Exploring Japan through Books: Travelogs and Memoir

Hitching Rides with Buddha - Will Ferguson Wrong About Japan - Peter Carey In Ghostly Japan - Lafcadio Hearn Halfway Home: Drawing My Way Through Japan - Christine Mari Inzer Cool Japan Guide: Fun in the Land of Manga, Lucky Cats and Ramen - Abby Denson Cool Japan: A Guide to Tokyo, Kyoto, Tohoku and Japanese Culture Past and Present (Museyon Guides) - Sumiko Kajiyama

So, it has been more than a week since my and I'm Reading Comeek's triumphant, if exhausted, return from Japan, and I have been slowly recovering, both from the awesome time I had, and from the jetlag. To prepare for the trip, I read and consulted with a variety of other foreigner’s experiences in Japan, as well as a few useful and detailed travel guides. Of course, I scrambled to finish a few of them before the trip, downloaded a few ebooks to read on that long flight and on the train, but my book eyes are always bigger than my ability to finish them so I find myself continuing my travels through my reading over these last weeks. It's like a little bit of the trip has stayed with me!



I also wrote up a long reading list of Japanese literature I’m trying to get through as well, so keep watching for my follow up entry on some of the various pieces of fiction from Japanese authors I also read, and in fact, am trying to finish up!


Hitching Rides with Buddha - Will Ferguson 

Hitching Rides With Buddha (Also published under Hokkaido Highway Blues, definitely the cooler title)


This one was quite an interesting, humorous, and thought-provoking account that I was glad I read. Back in the late ‘90s, curmudgeonly Canadian Will Ferguson came up with a wild and crazy idea for a journey; he would follow the Sakura Zensen, the Cherry Blossom Front, as it burgeoned from the southern tip of the Japanese archipelago at Kagoshima all the way to the northernmost tip of Hokkaido, and he would do it all by hitchhiking. Warned by his Japanese colleagues that the Japanese do not pick up hitchhikers, he soon was bumming rides from people from all walks of life across the length of the islands, leading to some deep insights into Japanese culture. Not one to shy away from debate, Ferguson was definitely a fun guide and the minor scrapes he got himself into were quite amusing, but there is a definite melancholy feeling to the story as well as Ferguson comes to question his reason for going on this adventure.


rainy night in Tokyo


Traveling through some of the same areas we visited, Tohoku and Hokkaido to be specific , it was particularly interesting to see both the differences and the similarities to Ferguson’s experiences with our own. For instance, the Canadian Ferguson was constantly mistaken as an American, whereas people mistook us for Canadians! In his descriptions of Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido and Japan’s fourth largest city, he compared its style and layout to a North American city. This definitely echoed our own experiences in Sapporo, as the layout and architecture of the city was much more familiar to us, and in fact, the culture of the place seemed familiar as well; both Hokkaido and Minnesota are agricultural regions, known for cold, only colonized by their current culture in the last hundred and fifty years. All in all, I would say that Ferguson’s account was a funny, exciting, and informative read that I’d recommend to anyone interested in learning more about Japan, or even those who are just looking for a fun trip.


Wrong About Japan by Peter Carey


A transplanted Australian living in New York, Peter Carey and his son Charley visit Tokyo to learn more about his son’s newfound obsession, manga and anime, and allow Peter a chance to rekindle his studies of Japanese culture. In fact, it seems he used his son’s interest as an excuse to write a book wholesale. While it was interesting to follow the pair as they argued about the “real Japan,” modern youth culture versus shrines and temples, it seemed pretty obvious that Carey was using his son’s interest as excuse to go on this trip and indulge in his own facile theories about Japanese culture. In the end, he basically comes to the conclusion that it is impossible for any Westerner to understand the Japanese.


Gingko tree in Sapporo's botanical gardens


This seemed much different than the experience described by Will Ferguson. However, I enjoyed reading this short book for some of its insights into Japanese pop culture (at least in the late '90s, early '00s) and seeing Carey and his son visit some of the same places I did on my recent trip, such as Asakusa and Akihabara. On the other hand, in rushing around from interviewing a sword-maker and various anime directors up to Hayao Miyazaki himself, he seems to neglect the simple pleasures of being in a different country.


In Ghostly Japan - Lafcadio Hearn 

 In Ghostly Japan by Lafcadio Hearn


I read this a few years ago, but decided to reread it prior to heading off on my first visit to Japan and I'm glad I did. There is a lot of food for thought and interesting facts in this short collection of vignettes and folktales. Lafcadio Hearn is a fascinating figure and a very evocative writer as well, with an almost modern style, despite writing the end of the nineteenth century. Hearn was born in Greece to a Greek mother and an Irish doctor father, educated in England, and became a journalist and writer in the United States before spending the last decade of his life or so in Japan, becoming a Japanese citizen. To this day, his work is more well known in Japan.



Daibutsu at Kamakura, prayer flags at the Tsurugaoka hachimangu shrine. #adventuresibs

A photo posted by @adventuresibs on Sep 22, 2015 at 3:56pm PDT

In this short collection of essays, Hearn muses on Japanese topics, in particular Buddhist traditions and folklore which reflect Japanese ways of thinking in a time of great change in Japanese society. For the most part, Hearn manages to avoid "exotifying" or patronizing his subjects, though he also is pretty obviously infatuated with their ways of life. For instance, the collection of Japanese proverbs, with footnotes and annotations, was very interesting, though of course, my favorites were the ghostly stories, particularly the tales of the Bon, the festival of the dead held in late summer. For anyone interested in accessible obscure and arcane lore about Japanese folklore, Lafcadio Hearn's work is a good place to start.

Halfway Home: Drawing My Way Through Japan - Christine Mari Inzer 

Halfway Home: Drawing My Way Through Japan by Christine Mari Inzer 


I’ve been prepping for a trip to Japan later this summer with my sister, and even more than thick ol’ travel guides, I’ve taken to checking out personal accounts of other people’s trips and experiences in Japan for inspiration. Teenager Christine Inzer’s account of her last trip to Tokyo to visit her relatives, was a particularly interesting look at Japan from the perspective of a person from a multicultural background. Born in Japan, but growing up in the US, Inzer writes with a self deprecating and stylish wit and with a skill and insight belying her age. Inzer's crisp, clear art and reflections of her experiences makes Halfway Home a very approachable comic travelog for someone looking to learn more about visiting Japan, especially with family. I certainly enjoyed her suggestion to try some of those Tokyo crepes!


Cool Japan Guide: Fun in the Land of Manga, Lucky Cats and Ramen - Abby Denson 

Cool Japan Guide by Abby Denson


In “Cool Japan Guide,” a cute (or, as maybe more appropriate here, kawaii) and accessible illustrated travel guide, cartoonist Abby Denson offers a lot of fun and useful tips for your first trip to Japan. Some of the advice may be a little common sense, but the book provides a lot of helpful basic information for planning for your trip, from getting ready to leave, to logistics, to leaving. In particular, it is geared to all of the standard Japanese activities tourists (especially tourists from a specific, slightly nerdy background) would be interested in and thus focuses mostly on Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, and the temples, Onsen, and museums you can explore. The author, also, devotes a particular detail to food and shopping you can check out.


While not the most exhaustive treatise, this slim comic gave me plenty of ideas and I definitely made use of a lot of her advice, such as making sure to grab some ekibento at the train stations, stopping by the post office whenever I needed some cash from the ATM, among others. In any case, a good place to start without being overwhelmed. 


Cool Japan: A Guide to Tokyo, Kyoto, Tohoku and Japanese Culture Past and Present (Museyon Guides) - Sumiko KajiyamaCool Japan by Sumiko Kajiyama


Of all the more formal “travel guides” I perused prior to and during the trip, your Fodor’s, Lonely Planets, and Frommers, Sumiko Kajiyama’s Cool Japan was my favorite. While not the most detailed, it was one that was written in engaging enough of a style to be just an interesting read by itself. Discussing three regions, the area around Kyoto, Tokyo, and Tohoku, the chapters were themed around historical and literary figures, including Murasaki Shikabu, author the thousand year old novel, The Tale of Genji, and the great haiku poet Basho as he traveled the north of Japan. Both of these focuses were very inspiring as we visited the suggested spots.


While I did not make it Kyoto on this trip, the sections on Tokyo and Tohuku were very useful for me, and I got some great advice on some places to go; in particular Kura Zushi Shinagawa in Tokyo, a great conveyor belt sushi place for extremely affordable sushi for 100 yen a plate. My mouth waters just thinking about it!



Conveyor belt sushi for dinner! #adventuresibs

A video posted by @adventuresibs on Sep 9, 2015 at 3:48pm PDT