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Summer Reading List: Traveling to Japan

Let’s go to Japan this summer. I know, it feels too last-minute to pull off, but I think we can do it.

I have five graphic novels about traveling to Japan, and by making this your next summer reading list, you can collect amazing travel experiences from Tokyo to tiny Manabeshima Island.

While reading can take you all over the word, yep, I know it’s not the same as actually traveling. But to the extent that a book can transport you, a book that relies on drawings has a special power to evoke a sense of place. And what’s more, it feels right that we’re reading graphic novels in an effort to know the land of manga.

And though they’re all graphic novels, the beauty of the genre is that it encompasses many forms. In this case: a memoir, a novel, two travelogues, and a travel guide.

In Turning Japanese, MariNaomi tells her own story of traveling to Tokyo for three months to work in a hostess bar and connect with her heritage.

In Just So Happens, Fumio Obata’s protagonist travels from London home to Japan for her father’s funeral.

In Tokyo on Foot, Florent Chavouet documents the six months he spent exploring the city while his girlfriend was at work.

In Manabeshima Island Japan, Chavouet has decided to spend six months on a tiny island, acquainting himself with the locals.

In Cool Japan Guide, Abby Denton offers a fun introduction with detailed, helpful tips on how to prepare for a trip to Japan, where to go, and what to eat.

So, pack your bags with these five books, and let’s take off for a summer vacation unlike any we’ve experienced before.

Turning Japanese

Turning Japanese is the sequel to MariNaomi’s award-winning graphic memoir Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume, Ages 0 to 22. Working in a hostess bar for Japanese expats in San Jose, California, MariNaomi had hoped to pick up some of the language and culture she’d never learned from her Japanese mother. She learns a lot, but it’s not particularly Japanese, so she arranges to work at a hostess bar in Tokyo for three months. MariNaomi’s deadpan style and minimalist illustrations give her story both lightness and depth.

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Just So Happens

When Yumiko’s brother calls her to say that their father has fallen off a mountain, she faces her first trip home to Japan after living in London for years. Once in Tokyo, she feels detached, especially in the midst of theatrical-seeming funeral rituals. But seeing her father in the coffin, and then traveling to Kyoto to visit her mother, Yumiko reconnects and gains perspective on the relationships that have kept a hold on her—and held her back—all these years. In Just So Happens, Fumio Obata’s storytelling, like his drawing, is elegant and powerful.

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Tokyo on Foot

For six months, Florence Chavouet wandered Tokyo neighborhoods on foot, always with his pencils and sketch pad, focusing on the infinite variety of the everyday in a metropolis. Tokyo on Foot is organized by neighborhood, each section with its own annotated map. Chavouet’s drawings range from realistic to cartoonish, depending on his subject. His wit and versatility, and the joy he takes in observation, make for an engaging book.

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Manabeshima Island Japan

Having immersed himself in the grit and diversity of urban life for Tokyo on Foot, Chavouet takes on another side of Japanese life, spending a summer on one of Japan’s thousands of small islands. In Manabeshima Island Japan, Chavouet commits to documenting everyone he meets, and their way of life, in his sketchbook. The resulting portraits, vivid and affectionate, are accompanied by astute captions.

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Cool Japan Guide

Cool Japan Guide offers practical travel tips from the quirky perspective of cartoonist and food blogger Abby Denson. A regular visitor to Japan, Denson gives guidance on everything from packing your bags to the proper etiquette when visiting a Japanese home. Bullet trains, zen gardens, unexpected vending machines, bookshops with great manga selections...Denson suggests an amusing range of travel experiences. Meanwhile, her alter-ego Kitty Sweet Tooth helps readers learn common Japanese vocabulary.

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Off we go. But wait: Have we forgotten anything? If there’s another book that has transported you to Japan, please share it in the comments, so we can extend our stay. Thanks.


Image from Florent Chavouet's Tokyo on Foot.

Katie is a reader, editor and note taker who works as a Content Writer at Bookwitty. Originally from Wisconsin, she's at home in Dublin.