The Tale of Genji
by Lady Murasaki
The Tale of Genji, written in the 11th century is considered by some to be the world's very first novel. A Japanese classic, it is quite readable today. The intricacies of the Heian court, of which Lady Murasaki Shikibu was a part, continue to fascinate us. A description of a dying society, documented and rendered delicately, and compared by some to Remembrance of Things Past by Proust.
"Not only the world's first real novel, but one of its greatest." – Donald Keene, Columbia University
"A triumph of authenticity and readability." – Washington Post Book World
"At the court of an Emperor (he lived it matters not when) there was among the many gentlewomen of the Wardrobe and Chamber one, who, though she was not of very high rank, was favored far beyond all the rest; so that the great ladies of the Palace, each of whom had secretly hoped that she herself would be chosen, looked with scorn and hatred upon the upstart who had dispelled their dreams. Still less were her former companions, the minor ladies of the Wardrobe, content to see her raised so far above them. Thus her position at Court, preponderant though it was, exposed her to constant jealousy and ill willx...x." – The Tale of Genji, Anchor Books, 1955 edition.
Memoirs of a Geisha
by Arthur Golden
Memoirs of a Geisha became quite a sensation when first published. The story is an unusual and unforgettable look into the secretive way of life of the geisha in Japan. The author, a student of Japanese history, has imagined a wonderfully authentic character; we feel we know her and her surroundings well by the end of the novel. The author did interview one of the most famous geishas of the 60's and 70's in Japan, however there is some controversy about the accuracy of the account. It is worth being aware that this is fiction, and may not be completely true to the geisha experience. But it is a gripping tale, and well worth reading before a trip to Japan.
"In recounting her story, Mr. Golden gives us not only a richly sympathetic portrait of a woman, but also a finely observed picture of an anomalous and largely vanished world." – Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"I long ago developed a very practiced smile, which I call my 'Noh smile' because it resembles a Noh mask whose features are frozen. Its advantage is that men can interpret it however they want; you can imagine how often I've relied on it." – Memoirs of a Geisha, Vintage, 1999 edition.
by Oliver Statler
The unusual book, Japanese Inn, links together people and stories from the history of Miaguchi-ya, an old inn on the Tokaido Road between Tokyo and Kyoto. Guests come and go, samurai warriors heading to battle, poets, artists, lovers. Great men and lesser ones. The story of the inn is actually the history of Japan through four hundred years beginning with the founding of the inn in the late 1500's. Each important period of history has its own chapter and its characters, and much like a play, we watch how life affects them. For the traveler to Japan who plans to stay in a ryokan, a Japanese inn, this book will charm as well as bring to life many of the main character-types in Japanese history.
"Japanese history made easy, and grand entertainment. Mr. Statler's prose succeeds in evoking the pageantry of the past in the brilliant color of the kabuki stage." – Robert Trumbull, The New York Times Book Review
"One of the most engaging books possible. Skillfully wafting his readers from century to century, he unrolls the guesthouse's long and eventful history in the manner of a Japanese scroll slowly unwinding before the eyes."
– Joseph G. Harrison, Christian Science Monitor
"'18th day ... stopped to sketch as I neared the post town of Yui. Fine scenery hereabouts. ...xMost Tokaido travelers would as soon have set out on a journey without money as without writing materials. Notebook and portable brush-and-ink case were indispensable. A record of the journey, often with sketches, was expected. ...xVery few of these diaries were intended for publication, nor was that from which the above is taken but when the traveler was destined to become one of the best-loved artists in all the world, and when much of his finest work centered on the Tokaido, the result is inevitable. The writer's name was Hiroshige." – Japanese Inn, University of Hawaii Press, 1961 edition.
Following the Brush
by John Elder
John Elder, a professor of English at Middlebury College spent a year living with his family in Japan. He threw himself wholeheartedly into the culture, such as learning calligraphy, and the game of Go. In this memoir he introduces us to the art of bonsai, to Noh theater and to many other aspects of Japanese culture and does so with engaging writing. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on the Japanese Go Club, and his introduction there as the first foreigner to attend. This is a short book, yet its vignettes would add much toward a visit to this fascinating and somewhat mysterious country.
"Balanced, gentle, meditative: an unusual find in today's books on Japan." – Kirkus Reviews
"In one of the little showcases the shop owner displayed a venerable bonsai tree. Half of it was a plum, the other half, grafted onto the same trunk, a cherry. It was old, to judge from the gnarly bark, even though the total height of tree and branches was not over eighteen inches. The bonsai was planted in a rectangular ceramic container, flat and green. When the plum trees on our street bloomed, so did the plum within the window. The blossoms were as big as those on the full-size tree, but looked much larger on those boughs no thicker than a chopstick. ...xThe Japanese have always loved art that magnifies the small, from bonsai to haiku, by identifying the particular with the universal." – Following the Brush, Beacon Press, 1993 edition.
An Artist of the Floating World
by Kazuo Ishiguro
An Artist of the Floating World is a short quiet novel detailing an artist's life after the ravages of World War II in Japan. The novel offers a closely observed view of Japan with all its pathos and cultural disruption. Ishiguro's main character, Ono, and his relationship to his family, his art and his society, form the crux of this intimate and authentic novel.
"Good writers abound – good novelists are very rare. Kazuo Ishiguro is that rarity. ...xAn Artist of the Floating World is the kind [of book] that stretches the reader's awareness, teaching him to read more perceptively." – The New York Times Book Review
"If on a sunny day you climb the steep path leading up from the little wooden bridge still referred to around here as 'the Bridge of Hesitation', you will have not have to walk far before the roof of my house becomes visible between the tops of two gingko trees. Even if it did not occupy such a commanding position on the hill, the house would still stand out from all others nearby, so that as you come up from the path, you may find yourself wondering what sort of wealthy man owns it. ...xBut then I am not, nor have I ever been, a wealthy man. The imposing air of the house will be accounted for, perhaps, if I inform you that it was built by my predecessor, and that he was none other than Akira Sugimura." – An Artist of the Floating World, Vintage, 1989 edition.
The Makioka Sisters
by Junichiro Tanizaki
The Makioka Sisters, considered by some to be the greatest Japanese novel of the 20th century, follows a family in Osaka in the years just before World War II as they try to preserve a vanishing way of life. Tanizaki's art reveals itself in his delicate mastery of character and the reality of the narrative. Although a rather long book, it is an engaging epic filled with evocative domestic detail and suspense.
"A masterpiece of great beauty and quality." – Chicago Tribune
"Skillfully and subtly, Tanizaki brushes in a delicate picture of a gentle world that no longer exists." – San Francisco Chronicle
"Some, it would appear, looked for deep and subtle reasons to explain the fact that Yukiko, the third of the four sisters, had passed the marriageable age and reached thirty without a husband. There was in fact no 'deep' reason worth the name. Or, if a reason had to be found, perhaps it was that Tsuruko in the main house and Sachiko and Yukiko herself all remembered the luxury of their father's last years and the dignity of the Makioka name – in a word, they were in thralls to the family name, to the fact that they were members of an old and once-important family. In their hopes of finding Yukiko a worthy husband, they had refused the proposals that in earlier years had showered upon them. Not one seemed quite what they wanted." – The Makioka Sisters, Vintage, 2000 edition.
The Book of Tea
by Kakuzo Okakura
The Book of Tea by Okakura may seem like a strange selection to recommend to the traveler. Neither fiction, nor non-fiction, memoir or history, Okakura's words conjure up a world of simplicity and purity. This is not primarily a book about the tea ceremony, but a book that goes to the heart of Taoism and Buddhist thought. A short but expressive book, it mines the veins of Japanese culture. This book will be one you keep coming back to for life lessons. A lovely gift for someone going to Japan.
"Kakuzo Okakura's 1906 treatise on tea is a fascinating exposition of Japanese culture and the country's relationship to the west." – Kristen Treen, The Guardian
"The long isolation of Japan from the rest of the world, so conducive to introspection, has been highly favorable to the development of Teaism. Our home and habits, costume and cuisine, porcelain, lacquer, painting – our very literature – all have been subject to its influence. ...xThe outsider may indeed wonder at this seeming much ado about nothing. What a tempest in a tea-cup he will say. But when we consider how small after all the cup of human enjoyment is, how soon overflowed with tears, how easily drained to the dregs in our quenchless thirst for infinity, we shall not blame ourselves for making so much of the tea-cup. Mankind has done worse." – The Book of Tea, Wilder Publications, 2009 edition.
by Natsume Soseki
Originally published in 1910, this quiet, delicate novel by one of Japan's most revered authors has just been reissued by New York Review Books. Although an intimate, domestic drama in which it seems as though nothing is happening, just look between the lines. Outwardly understated, yet, like the Japanese culture, under the surface we find great riches.
"A sensitive, skillfully written novel by the most widely read Japanese author of modern times." – The Guardian
"The Gate is not so much tragic or comic as a graceful balance between the dispiriting and the humorous. It is surely the kind of writing we need. A masterpiece of taste and clarity." – New Statesman
"Sōsuke had been relaxing for some time on the veranda, legs comfortably crossed on a cushion he had set down in a warm, sunny spot. After a while, however, he let drop the magazine he had been holding and lay down on his side. It was truly a fine autumn day, the sun bright, the air crisp, and the clatter of wooden clogs passing through the quiet neighborhood echoed in his ears with a heightened clarity. Tucking one arm under his head, he cast his gaze past the eaves at the expanse of clear blue sky above. Compared to this tiny space he occupied here on the veranda, this patch of sky appeared extremely vast." – New York Review of Books Classics, 2012 edition.
The Inland Sea
by Donald Richie
Even though The Inland Sea was written in the 1970s, and some of what the author writes about has been lost, he still captures the shimmering essence of the islands of the Inland Sea of Japan with great detail. Richie is a well-informed and brilliant observer; but we also find ourselves accompanying Richie on his own inner journey. Be sure to read Pico Iyer’s introduction to the most recent edition.
“Richie is a stupendous travel writer; the book shines with bright witticism, deft characterizations of fisherfolk, merchants, monks and wistful adolescents, and keen comparisons of Japanese and Western culture.” – San Francisco Chronicle
“Earns its place on the very short shelf of books on Japan that are of permanent value.” – Times Literary Supplement
“A journey is always also something of a flight. You go to reach, but you also go to escape. I am going to see the islands and all that they seem to promise, but, at the same time, I am going to escape the mainland and all that I already know it contains. I find less fault with Japan than with the century that is destroying this country along with all the others. Now, to escape is no sentimental gesture, it is survival.” – The Inland Sea, Stone Bridge Press, 1971 edition.
by Yasunari Kawabata
Snow Country is considered by many to be Nobel Prize winner Kawabata’s masterpiece. The setting is a hot springs resort in the countryside of western Japan. This novel, both delicate and disturbing, is infused with the beauty of nature as well as the sadness of love and time passing. Simple yet poetic, the reader will become quickly engaged with Komako, the geisha who works for the resort and the main character, Shimamura, the wealthy man who visits her once or twice a year. Like Japanese haiku, or other Japanese arts, the subtly of action and plot must be appreciated within its culture. Anyone visiting Japan and especially the countryside would benefit immensely from reading this novel.
“ … This is a finely written book, excellently translated.” – Ellen Fraser, Times Literary Supplement
“The greatest merit of this book is the descriptive power with which the author evokes the Japanese alpine scene.” – Maurice Cranston, Sunday Times
“Probably to keep snow from piling up, the water from the baths was led around the walls of the inn by a makeshift ditch, and in front of the entrance it spread out like a shallow spring. A powerful black dog stood on the stones by the doorway lapping at the water. Skis for the hotels guests, probably brought out from a storeroom, were lined up to dry, and the faint smell of mildew was sweetened by the steam. The snow that had fallen from the cedar branches to the roof of the public bath was breaking down into something warm and shapeless.x…xBy the end of the year that road would be shut off from sight by the snowstorms. She would have to go to her parties in long rubber boots with baggy ‘mountain trousers’ over her kimono, and she would have a cape pulled around her and a veil over her face.“ – Snow Country, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1984 edition.
The Sound of Waves
by Yukio Mishima
Our book club read The Sound of Waves just before Valentine’s Day and it was an appropriate choice. The novel is a very sweet love story that takes place on an isolated island off the coast of Japan not too long after WWII. The traditional values of the small island community hold up well against the outside world, and the characters who find the most happiness seem to be those who comprehend and maintain those values. Mishima is a fine writer and one comes away from this novel with a sense of the beauty of the island landscape as well as a strong sense of Japanese values and customs. If you haven’t read Mishima this is a very good first book before taking on The Sea of Fertility series.
“The colorful setting is an enchantment, but the basic appeal is universal. The Sound of Waves is altogether a joyous and lovely thing.” – Edmund Fuller, The New York Times on the Web
“Uta-Jima, Song Island, has only about fourteen hundred inhabitants and a coastline of something under three miles. The island has two spots with surpassingly beautiful views. One is Yashiro Shrine, which faces northwest and stands near the crest of the island. The shrine commands an uninterrupted view of the wide expanse of the gulf of Ise, and the island lies directly in the straits connecting the gulf with the Pacific Ocean. The Chita Peninsula approaches from the north and the Atsumi Peninsula stretches away to the northeast. To the west you can catch glimpses of the coastline between the ports of Uji-Yamada and Yokkaichi in Tsu.” – The Sound of Waves, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1994 edition.