You probably have a list of things you want to do when you travel to Japan: eating ramen, bathing in onsen, visiting the Ghibli Museum, shopping in Harajuku, trying out the monk experience at a temple, and more. But how about having a little context for your trip? Here we introduce internationally known Japanese literary works set in real places. We picked three books that have English translations––you can read the books before you leave or bring them on your trip.
With its many onsen (hot springs), beautiful nature, and mild climate, the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture has been a popular tourist destination for centuries. The peninsula has been the setting for numerous stories, but perhaps the most famous internationally is The Izu Dancer (also known as The Dancing Girl of Izu), a short story by Nobel laureate, Yasunari Kawabata.
The protagonist of the story is a young student in Tokyo who travels to Izu to escape his depression and loneliness. He meets a girl who is part of a traveling performance troupe and is attracted her purity and brightness. His mind gradually becomes cleansed, and he regains the strength to deal with his situation back in Tokyo as he travels through the Izu onsen towns of Shuzenji, Yugashima, Amagi-toge, Yunoya, and Shimoda along with the troupe. (These onsen towns are still very popular among Japanese travelers.)
This coming-of-age story is autobiographical. Kawabata had traveled to Izu when he was a student in Tokyo, and his experiences inspired him to write the story years later. Even after he became a successful writer, he loved Izu and visited frequently, often staying there to work. He wrote The Dancing Girl of Izu at a ryokan (Japanese traditional inn) in Yugashima called Fukudaya. This ryokan still exists and welcomes guests. It has also hosted many movie stars when they shot movie versions of The Dancing Girl of Izu, and now it displays stills and behind-the-scenes pictures. It also offers the opportunity to dress up like a dancing girl for a cosplay experience.
Onsen town Shuzenji is also a historical town in which Shuzenji-temple with 1200 years of history is located.
Two protagonists bid each other farewell in the end at a port in Shimoda, seaside onsen town.
Soseki Natsume, who studied in London from 1900 to 1901, is truly a legendary writer from the dawn of Japan’s modern era. Many of his novels are translated into English, including Bocchan. Bocchan is the nickname of the protagonist, who was sent to teach math at a middle school in the Shikoku region right after graduating from college in Tokyo. With a straightforward yet mischievous personality, Bocchan spends one eventful month in the school on beautiful Shikoku island, far away from home. Soseki vividly and humorously depicts Bocchan’s interactions with fellow teachers and students.
In the book, the exact location of the middle school isn’t specified, but most people think it must be Matsuyama in Ehime Prefecture, where Soseki himself worked as a middle school English teacher after graduating from college in 1895. In a sense, he himself was a visitor to the place and could describe the experience as seen with fresh eyes. It is said that he wrote the novella in only ten days. Soseki loved Dogo Onsen, hot springs with an eponymous ryokan in Matsuyama that appear in the book. (Bocchan swims in the bath here.) The ryokan is still in operation and is popular with visitors from all over the world. It is also believed to be the inspiration for the setting of Hayao Miyazaki’s anime film Spirited Away (2001).
In Matsuyama, you can eat the sweet mochi skewers, now called Bocchan dango, that Soseki enjoyed and ride a sightseeing tram, the Bocchan Ressha, to look around the city. Matsuyama is also the birthplace of Shiki Masaoka, the father of modern haiku poetry and a friend of Soseki.
Dogo Onsen Ryokan is a highlight of Bocchan-themed sightseeing.
The Tale of Genji is the oldest Japanese novel, and it is written by noblewoman, Murasaki Shikibu. This epic love story about Prince Hikaru Genji consists of 54 chapters in three parts that depict his relationship with multiple women and his political life. Long before the Tudors were muddled up with politics and love in England, according to the novel, Japan had similar palace intrigues. The Tale of Genji is fiction, but it was written by a lady-in-waiting in the court, and it is easy to assume that many episodes in the book are based on actual incidents.
Since the events of The Tale of Genji took place more than a thousand years ago, the Heian Palace is long gone, but memorial plaques and monuments stand at the site, which is now a residential area, to show the spots where each of the chambers were located. The Kyoto Gosho (Kyoto Imperial Palace), which is the former palace of the Emperor, was modeled after the Heian Palace. It is open to the public, so you can envision the setting for Genji. There are maps available there with all the Genji-related spots, and you can see 40 monuments and inscriptions. You can check out the Genji points of interest and obtain a map here: www.city.kyoto.lg.jp/bunshi/page/0000038614.html (Japanese only)
The Suma Ward of Kobe in Hyogo Prefecture is the backdrop for the second part of the Genji. Genji was exiled from Kyoto to Suma because of his adultery with the then-Emperor’s mistress. Suma was not as exciting as Kyoto for Genji, but he had a relaxing time there and enjoyed the beautiful ocean views.
Uji, outside Kyoto, is the setting for the last part of Genji. Genji dies here, and his descendants then become the main characters in the novel. Uji Byudo-in, a villa representative of those owned by noble families during Genji’s time, was owned by one of the real-life models for Genji. The beautiful and luxurious Uji Byodo-in is now open to the public. In Uji, you cannot miss the Uji City Genji Monogatari Museum. The exhibition is comprehensive as well as entertaining, allowing visitors to understand the story of Uji Jujo (the third part of The Tale of Genji).
Since The Tale of Genji is so long and overwhelming, you might hesitate to read it. In that case, you might want to try Asaki Umemishi (1980–1993), a series of shojo manga (girls’ comic books) adapted by Waki Yamato.
The structure of the current Kyoto Imperial Palace was modeled after the Heian Palace, the setting of The Tale of Genji.
Visitors to the Uji City Genji Monogatari Museum can enjoy the exhibitions that depict the world of the ancient aristo- crat love story.