Visit the literary locations where your favourite Japanese authors gained their inspiration and set their most famous novels.
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Japan has a rich literary history and some of the world’s finest contemporary writers. Book lovers planning a holiday to Japan have the opportunity to visit locations from their favourite Japanese books, as well as the places where their literary heroes learned their craft and gained inspiration. From historical writers such as Yukio Mishima, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, and Natsume Sōseki, and Nobel Prize winners Kenzaburo Ōe and Yasunari Kawabata, to contemporary authors like Haruki Murakami, Yoko Ogawa, Sayaka Murata, Yu Miri, and many more, Japan is home to some of the leading names in the literary scene, both past and present.
If you’re hoping to follow in the footsteps of your favourite Japanese writers, then the best way to travel across the country is using the JR Pass on Japan’s excellent domestic rail network. With your one ticket for all of Japan in hand, and our guide to the country’s famous writers, you’ll be all set for a literary tour of this beautiful country.
Popular Japanese Authors and Literary locations across Japan
The world’s first novel - The Tale of Genji - was reportedly written in Japan in the 11th Century, and the country has continued to lead the way for literature over the centuries. Today, Japanese authors are among the most popular in the world and have had a recent resurgence in contemporary literature, particularly in the field of literary fiction, with novels by the likes of Yoko Ogawa and Sayaka Murata topping the bestseller list in recent years.
However, the most famous and celebrated Japanese author is arguably Haruki Murakami, whose books have sold millions of copies, won multiple awards, and have been translated into more than 50 languages worldwide. Murakami is often described as one of the world’s greatest living authors - not just Japanese novelists, but anywhere in the world. He has a devoted following, and thousands of his fans have travelled to Japan on Murakami pilgrimages to visit the locations where his novels are set, and to see where the author grew up
Of course, Murakami is just one of the many great authors to come out of Japan, and book lovers planning a visit to this incredible country will be spoilt for choice with literary destinations to visit. Here’s our guide to some of Japan’s most famous writers and where you can visit with your Japan Rail Pass to feel closer to your favourite books.
Murakami achieved worldwide literary fame in 1987 with his novel Norwegian Wood. He has gone on to become one of Japan’s most famous and popular novelists, and Murakami pilgrimages - fans of his work travelling to the country to visit locations significant to the author and his work - have become an industry in themselves. There are so many we could write an entire article for Murakami locations alone, but for now here are five key Murakami locations you can visit while exploring Japan with your JR Pass:
Tokyo appears so frequently in Murakami’s novels that the city is almost like one of his characters. Murakami’s work features numerous Tokyo locations, and the author depicts many different sides of the city. From the insight into Japanese university life on the route from Yotsuya to Komagome in Murakami’s Norwegian Wood to Aoyama Itchome Station from Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, to Shibuya in After Dark, you could spend weeks on the trail of Murakami locations in Tokyo alone. For spectacular views of Shibuya - and the world famous Shibuya scramble crossing - read our guide to the 229 metre tall Shibuya Sky observatory - that’s one way to get a bird’s eye view of all those Murakami locations across the city.
Murakami’s hometown appears in his first novel Hear the Wing Sing and in his later works. Murakami grew up in the Ashiya district of Kobe. His short story After The Quake, focuses on the devastation caused by the earthquake in 1995. Kobe is also famous for its amazing beef - a brand of wagyu (Japanese cattle) which is renowned as being amongst the best quality beef in the world and is considered a delicacy by chefs and foodies.
About ninety minutes south of Kobe you’ll find Shikoku in the south of Japan and the port town of Takamatsu, the setting of Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. Don’t miss the town’s speciality – sanuki udon noodles – as enjoyed by his character Nakata. From Takamatsu, the forests and temples of Kochi are just a short 15-minute train journey away allowing you to follow in the footsteps of Murakami heroine Kafka Tamura.
Featured in Murakami’s South of the Border, West of the Sun, Hakone is a mountainous city in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park just west of Tokyo. This town offers a variety of activities, from hot spring resorts, called onsens, to wondrous views of Mt. Fuji. Read our full guide to Visiting Hakone with the JR Pass for everything you need to know.
The biggest city in Hokkaido - Japan’s northernmost island - appears in Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase. The main character is searching for a location he saw in a photograph and Sapporo is one of the places he and his girlfriend journey to. Hokkaido’s colder and wilder landscape serves as a contrast to busy and crowded Tokyo - a place Murakami’s characters often need to escape from. Asahikawa in Hokkaido features in five of Murakami’s stories so could be a great place to visit for fans. You can reach Asahikawa by train using your Japan Rail Pass and transferring at Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto and Sapporo.
Post-war Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, who committed suicide by seppuku in 1970 after a failed coup d’état attempt, was a fascinating character and a literary icon who led an ultimately tragic life. He is famous for his many novels, plays, and other works, beginning with his debut Confessions of a Mask which was published when he was in his 20s. A literary superstar who blurred the lines between performance and reality, Mishima became increasingly political leading up to his shocking death, and remains a hugely enigmatic figure in Japanese literature.
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion was published in 1956 and remains one of Mishima’s most celebrated works. It is loosely based on the burning of the famous and sacred Kinkaku-ji (金閣寺) in Kyoto - an event which stunned Japan at the time as the historic building dated back to 1397. Thankfully, the temple was rebuilt and restored. Today, the Golden Pavilion, remains one of the most famous Zen temples in the world, renowned for its two stories covered in gold leaf. Officially named Rokuon-ji, the temple is one of the most visited attractions in Kyoto and designated as a world heritage site. It also made our personal list of the best Buddhist temples to visit in Kyoto. You can find out more about it and why it captured Mishima’s imagination in our guide to The Golden Pavilion of Kyoto - it would certainly make a beautiful stop on your literary pilgrimage.
Mishima’s The Sound of Waves is set in a small and remote fishing village on Uta-jima in Ise Bay and tells the story of a poor fisherman who falls in love with the daughter of a wealthy man. Ise Bay is a beautiful location that truly embodies the themes and ideas the author hoped to capture in this book, in particular the relationship between the people of Japan, the land, and the water - island living and the beauty and hardships that go with it. Uta-jima which means ‘song island’ is located in present day Omura Bay in Nagasaki although the island itself is now private. Even so, the surrounding is beautiful and well worth a visit for fans of the book, which has been adapted into a feature film five times due to its popularity.
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace - one of Mishima’s most famous works - is set in the city of Yokohama. In particular, Yokohama harbour is especially significant to the novel and would make an ideal location for a literary pilgrimage. Much of the city’s sights relate either to its history as a trading port or the many modern touches seen along its ample waterfront. Highlights include the city’s Chinatown, Sankeien gardens and Minato Mirai waterfront. Yokohama is less than an hour from Tokyo by train using the JRailPass.
Located within the Yamanakako Forest Park of Literature, the Mishima Yukio Literary Museum is dedicated to Mishima’s life and work. The museum features letters, writings, paintings, portraits, photographs and more, about Mishima’s life and work. It has been described as a must-see for fans of Japanese literature. You can reach Yamanakako by train using either the JR Chuo Line from Shinjuku station or the JR Tokaido Shinkansen-Kodama from Nagoya station. You will then need to get off at either Fujiyoshida station or Mishima station respectively and take a local bus to the museum.
Widely regarded as one of Japan’s greatest and most popular novelists, Natsume Sōseki is best known for his novels, I Am a Cat, Botchan, and Kokoro. In Japan, his literary legacy was commemorated by having his portrait featured on the Japanese 1000 yen note from 1984 to 2004. Sōseki is one of several Japanese novelists to come from Matsuyama in Ehime Prefecture, which is well worth a visit for literary fans.
Featured in Sōseki’s novel, Kokoro, and used to contrast against the rest of the country’s growing modernisation, Kamakura has been relatively untouched since the Meiji era and is a perfect place to step back in time. Kamakura was the old capital of Japan in the 12th century and was the seat of power of the Kamakura government. While the capital of Japan was subsequently moved, Kamakura remained an important city for culture, history, and tradition. Today, Kamakura is famous for its temples, beaches, hiking and of course the Big Buddha - a giant statue (or Daibutsu in Japanese) which is part of Kotokuin Temple. Read our Guide to Kamakura for more.
Regarded as one of the main writers of modern Japanese literature, Tanizaki was known for his depictions of sexual and erotic obsessions and changing cultural identities in 20th Century Japan. He is best known for his novels, The Makioka Sisters, A Cat, A Man, and Two Women, Quicksand, Some Prefer Nettles, Naomi, and essays such as In Praise of Shadows. One of Japan’s most respected literary prizes, The Tanizaki Prize, is named after the author.
Tanizaki’s novel The Makioka Sisters is set in the build up to and during the Second World War and is about a family - in particular, four sisters - living in Osaka. This famous city is one of the largest in the entire country and is sometimes referred to as Japan’s kitchen because of its famously good seafood. Osaka has many famous attractions and districts such as Dotonbori and you can read more about the city in our various guides, from the history of Osaka Castle to the shopping of Grand Front Osaka too.
Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Ōe is one of Japan’s major literary figures. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994 in recognition of his works, in particular using ‘imagined worlds’ to form a picture of today’s ‘human predicament’. His literary interests and themes include nuclear weapons and power, social non-conformism, and existentialism.
Kenzaburo Oe’s novel The Silent Cry is set in rural Shikoku, which is famous for its deciduous forests and rugged mountains. If you fancy a literary adventure that takes you off the beaten path, then this could be for you. The beautiful Iya Valley on Shikoku features in our guide to The Most Remote Places in Japan if you’d like to find out more about this stunning and picturesque hideaway.
The writer Yasunari Kawabata also took his own life after hearing of his friend Yukio Mishima’s death. A famous and celebrated author in his own right, Kawabata was another Japanese recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature - the first author from Japan even to win the award. Although he is best known for his novel Snow Country (as mentioned below), his short story The Izu Dancer is set in the vicinity of the famous Kawazu Seven Waterfalls above Kawazu town in the Izu Peninsula.
Arguably Kawabata’s most famous work, Snow Country, was set in the snowy onsen town of Yuzawa in Niigata, which is known as one of the best towns in Japan to enjoy winter snow. Niigata Prefecture is something of a hidden gem. Nestled between epic mountains and stretching coastline along the Sea of Japan, Niigata is home to all manner of different landscapes, each more beautiful than the last. In its snow-capped mountains you have countless hot springs and ski resorts that include some of Japan’s best, while down on the coast there are pristine beaches and interesting seaside scenery. But there’s also a lot of culture here to absorb, whether that be drinking sake or watching fireworks. For more on visiting Niigata, read our Niigata Prefecture Travel Guide
A novelist and poet of children’s literature, Miyazawa’s works have a strong relationship with the agricultural landscape in which he was raised. Among Miyazawa’s most famous works was the story Night on the Galactic Railroad. Although a fantasy story, it was said to be inspired by a railway journey the author took after the death of his sister. Miyazawa grew up in the Tōhoku region and there is a real-life train, the Iwate Galaxy Railway Line, running from Morioka Station to Metoki Station.
Located on the pacific coast of Tōhoku region, Iwate is known for its beautiful and scenic coastline - the Sanriku coast. Tōhoku is generally known as a rural region with ski resorts and hot springs spas, but it also has the Tohoku Shinkansen - one of the most modern and high-speed rail lines in the country.
Contemporary novelist Mitsuyo Kakuta may be one of the newer names on the list, but her award-winning books have proved extremely popular having been adapted into films and television series. Her novel The Eighth Day sold over a million copies and was made into a popular TV series. Kakuta is said to be working on a contemporary adaptation of The Tale of Genji, which as we mentioned earlier was the 11th Japanese book regarded by many as the world’s first novel.
- Gunma Prefecture
Featured in Kakuta’s award-winning novel Women on the Other Shore, Gunma is a mountainous, landlocked prefecture in the Kanto region, known for its hot spring onsen resorts. It is also home to Oze National Park, which is popular for hiking activities. It’s a great place to explore and wind down with a good book.
Of course, this short list is just the tip of the iceberg for lovers of Japanese literature. The country has a huge number of authors past and present for you to enjoy who we have not had time to include here such as Yoko Ogawa (The Memory Police), Hiromi Kawakami (Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop), Osamu Dazai (Schoolgirl and No Longer Human), Sayaka Murata (Convenience Store Women), Ryu Murakami (In the Miso Soup), Matsuo Basho (The Narrow Road To The Deep North), and many more. Be sure to try reading some of these notable Japanese books if you’re an avid reader.
Related attractions for book lovers
During your visit to Japan, there are lots of other literary activities and attractions for book lovers to enjoy too, from some of the world’s best and quirkiest bookstores, to book-themed accommodation, literary museums and more. Here’s a snapshot of highlights to consider for your trip:
- Tokyo’s Jimbocho Book Town
Jimbocho is home to an amazing 200 bookstores. Don’t miss the area’s flagship bookshop, Sanseido, which is one of the landmarks of the area. Also highly recommended are Paper Press Cafe, the cat-themed Anegawa Bookstore (a must for cat lovers) and Banda Used Book Festival – Tokyo’s largest book fair.
- Bar Lupin, Tokyo
A literary themed cocktail bar, which not only looks the part, but is sometimes frequented by contemporary Japanese writers such as Dazai Osamu, Yasunari Kawabata and Kafu Nagai. Lupin was opened in 1928 and features portraits of regular customers, including many writers and artists, on its walls. B1F, 5-5-11 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo.
- Book and Bed Shinjuku
There has been a book hotel boom in Japan over the last decade and there are now many different versions to choose from. Book and Bed was one of the first and unlike some of the others it’s not just about sleeping alongside lots of books but sleeping within the shelves as if you’re a book yourself. The Shinjuku book and bed also has a cafe. Kabukicho APM Bldg 8F, 1-27-5 Kabukicho Shinjuku, Tokyo.
- Kinosaki Literary Museum, Kinosaki
The town of Kinosaki earned a place in Japan’s literary history in 1911 when the writer Shiga Naoya travelled there to recover from an accident. He wrote a short story about his time there entitled At Kinosaki which was very famous at the time and put the town on the literary map. Kinosaki became known as a place for writers to escape from the pressures of day to day life and many authors followed in Shiga Naoya’s footsteps over the years. As a result, Kinosaki had a cameo in many stories written by Japanese authors in this period. Today, this heritage can be remembered at the Kinosaki Literary Museum in Kinosaki. The museum features exhibitions about Japanese writers and also features a gallery dedicated to Naoya with scrolls, books, original documents, and drafts of his essay about Kinosaki. While in the town, you can also visit the Mikaya Hotel where Naoya stayed.
- The Tale of Genji Museum, Uji, Japan
Go back to where it all began! Written by a Japanese noblewoman, Murasaki Shikibu, and acclaimed as the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji dates back to the 11th Century. You can visit the town of Uji at the heart of the novel and visit The Tale of Genji Museum. Uji is a small city located in Kyoto prefecture, between Kyoto and Nara, and can be reached by train using your JRailPass. Uji features numerous statues and plaques throughout the city displaying the locations where the novel’s events took place. One of the most famous is Uji Bridge, which was first constructed in 646. You will also find The Tale of Genji Museum close by. The museum brings this epic novel to life with exhibitions, murals, displays, infographics and more. It also features more than 3,000 different editions of the book itself. Uji Bridge is a 5-10 minute walk north of JR Uji Station and the museum is just east of Keihan Uji Station. Both stations are easily accessible from Kyoto or Nara. While in Uji, don’t miss Byodoin Temple and Ujigami Shrine, the oldest extant shrine in Japan. Uji is also famous for its green tea!
This is just a selection, of course. For more literary attractions read our guide to taking A Literary Tour of Japan.
- You can start your literary journey to Japan without leaving the comfort of your own home. Read our guide to the Five Books to Read Before You Travel to Japan.
- Japan is famous for other kinds of literature too. Manga and Anime have become two of the country’s most famous exports in the last few decades. If you’re new to these mediums, you should read our Top 10 Manga and Anime to Read.
- Culture aficionados will be in heaven in Japan - from great literature to film, anime, manga, kabuki, art, and more, this is a country steeped in culture, both historic and contemporary. Why not also consider a visit to Kyoto National Museum if you’re an art and culture lover, the Studio Ghibli museum for film and anime fans, or for another literary pursuit find out more about The Art of Japanese Calligraphy.
- Art lovers can also visit a unique island dedicated to modern art - Naoshima Art Island in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea.
- Finally for those book lovers interested in oral histories and spoken word stories, why not find out more about Japan’s Folktales and Mythology?