10 Books to Read Before Coming to Japan

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When you make the trip to Japan, what’s the first thing you want to do? Do you want to eat Japanese food? Maybe experience anime and manga? Or do you want to explore historical sites? Surely you have many things on your list, but before you take your trip, it’s not a bad idea to educate yourself on the country first. Japan has its own unique culture and customs, and learning more about them will make your trip all the more fulfilling. A great way to do this is by reading Japan-related books! This article introduces 10 books we recommend before taking your trip to Japan. 

1. Geisha, A Life by Mineko Iwasaki

Kyoto is known for it’s beautiful geisha, but there is one woman that stands out when the word geisha is mentioned. For a little background knowledge, becoming a geisha in Japan is a long and challenging process. Mineko Iwasaki was born in Kyoto and introduced to the world of geiko(geisha in Kyoto) by the owner of the geiko house, “Iwasaki”, when she was only 4 years old. She became the heiress of Iwasaki at the young age of 10 and made her debut as a maiko(apprentice geisha) at the age of 15. She eventually became a geisha in Kyoto after overcoming many difficult obstacles. Even after retiring from the geisha world, she continues to give lectures on geisha at various places and even helps educate people overseas using her English skills. We recommend this book to those who want to learn more about the beautiful and eye opening world of geisha.

Want to experience a real private Geisha and Maiko performance with some green tea beside having a seasoned guide? Find more information here!

Meet a Geisha in Kyoto: Gion Culture Walk and Exclusive Geisha Show
Take an adventure on this Kyoto Maiko tour where you will meet real Maiko and Geisha and get a feel for their lifestyle. Stroll the streets of Gion in Kyoto, ta...

Amazon: Geisha, A Life

2. NIHONGO FUN & EASY Survival Japanese Conversation for Beginners by Yukiko Ogata

“NIHONGO FUN & EASY Survival Japanese Conversation for Beginners” is recommended for anyone who wants to learn Japanese or is at the beginner stage of learning Japanese. This book helps you learn phrases that are often used in daily Japanese life. The pronunciation of each word or phrase is carefully written out in English and the word lists have illustrations to make your Japanese study easier and more enjoyable. This book also includes practice questions so you can keep track of your progress. If you are interested in learning Japanese, this might be a great place for you to start! 

Amazon: NIHONGO FUN & EASY Survival Japanese Conversation for Beginners

3. Wabi Sabi by Beth Kempton

Wabi Sabi is something that is deeply ingrained in Japanese culture. The concept Wabi Sabi originates from Zen, a branch of Buddhism, and refers to a unique Japanese sense of beauty that sees the transience and imperfection of the human world as a beautiful thing. For example, when Japanese people see cherry blossoms in full bloom falling from the branches in the wind, they often find a fragile beauty in it. The idea of Wabi Sabi can be very difficult to grasp, but “Wabi Sabi” by Beth Kempton describes it in an easy-to-understand way. Anyone who is interested in the Japanese sense of beauty will surely take a liking to this book. 

Amazon: Wabi Sabi

4. A History of Japan by George Sansom

If you want to learn about the history of Japan and how it developed over the years, this book might be right up your alley. “A History of Japan” by George Sansom is divided into three books: Ancient, Medieval and Modern. We also recommend these books for students who want to study Japanese history or just want to learn more about the history of the world. 

Amazon: A History of Japan to 1334

A History of Japan, 1334-1615

A History of Japan, 1615-1867

5. Sushi and Beyond by Michael Booth

Written by British author Michael Booth, this book is about Japanese cuisine and is based around the explanation of various Japanese foods from a British perspective. In 2015, NHK aired a short animation series based on this book which was fairly popular as well. If you are interested in Japanese food and are curious about what someone thinks about it from a non-Japanese perspective, this will be an interesting read for you! 

Amazon: Sushi and Beyond

6. Oku No Hosomichi by Matsuo Basho

Matsuo Basho, one of the most famous haiku poets of the Edo period, wrote a travel journal called “Oku no Hosomichi”. He started out on a journey on the 500th anniversary of the passing of a poet he admired. He left Edo(Tokyo) with his pupil and traveled to the Chubu and Tohoku regions of Japan, writing about what he experienced in each place along the way. It was a long journey of about 2,400 kilometers and took them about 150 days total. It is regarded as an important source of information about the Chubu and Tohoku regions of Japan during the Edo period. This travel journal also contains many haiku, which help you walk in the shoes of Matsuo Basho and understand what Japan and his life were like at the time. Why don’t you take a trip through Japan’s Edo period alongside Matsuo Basho with a little help from this fascinating book? 

Amazon: Oku No Hosomichi

7. A Geek in Japan by Hector Garcia

If you want to learn the ins and outs of Japanese culture, “A Geek in Japan” by Hector Garcia is the book for you. It provides detailed explanations of everything from traditional Japanese culture to the latest subculture such as manga, anime, Zen, the tea ceremony etc. It also includes many photos, which makes learning about Japanese culture that much easier and fun. If you want to learn about Japanese culture before you take a trip to Japan, this book is a good place to start.

Amazon: A Geek in Japan

8. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is one of Japan’s most famous contemporary literature authors. “Norwegian Wood”, renowned worldwide, was originally published in 1987. It has become a huge bestseller, has been translated into over 40 different languages, and has sold 10’s of millions of copies throughout the world. For a short synopsis, Watanabe, a 37-year-old man, hears the Beatles’ song “Norwegian Wood”, on a plane to Germany, which reminds him of various aspects of his past. It depicts his relationships, his lovelife, and losses throughout his life among other things. Each memory has a significant impact on his life. This novel has also been made into a movie, so if you have already read the book, it might be worth your while watching the movie as well. 

Amazon: Norwegian Wood

9. Rice Noodle Fish by Matt Goulding

“Rice Noodle Fish” written by Matt Goulding, an American food journalist, contains a lot of knowledge about Japanese food that he has gained from his field research in Japan over the years. In addition to information on standard Japanese dishes such as sushi and ramen, Goulding also introduces dishes that are unique to each region of Japan from the north end up in Hokkaido all the way to Kyushu down south. He also explains the passion and dedication of each artisan who cooks them, as well as the taste and background knowledge of the cuisine. This book is great for people who have a passion for cooking or just love Japanese cuisine as a whole.  

Amazon: Rice Noodle Fish

10. How to Live Japanese by Yutaka Yazawa

If you want to learn more about daily life in Japan, you should definitely pick up this book. “How to Live Japanese” by Yutaka Yazawa includes large illustrations of Japanese maps, the many components of the Japanese language used by Japanese people, Japanese customs, and even things such as samurai and ninja. It’s a wonderful read that gives you a glimpse into the daily life of Japanese people. The illustrations are very cute and make reading and learning much easier. 

Amazon: How To Live Japanese

These ten books are just a few of the many great books out there about Japan. However, with a good variety, from culture and history to language study to everyday life, the books on this list might be a great place for you to start. We hope you found a few books that you want to add to your reading list, whether you’re planning on studying Japanese or just want to learn more about Japanese culture. By reading about Japan before actually visiting for yourself, it can help you get a better idea of what to expect and how to adjust to the culture more easily. Doing some reading and research ahead of time might open up new doors and give you places to visit that you wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. We hope these books make your trip to Japan all the more fun!

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Happy travelling!

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Mao Goto is a Japanese freelancer who was born in Hayama, Kanagawa prefecture, and raised in Tokyo. Since 2016 she lives in the Taito Ward, home to a lot of Japanese culture hotspots such as Asakusa, Akihabara, and Ueno. She has been interested in the field of English education of Japan and got her Master’s degree in March, 2020. A lover of photography, travel, sweets, and cross-stitch. Contact her via Facebook.

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