Imagine sitting in front of a large picture window and looking out. What you see before you isn’t your usual view, though, because you have been transported back to Japan at the turn of the 20th century by means of a massive book containing nearly seven hundred views of Japan in the last decade or so of the Meiji era (1867-1912). That it weighs some fourteen pounds (I viewed it on my newly-bought book-stand) ceases to matter as the photographs simply take over; the huge format becomes altogether appropriate, and readers will be mesmerized by its cinematographic proportions, vivid colors and sheer presence.

In a famous 1990 essay, one of the most respected living writers in Japan lamented that, “Serious literature and a literary readership have gone into a chronic decline, while a new tendency has emerged over the last several years … a largely economic one … reflected in the fact that the novels of certain young writers like Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto each sells several hundred thousand copies.”

The writing of Water, Wood, and Wild Things: Learning Craft and Cultivation in a Japanese Mountain Town was surely an act of devotion. It is a book that defies easy categorization by genre. Readers who enjoy travel literature will surely love author Hannah Kirshner’s ability to root her writing in a place and a culture. Foodies will find evocative descriptions of unfamiliar dishes, along with detailed, thematically-linked recipes at the end of each chapter—along with instructions for finding unusual ingredients in Euro-American grocery stores. While not an academic tome, Water is nonetheless a well-researched book backed up with the support of an ethnographer and a three-page source list. 

How can one design a city to be more like Tokyo? This is the challenge that Jorge Almazan and Studiolab have set themselves in studying what they describe as “one of the most vibrant and liveable cities on the planet”. Their method involves categorizing Tokyo’s subparts into different types of development, and charting the emergence over the last 150 years of a series of distinctive styles of urban space. By doing this, they not only hope to explore the city for the interested reader and traveler, but also to draw out a series of practical lessons for the urban planners of the future.

Sayaka Murata’s English-language debut novel, Convenience Store Woman, caused a sensation when it appeared in a 2018 translation by Ginny Tapley Takemori. The story of an offbeat, thirty-something sales clerk at a “Smile Mart” helped spur a boom in English-language translations of Japanese literature, especially literature by women.

Kyoto Stories, Steve Alpert (Stone Bridge 2022)
Kyoto Stories, Steve Alpert (Stone Bridge 2022)

Don Ascher is a young American living in Kyoto in the 1970s. He is a student of Japanese. He also teaches English, works at a shabu-shabu restaurant, and hangs out in the company of gangsters, hostesses, housewives, tea teachers, and fellow foreigners. Set amidst the timeless beauty of the ancient capital and its garish modern entertainments, this collection of fanciful episodes from Don’s life is a window into Japanese culture and a chronicle of romance and human connections.