Travel Muse

Taking a Tour through the Iconic Literary Past of Japan

Emily Warner takes readers on a journey through some of the most well known locations in Japanese literature.

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Image Credit: Tetsuji Sakakibara

Our journey begins in 11th century Japan, amidst the ancient courts of the Heian Period. This interesting period of history saw a flourishing of culture, manifesting in the creation of art, poetry and literature. Notably, during this time, the renowned Tale of Genji was written by Murasaki Shikibu, a text which proudly claims to be the first novel ever written. After this, the literary output of Japan in subsequent centuries has been vast and diverse, offering a vibrant portrait of the country, more enriching than any history textbook. Where facts can only draw an outline of this chequered past, literature provides the light which illuminates depth, casts grainy shadows and encompasses the whole beautiful past of the Land of the Rising Sun. I invite you to join me on a journey through the labyrinthine alleyways of Japan’s literary past, traversing not just geographical distance but also climbing the peaks of Japanese traditions and stumbling through the valleys of time.

If the Tale of Genji is a whirlwind tale of romance, love affairs and courtly intrigue, the small city of Uji (South of Kyoto) is it’s grand stage. The last ten chapters of the classic story are set in Uji, and meandering the streets takes you past many sites associated with the tale. You can learn about these in The Tale of Genji Museum, which boasts historical dioramas and immersive depictions of scenes in the novel. On the far side of Uji-bashi Bridge, there is a statue of Murasaki Shikibu, the world’s first novelist. Serenely perched in front of the city backdrop , Shikibu’s real life as a lady-in-waiting in the Imperial Court is animated; this blends with the fiction she wrote, making her legacy almost tangible. In this city the influence of such a pioneering text is more palpable than anywhere else in the world, completely immersing visitors in a rich world of literary history.

Tono is a rural town, located in the hills of central Iwate Prefecture. Today, the location is a place of rustic landscapes and farming culture, but woven into the fabric of the hills is a rich oral tradition that tells tales of magic, spirits and the supernatural. Stepping into Tono is like walking into a fictional land, and it’s folklore will augment your imagination and appreciation for Japanese literature. In the early Meiji Period, a collaboration between Yanagita Kunio and Sasaki Kizen led to these Japanese tales being published in Legends of Tono. Within the town, you can quite literally watch them come alive in storytelling performances, or wander the surrounding mountains in search of the mysterious beings described in the stories. The tales range from mystical water sprites with a penchant for children and cucumbers, to mothers who trans-form into serpents. Yet, beneath all this is a hu-man appreciation for wit, eloquence, simplicity and a past which feels increasingly discernible.

Another classic of Japanese literature is Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata, a beautiful novel written in clear, crisp prose, which is reminiscent of the snow which recurs as a motif throughout. Kawabata elegantly conjures the visceral landscape of Yuzawa where the story unravels, as he describes a love affair between a Tokyo dilettante and a haunted geisha. The hot spring town is located in Niigata Prefecture, and is a popular ski area due to its deep snow and long winter season. Words cannot do justice to the beauty of Kawabata’s writing and therefore, I will transcribe for you this quote from the book, in which he captures the landscape with unrivalled nuance:

“It was a stern night landscape. The sound of the freezing of snow over the land seemed to roar deep into the earth. There was no moon. The stars, almost too many of them to be true, came forward so brightly that it was as if they were falling with the swiftness of the void.”

Perhaps one of the most famous Japanese authors is Haruki Murakami, whose audience is not limited to the country of his birth but spans the entire globe. To trace the footsteps of Murakami’s quirky, often mystical characters would require an article of its own for he is both prolific and dedicated to superimposing magical tales onto real locations. However, his novel Kafka On The Shore, winner of the World Fantasy Award for Novels in 2006, is where I will focus my attention as it is a personal favourite of mine. The majority of the novel occurs in Takamatsu, the smallest prefecture of the island Shikoku, where you can peruse the city streets and glimpse the locus of Murakami’s inspiration. Here, it is also worth stopping to sample the local delicacy of ‘Sanuki Udon’ – it is said that some people travel across Japan just to try it. A short 15 minute journey from Takamatsu is the Kamanda Museum, which was the inspiration for Murakami’s fictional Komura Memorial Library, another place to visit if you want to encounter the true essence of the novel.

We must now conclude our tour of Japan's literary locations, but the densely woven tapestry of Japanese culture has merely been glossed over. Japan’s streets are crowded with echoes of literary figures who I haven’t had a chance to mention; Mishima, Basho, Soeski, Sei Shonagon and many more. Following the characters in these texts through the real country of Japan and seeing the places that inspired them offers an experience no travel guide can rival.

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