
Ghost Tain to the Eastern Star – Paul Theroux (512 pages)
2. Hokkaido Highway Blues (Hitching rides with Buddha) – by Will Ferguson
“Look,” says Mr. Migita, herding his children before him as he comes.”Look over there.”
He points back toward the mountains to a faint pink smudge in among the evergreens.
“Sakura,” he says. And the heart quickens.
The cherry blossoms have arrived. Now the journey has begun, now the race has started, now the challenge met. “Sakura! Do you really think so?”
He looks again. “Maybe not. You want some squid?”
Will Ferguson is a Canadian teacher and writer who lives in Japan. And one day he decides to learn more about the country, following the wave of the cherry blossoms moving through the country from south to north in spring. And he does so hitchhiking, which is something rather unusual in Japan. It’s the beginning of a funny, absurd trip on the back roads of the country wich leads to many interesting encounters.
Sometimes Ferguson becomes a little sarcastic, but in every page (maybe not every line) you can feel his deep love for the country. The style reminded me a bit of Bill Bryson.
Hitching Rides with Buddha – Will Ferguson (aka Hokkaido highway blues)
3. The lady and the monk, four seasons in Kyoto – by Pico Iyer
In the chill first light, when some places look exhausted, Kyoto seemed always a miracle of early-morning hopes.
This is a delicate travel memoir set in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, that narrates the discovery of a country as a love story, dotted by haiku poems. This wonderful book by Pico Iyer, who, by the way, later decided to live in Japan, was my only companion during my first trip to Japan. And the dreamlike atmosphere of its pages is probably one of the reasons I love Kyoto so much.
The lady and the monk – Pico Iyer (352 pages)
⇒ check out also my post on some of the best books on Kyoto
4. The Inland Sea – by Donald Richie
Words make you visible in Japan. Until you speak, until you commit yourself to communication, you are not visible at all. You might travel from one end and, unless you open your mouth or get set upon by English-speaking students, be assured of the most complete privacy. Just as in small country inns, where you are never visible until presentable—after the face-washing, the brushing of the teeth, the combing of the hair, all often performed just outside the kitchen, from where the same maid who will presently formally wish you good-morning will stare through you—so, in traveling, you are invisible until you announce you are not.
This moving, melancholic travel memoir describes a country that is profoundly different from the Japan of Today. Sailing on boats between the islands of the Inland sea he describes a rural Japan that has long since disappeared. Even the passenger boats are not sailing these waters anymore. Still, a lot of what Donald Richie writes about the Japanese people or their culture is surprisingly still true today.
Foreword by Pico Iyer
The Inland Sea – Donald Richie (288 pages)
5. Riding the Trains in Japan – by Patrick Holland
On my first night riding the trains in Japan I felt the logic of journey dissolve; I was travelling nowhere, travelling only in order to be no-place in an a-historical, de-territorialised and perpetual non-place.
The title is misleading to say the least, as this book is about China and Vietnam as well as Japan. And you can also notice that Japan is not the primary focus of Holland from a couple of (minor) mistakes here and there. And I am still not sure it’s possible to go back and forth on bullet trains between Kyoto and Tokyo all night long as he writes he did.
So why am I including this book in the post? Because I love the way Holland writes, the way he interweaves his travelogue with literature, the way he brings the places and the characters to life. Moreover, his few stories set in Japan are set in some of the places I love the most, as Kyoto, Uji, mount Koya.
Riding the Trains in Japan – Patrick Holland (172 pages)
6. The Roads to Sata – by Alan Booth
“Do you like the Japanese?”
Early Eighties. The English writer Alan Booth walks the entire length of Japan from north to south with a heavy backpack (too heavy). And he brings us with him for four months on this exceptional journey on back roads in a country that is becoming (at the time) the leader economic power of the world.
Booth does so with an intelligent, sometimes funny, style, avoiding clichés that pop up way too often when writing about Japan. A classic, among the best Japan travelogues
Another great book by Booth is Looking for the lost (1995)
The Roads to Sata – Alan Booth (304 pages)
Do you agree or disagree? Do you have other travel books about Japan to recommend? Please leave a comment!
My travelogue Horizon Japan is available on Amazon and other on-line stores.
It’s a collection of short stories from seven trips to Japan, from the northern tip of Hokkaido to the distant Yaeyama islands (Okinawa).
4/5 stars rating on Goodreads (31 ratings as of 06/01/2016).
It’s published by goWare.