Reading about Japan is one of the best ways to get excited for your trip, and we’ve put together a comprehensive Japan reading list for serious book lovers and light readers alike.
Japan guidebooks can be a great resource for research and travel planning, but it’s also incredibly fun — and often enlightening — to read fiction and non-fiction books from and about Japan.
So we’ve compiled a comprehensive recommended reading list for Japan, including books on Japanese food, culture, history, a variety of fiction and literature, and more! For travelers who prefer visual content, we’ve also included a short list of films and shows to watch before your trip.
- Books on Japanese Culture
- Books about Japanese Food and Drink
- Books on Japanese History
- Japanese Literature and Fiction
- Travelogues and Memoirs
- Recommended Japanese Films and TV Shows
If we missed a great book, film, or show you think we should include, please let us know!
Originally written in 2017, this post was updated and republished on March 20, 2020.
Books on Japanese Culture
Japan’s unique and diverse culture, from the traditional to the modern, is one of the things we love most about Japan. The books below — which span topics ranging from gardens to Zen, and fashion to anime — provide an immersive introduction to a breadth of fascinating topics related to Japanese culture.
- The Monocle Book of Japan
- Handmade in Japan, edited by Irwin Wong
- Old Kyoto: The Updated guide to Traditional Shops, Restaurants, and Inns, by Diane Durston
- A Geek in Japan, by Hector Garcia
- Japanese Gardens: Tranquility, Simplicity, Harmony, by Geeta K. Mehta and Kimie Tada
- Tokyo Geek’s Guide: The Ultimate Guide to Japan’s Otaku Culture, by Gianni Simone
- Japanese Tattoos, by Brian Ashcraft
- Geisha, 25th Anniversary Edition, by Liza Dalby
- Houses and Gardens of Kyoto, by Thomas Daniell
- Zen and Japanese Culture, by D.T. Suzuki
- Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, by Jake Adelstein (written by one of the foremost English-speaking experts on Japan’s underworld)
- The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture, by Roger J. Davies and Osamu Ikeno
- Kyoto Gardens: Masterworks of the Japanese Gardener’s Art, by Judith Clancy
- Kyoto: Seven Paths to The Heart of The City, by Diane Durston
- Kimono Design: An Introduction to Textiles and Patterns, by Keiko Nitanai
- Tokyo Fashion City: A Detailed Guide to Tokyo’s Trendiest Fashion Districts, by Philomena Keet
- Living in Japan, by Alex Kerr and Kathy Arlyn Sokol
- Japanese Zen Gardens, by Yoko Kawaguchi
- Zen Gardens and Temples of Kyoto, by John Dougill, with photographs by John Einarsen
- The Art Lover’s Guide to Japanese Museums, by Sophie Richard
- Forms of Japan, by Michael Kenna
- WA: The Essence of Japanese Design, by Stefania Piotti and Rossella Mennegazzo (a gorgeous and illuminating coffee table book)
Books about Japanese Food and Drink
If it’s your first trip to Japan, our guess is that Japanese food will be even more delicious and varied than you can imagine. Below are our favorite books on Japanese food and drink, to simultaneously whet your appetite and give you great insight into Japan’s incredible culinary culture.
- Rice, Noodle, Fish, by Matt Goulding (a fun and fascinating culinary coffee table book)
- monk: Light and Shadow on the Philosopher’s Path, by Yoshihiro Imai
- The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks, by Stephen Lyman and Chris Bunting
- Sushi, by Kazuo Nagayama
- Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook, by Mark Robinson (see our full article on the izakaya experience in Japan!)
- Food Sake Tokyo, by Yukari Sakamoto
- Drinking Japan: A Guide to Japan’s Best Drinks and Drinking Establishments, by Chris Bunting
- Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen, by Elizabeth Andoh
- Tokyo Cult Recipes, by Maori Murota
- Kansha: Celebrating Japan’s Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions, by Elizabeth Andoh (learn more about traveling through Japan with special dietary requirements)
- Japan: The Cookbook, by Nancy Singleton Hachisu
- Japanese Soul Cooking: Ramen, Tonkatsu, Tempura, and More, by Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat
- Tokyo Local: Cult Recipes From the Street that Make the City, by Caryn Liew and Brendan Liew
- Gyoza: The Ultimate Dumpling Cookbook, by Paradise Yamamoto
- Sushi and Beyond: What the Japanese Know About Cooking, by Michael Booth
Books on Japanese History
A basic understanding of Japanese history is essential to making sense of contemporary Japan, and the books below provide insight into some of the country’s most crucial historical periods.
- Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, by Herbert P. Bix
- The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan, by Ivan Morris
- The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi, by William Scott Wilson
- Japan at War: An Oral History, by Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook
- Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima, by Stephen Walker
- Hiroshima, by John Hersey
- Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, by John W. Dower (essential reading for history buffs, a Pulitzer Prize-winning tome)
- Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion: The Creation of the Soul of Japan, by Donald Keene
Japanese Literature and Fiction
Japan is blessed with an incredible wealth of classic and modern literature. The sampling below will help get you started, and we recommend diving more deeply into the works of several of the authors below.
- Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenko, Translated by Donald Keene (this book is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it helped inspire my own love for Japan, and is worth checking out if you are interested in literature, history, Buddhism, and philosophy)
- The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, Translated by Ivan Morris (another Japanese classic for fans of ancient literature)
- The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa, Translated by Robert Hass
- The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu
- The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami (arguably still the best of Haruki Murakami’s novels)
- Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami
- The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa (Ogawa-san is widely considered one of Japan’s best contemporary writers)
- Four Major Plays of Chikamatsu, by Chikamatsu Monzaemon
- The Sound of Waves, by Yukio Mishima (a classic by the legendary author)
- The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, by Yukio Mishima
- Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto
- The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki
- I Am a Cat, by Soseki Natsume
- Shogun, by James Clavell
- Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, by Kenzaburo Oe
- Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata (a modern classic by the Nobel Prize winner)
- Anthology of Japanese Literature: From the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century, by Donald Keene
- The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, by Matsuo Basho and Nobuyuki Yuasa
Travelogues and Memoirs
These varied and colorful firsthand accounts are an invaluable way to vicariously experience Japan through the keen eyes of an eclectic collection of observers.
- Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan, by Donald Keene
- Minka: My Farmhouse in Japan, by John Roderick
- The Inland Sea, by Donald Richie
- The Japan Journals: 1947-2004, by Donald Richie
- Lost Japan: Last Glimpse of Beautiful Japan, by Alex Kerr
- The Roads to Sata: A 2000-Mile Walk Through Japan, by Alan Booth
- Confessions of a Yakuza, by Junichi Saga
- Yakuza Moon: Memoirs of a Gangster’s Daughter, by Shoko Tendo
- Dave Barry Does Japan, by Dave Barry
- The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto, by Pico Iyer
Recommended Japanese Films and TV Shows
Below you’ll find several of our favorite Japanese filmmakers and a selection of the best Japanese films, along with a couple of shows:
- Akira Kurosawa: Perhaps the most renowned Japanese director of all time, with too many remarkable films to list.
- Hayao Miyazaki: The one-and-only Studio Ghibli is behind some of the world’s most beautiful animated films including Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Totoro, and countless others.
- Hirokazu Kore-eda: Brilliant contemporary director, with notable films including Shoplifters and Nobody Knows.
- Yasujiro Ozu: Another legendary Japanese director, with classic films such as Tokyo Story and Late Spring.
- Seijun Suzuki: Fans of Quentin Tarantino should not overlook Suzuki’s action-packed films including Branded to Kill and Tokyo Drifter.
- Jiro Dreams of Sushi: This highly recommended modern documentary is about much more than just sushi.
- Terrace House: Definitely not for everybody, but those who love it swear by this famously slow-paced yet surprisingly intriguing “reality show” (start with the season Boys & Girls in the City).
- Tokyo Olympiad: Beautiful account of the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games by director Kon Ichikawa.
- Anthony Bourdain: Go back and watch Bourdain’s Japan episodes on his shows No Reservations and Parts Unknown.
Whether you relish the feel and smell of paper in your hands, or prefer the convenience and portability of a mobile device, we hope our recommended Japan reading list helps you prepare for your adventures!