15 Fascinating Books to Read Before Visiting Japan

November 20, 2017 - Comment

The One Bag Traveler recommends Gear, Destinations and Adventures. I always like to read about a destination before I visit and Japan is perfect for this. It has a unique and fascinating culture and learning more about it before you visit will increase your enjoyment of the country. There is a huge range of books

The One Bag Traveler recommends Gear, Destinations and Adventures.

15 books about Japan to read before you visit

I always like to read about a destination before I visit and Japan is perfect for this. It has a unique and fascinating culture and learning more about it before you visit will increase your enjoyment of the country.

There is a huge range of books about Japan including memoirs, novels, and books on Japanese culture. Here are some of my favourites:

Non-Fiction Books About Japan

A Geek in Japan, one of the best books about Japanese culture

1) A Geek in Japan: Discovering the Land of Manga, Anime, Zen, and the Tea Ceremony by Hector Garcia

A Geek in Japan is a great introduction to Japanese culture including a brief history of the country that explains that the Japanese are so different because they were isolated from the rest of the world for centuries. The book covers both traditional culture such as sumo and tea ceremonies as well as modern Japanese business and youth culture.

Some of it is a little dated—you won’t see many manga magazines anymore as everyone is reading on their phones—but it’s an interesting read and could help avoid cultural misunderstandings.

Lost Japan, one of the best books aboutJapan

2) Lost Japan by Alex Kerr

Part memoir, part exploration of Japanese culture, Lost Japan was written by an American who has lived in Japan since he was a boy. He loves the country but isn’t afraid to criticise how things are changing and his fears that traditional Japanese culture and arts will be lost. His explorations include thatched roof houses, Kabuki theatre, art, and calligraphy.
Untangling My Chopsticks, a memoir set in Kyoto, Japan

3) Untangling My Chopsticks: A Culinary Sojourn in Kyoto by Victoria Abbott Riccardi

Untangling My Chopsticks is a memoir by a young American woman who travels to Kyoto to learn about tea kaiseki, the intricate multi-course meal that is traditionally served before a tea ceremony.

It’s an enjoyable read and you’ll learn lots about Japanese food and culture. As a vegetarian, I appreciated the final section on shojin ryori, the Zen Buddhist vegetarian cuisine where tea kaiseki originated.

Rice Noodle Fish, a book about Japanese food

4) Rice Noodle Fish: Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture by Matt Goulding

It doesn’t make sense for a vegetarian like me to enjoy this book as I can eat almost nothing described here. Despite this, I found it a compelling insight into Japanese food culture from convenience stores to kaiseki and everything in between. It explores why Japanese food is so good—partly because of the shokunin chefs who dedicate their lives to cooking one type of food perfectly. This is a must-read for foodies.
Yokohama Yankee, a book about foreigners in Japan

5) Yokohama Yankee: My Family’s Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan by Leslie Helm

Yokohama Yankee is a fascinating look at life for foreigners in Japan beginning with the author’s great-grandfather who arrived in the country from Germany in the mid-19th century, just after it had opened up to outsiders. Despite five generations of the Helm family living in Japan, running a business there, and even marrying locals, they never truly integrate.
Geisha, A Life, a memoir about life as a geisha in Japan

6) Geisha, A Life by Mineko Iwasaki

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden is one of the most famous novels about Japan. Golden used interviews with Iwasaki, one of the best geishas of her generation, to inform his work but she was unhappy with the result that portrays geisha as prostitutes, which she denies.

Geisha, A Life is her response to the novel—a real memoir of a geisha about the ups and downs of life as a famous high-class dancer and entertainer in Gion, Kyoto. It’s not as dramatic as the novel and the writing is a little dry, but I was fascinated with this hidden world. Note that in the UK the book is called Geisha of Gion.

Tokyo on Foot, a quirky illustrated guide to Tokyo, Japan

7) Tokyo on Foot: Travels in the City’s Most Colorful Neighborhoods by Florent Chavouet

For something different try this fun and beautiful illustrated memoir by a French guy who moves to Tokyo for six months. He documents his experience by drawing Tokyo’s streets and people and incorporates his observations about life in Japan. While it’s not a travel guide, it does give you an introduction to the city’s different neighbourhoods. The ebook doesn’t work well on a regular Kindle but looks great on an iPad.

Novels Set in Japan

Shogun, one of the best novels set in Japan

8) Shōgun by James Clavell

Shōgun is an epic novel about an English sailor who ends up on the shores of feudal Japan in 1600. At first he is reviled as a barbarian foreigner but he gradually integrates into Japanese culture, becomes a samurai, and falls in love.

It’s 1000 pages long and it took me a while to get into, but when I did I couldn’t stop reading. Although it’s fiction, it’s based on real characters and is a fascinating insight into samurai life.

A Tale for the Time Being, one of my favourite Japan reads.

9) A Tale for The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

I adored this novel about a Canadian writer who finds the diary of a Japanese teenager washed up on the shores of her remote island. She becomes engrossed in this troubled teen’s life in Tokyo. The book covers topics as wide-ranging as the nature of time, Zen Buddhism, quantum mechanics, kamikaze pilots in WW2, cyberbullying, and the environment.

It’s intelligent but…

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