Exploring Japan Through Books: Travelogs and Memoir Bonus

Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa - Karin Muller Tokyo on Foot: Travels in the City's Most Colorful Neighborhoods - Florent Chavouet A Year in Japan - Kate T. Williamson

After a month has now passed, I still find myself thinking back about my recent trip, reflecting on the places I went, what I should do next time. Of course, I had to go back to a few of the sources that inspired me to make the trip.


Over the years, I have read multiple accounts of foreigners living and traveling in Japan, and I was often reminded of them during my own trip. I took plenty of notes on interesting and suggested activities and experiences, noted where I noted their anecdotes insightful and where I found they differed from my experiences. There seem to be multiple approaches to these travelogs of outsiders exploring and interacting with Japan, which is probably true of travel to anywhere in the world, and the approaches of the writers to recording their experience.


My own travel is driven largely by curiosity, a desire to see other places, meet other people (eat food, see the sights, experience just what it is like). Of course, this changes you, as well.


Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa - Karin Muller 

One approach is taken by Karin Muller, in her book and documentary Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa. I read this one a few years ago and was impressed by Muller’s witty writing and ability to find ways to get into just about any sort of situation. On the other hand, I wondered about her desire to to completely “understand” Japan, even “become” Japanese even as she feels she is a very confrontational person, not, in her mind, a very Japanese personality trait. Muller travels to Japan originally to perfect her Judo skills, coming to the idea that in order to truly understand this martial art, she would have to totally understand the Japanese culture as well. I find this conceit a little difficult to understand, I mean, I don’t even understand my own culture completely.


Watching the companion PBS documentary after my return, I felt this to be an interesting dichtomy; her direct, combative nature and her desire to “blend in.” In this, she did detail a lot of interesting people and ideas throughout her trip, and it was definitely fun to revisit Japan with her, even as Muller finds herself unsatisfied by her trip.


Tokyo on Foot: Travels in the City's Most Colorful Neighborhoods - Florent Chavouet 

Tokyo By Foot was an amusing graphic memoir by a French cartoonist, Florent Chavouet, who spent some months living in Tokyo, taking on the city neighborhood by neighborhood and drawing vibrant and detailed depictions of city life. His insights were very cool, and I loved his humorous asides and exhaustive maps. Tokyo is such a massive and complicated city, I really enjoyed seeing it through another visitors eyes and seeing someone else’s impressions of some places I visited, as well as a look at some places I missed. There are some good advice on restaurants and places to visit as well!


A Year in Japan - Kate T. Williamson 

Another comic memoir, A Year in Japan, is Kate T. Williamson's visual diary account of her year spent in Kyoto studying sock design is a lush, intricately designed graphic journal that highlights everyday beauty and intricate watercolor renderings of life in Japan. Williamson's interest in Zen seems to have had an effect upon her design of this book, which has a spare simplicity that really makes flipping through this short a lovely experience. Describing interesting facts of Japanese culture such as souvenir stamps, electric carpets for those chilly, unheated winters, and of course the evocative sock culture, each page offers another interesting insight, either expected (karaoke and geisha) or obscure (shiborizome or Japanese bicycle culture). Williamson's depiction of the changing of the seasons is especially wonderful, and includes some really nice watercolor paintings of delicious looking cuisine (a must in any visual travel diary). In any case, A Year in Japan is a great place to look for inspiration for an upcoming trip to Japan