Reading list

10 books to read if you’re going to Japan

Need some travel inspiration for a trip to Japan? These ten books will take you from Hokkaido to Tokyo

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1Q84

Haruki Murakami

Weird teenagers, religious cults, and small people crawling inside German shepherds: 1Q84 packs many of Murakami’s recurring motifs into this epic novel, which was originally packaged in three parts. It seems a simple story: Aomame and Tengo meet in school, are separated, and look for each other. But their search is complicated by the possibility that the two lovers live in different dimensions: one is 1984, the other is 1Q84 (both pronounced the same way in Japanese). 1Q84 blends magical realism with the so-called dirty realism of Murakami’s Western heroes (Raymond Carver among others): in other words, it’s quintessential Murakami. A treat for fans and newcomers alike.

 

Underground

Haruki Murakami

This is Murakami in a different mode. His gripping non-fiction book gathers interviews with survivors of the 1995 Tokyo subway gas attack and members of the cult that carried it out. Cult members, working across several subway lines, released packages containing the nerve agent sarin gas – a substance similar to the VX agent used this February in the assassination of Kim Jong-nam – killing 12 and leaving nearly 5000 suffering side-effects of sarin inhalation. Underground chronicles the activities of survivors, many of whom travelled onwards to their workplaces still suffering the gas' effects on their breathing and vision. The stories of the survivors create a complex portrait of Japan in the nineties, and tales of resilience emerge: I’m not a sarin victim, I’m a survivor.

 

The Diving Pool  

Yoko Ogawa

Despite being published in the New Yorker and winning almost every award available in Japan, Yoko Ogawa is yet to find the huge audience that her writing deserves in the West. Her understated and powerful prose ripples through these three short, dream-like tales of obsession. The eponymous first part follows the teenage Aya, frustrated in her love for her close friend Jun, who finds reprieve in an unexpected act of cruelty. In ‘Pregnancy Diary’, an adrift student’s thoughts and fears about her sister’s pregnancy develop into a hidden saga of repulsion and possibly even sabotage. The final story, ‘Dormitory’, traces a middle-aged woman whose plan to join her husband in Sweden is disrupted by a phone call from a distant cousin. Her attempts to help him settle in her former university dormitory – now heavily decayed and near-abandoned – take her into a nostalgic purgatory.

 

In Praise of Shadows

Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

Jun’ichiro Tanizaki was a sensation in Japan in the twenties and thirties, winning literary prizes and causing a considerable fuss with his often erotically-charged tragicomic stories and novels. In Praise of Shadows draws on one of Tanizaki’s many interests: the culture of Japan and how it manifests itself. This essay wanders gracefully among subjects such as toilets, kabuki theatre, soup and, of course, shadows. Written in 1933, In Praise of Shadows is an appreciation of all sides of life – high and low, clean and dirty, a warm-hearted antidote to sterility.

 

The Sound of Waves  

Yukio Mishima

An almost-winner of the Nobel Prize, Yukio Mishima was an unforgettable figure who remains divisive in contemporary Japan. A fervent patriot who wished for a return to the Japan of feudal times; a self-made soldier and failed coup leader; a closeted homosexual; and arguably one of the twenty-first century’s greatest writers. The Sound of Waves finds Mishima in rare, upbeat territory. Written when the author was in his twenties, it is the story of a fisherman who falls in love with the daughter of the richest man on his island. The novel, shot through with Mishima’s arresting prose and luminous descriptions of nature, is a great starting point for anyone interested in breaking into his work.

 

Ghosts of the Tsunami

Richard Lloyd Parry

Ghosts of the Tsunami collects accounts of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that upended life for thousands in the greatest single loss of life since the Nagasaki bombing. Buildings across twenty prefectures were damaged or destroyed. 18,000 people died: crushed, burned, or drowned. Richard Lloyd Parry lived in Tokyo at the time of the earthquake, and for the next six years reported from the disaster zone. In this non-fiction work, he documents testimonies of trauma and endurance, and personal stories of the bleak struggle to find consolation in the ruins.

The Hare with Amber Eyes

Edmund de Waal

Netsuke are small, carefully-crafted miniatures, no bigger than a matchbox. Edmund de Waal encountered 264 of them, carved in wood and ivory, in his Uncle Iggie’s Tokyo apartment. When de Waal inherited these netsuke, he dug into their journey through generations of his family. His investigations take him from Odessa to Paris, and from Vienna to Tokyo. Winner of the 2010 Costa Biography Award, The Hare with Amber Eyes is a truly original memoir: a thoughtful and powerful story of the importance of preservation in the face of history’s destructive forces.

Spring Snow

Yukio Mishima

This novel is the first part of Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy, described by Paul Theroux as ‘the most complete vision we have of Japan in the twentieth century’. Spring Snow follows the young aristocrat Kiyoaki Matsugae as he navigates the nouveau riche of Japan in 1912, and his overpowering love for Satoko is thwarted when she marries a prince. Spring Snow chronicles Japan's period of flux in the early twentieth century, detailing its effects upon a rich cast of supporting characters. Written in Mishima’s inimitable style, blending piercing observation, emotional sensitivity and simmering tension, Spring Snow contains some of the most devastating scenes in post-war literature.

 

Memoirs of a Geisha

Arthur Golden

Chiyo is a young peasant girl with few prospects. Her life is irreversibly changed when she is sold as a servant to a Kyoto geisha house and becomes the geisha Sayuri. Like many other young girls of the time, she learns and masters the craft of the geisha – singing, walking, pouring tea, and enchanting Japan’s most powerful men. Her story, told from New York’s Waldorf Astoria, spans two decades of Japanese history, and lays bare a world behind paper screens: a world laced with eroticism, danger, and exploitation. Memoirs of a Geisha was adapted into a multi Oscar-winning film: the novel was an international bestseller and remains a classic.

 

Sushi and Beyond

Michael Booth

Food and travel writer Michael Booth has a lot of preconceptions about Japanese food. It’s flavourless, soulless, and when it comes to dishes such as cod sperm, both intimidating and confusing. Following an argument with a chef friend who gives him a book on Japanese cooking in a desperate attempt to educate him, Booth realises the only way to remedy his maladies is to go to Japan, and his family decides  to come with him. This fascinating book springs from Booth’s travels: from Hokkaido to Okinawa, from deep-fried eel spines to melons in wooden boxes selling for over £100. Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Kate Whiteman Award, Sushi and Beyond is sharp, silly and massively enjoyable.

 

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