Photo by sizumaru used under a Creative Commons license.

Kate T. Williamson, A Year in Japan (Princeton Architectural Press, 2006).
During a year in Kyoto, Williamson kept a sort of artist’s journal, which she has turned into this book.  Her watercolors are full of details that grabbed her attention. Williamson has a designer’s eye for the telling detail, be it food, clothing or anything else.  (N.B. — The above is not one of her drawings.)

Williamson’s site will give you a sense of her work. And here’s a slideshow of some of her illustrations. Mark Flanagan (About.com) calls Williamson’s watercolors simple and playful, and infused with a keen attention to light and color. Heather says it has the intimate feeling of a diary. Vanessa Raney (guttergeek) thought the illustrations were skillful but the descriptions weak. Charlie Dickinson (Hackwriters.com) says it sumptuously illustrates what’s compellingly different about Japan. Max Nikoolkan says its last focus become the uniqueness and brevity of everyday Japanese life. Julia Rothman says it tells you all the little, more important things you could never learn in a travel guide. Mary Ann Moore says it’s a reminder to appreciate what is unique and precious about what’s in front of us. Jill (I’m feeling formal) says it’s a beautiful memory of Williamson’s time in Japan, an introduction to aspects of Japanese life, and just fun to look at. JoAnn, who shares some of the illustrations, says: Who knew there was such a thing as an electric rug? Leah Hoelscher was inspired. Miss Lynsey has some favorite illustrations. Rebecca calls it a splendid record of Japan. Rosecrans Baldwin, who suggests the book is as though the love child of Maira Kalman and Kenneth Koch went abroad, interviewed Williamson upon the publication of a subsequent book.

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Photos of Tokyo by spDuchamp used under a Creative Commons license.

David Mura, Turning Japanese (Anchor Books, 1992).
A memoir of a year in Tokyo, from the perspective of a third-generation Japanese-American writer.  Mura, who grew up in Chicago, was awarded a fellowship to spend a year in Japan with his wife, a white American doctor.  Though Mura perhaps starts with the thought that the trip is a homecoming of sorts, it would be more appropriate to say that sometimes one needs to leave a place to discover one’s relationship with it.  Mura’s transitional status in Japan often makes him a more acute observer than many other foreigners.  Many of his observations are introspective, but there is much of Tokyo here as well.

Here is the author’s site, and here is the Wikipedia page about him. Karl Taro Greenfield (Los Angeles Times) says Mura’s wide-eyed gawk at Tokyo captures some subtle nuances of the Japanese-American experience in Japan. Here is a recent interviewby E. Ethelbert Miller. FWIW, Stephanie Wössner was not satisfied. The author’s site has a short excerpt from Chapter 1. Tadaaki Hiruki collected favorite quotations.

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Tokyo night
Photo by kamoda used under a Creative Commons license.

David Mitchell, Number9Dream (Random House, 2003).
This is the story of Eiji Miyake, a naif from a small, rural island who heads to Tokyo to find his father, whom he has never met and whose name he does not even know. But Tokyo is a big city, and his father apparently does not want to be found. Eiji’s quest, a coming of age tale, involves navigating the mundane challenges of the big city, like finding a room and a job, and less typical obstacles, like a yakuza power struggle. Mitchell, who lived in Hiroshima for eight years, works in stories within stories, from Eiji’s daydreams to a diary of a WWII submariner. Like Tokyo, this book is chaotic, crowded and overflowing, a mix of styles, sometimes over-the-top and sometimes affecting.

Here is a relatively thorough bio of Mitchell. Here is the Complete Review’s page for the book, with links to several published reviews and more, and a review of its own. Robert MacFarlane (Observer) writes that the most engaging character in it is the city of Tokyo itself. Joy Press (The Village Voice) says it’s show-offy fiction on a bad hair day. Troy Patterson (Entertainment Weekly) calls it a grand blur of overwhelming sensation. Michiko Kakutani (The New York Times) calls it a messy hodgepodge. Simon McLeish says it reminded him of early Iain Banks, John Barth and James Joyce. Nicholas Pang thinks Mitchell out-Murakamis Murakami. Sam North very much disagrees, as does Khadka. Ashok K. Banker (BlogCritics) says it’s an American novel, set in Japan with Japanese characters. (But Mitchell is English….) Japanese bookstore staffer haginotani says Mitchell’s experiences in Japan resonate in it. Sten Tamkivi found a cliché-ridden way of describing the book’s stylistic mix. Scott Esposito says it reminds him most of Mitchell’s next novel, Cloud Atlas. Francisco Manzo was hooked until he finished it. DreamQueen is head-over-heels for Mitchell’s work. Patrick was underwhelmed. RedHeadRambles says too many digressions saps its momentum; simplegirl agrees. Perpetual Shotgun likes those digressions. Joanna thought, what the hell is going on? Andrew Woodrow Butcher believes it’ll all fall together on his second reading. Ken-Ichi posted some favorite passages. Karen Templer loves the book’s design. Thomas has more to say about the design of different editions. Toh Hsien Min interviewed Mitchell (Quarterly Literary Review Singapore) in early 2002, soon after Number9Dream was released. Here is another interview, with Ron Hogan, from around that time in Beatrice. Nihongo interviewed Mitchell about his time in Hiroshima.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Pink (#139)
Photo by Christopher Chan used under a Creative Commons license.

Bruce Rutledge, ed., Kūhaku & Other Accounts from Japan (Chin Music Press, 2004).
An idiosyncratic genre-defying shot at capturing something of modern Japan, this is a collection includes pieces by Westerners living there and Japanese authors in translation, mostly essays but also two short stories. Most are the kind of thing you would hear from the friend of a friend, at a party or over coffee. The illustrations are wonderful, too, and the design surpasses most books you’ll ever see.

The publisher’s site is more interesting than most. Craig Mod did the design, and offers some samples. Colleen Mondor has a lengthy and appreciative post about the book. Here is Patrick McCoy. And here are Steven David Smith, Mark Hegge, t.s., and Brian Lynn.

Buy it directly from the publisher by using the link above, or click here to buy it at Amazon.com.

Collage by Dru! by used under a Creative Commons license.

Haruki Murakami, after the quake (Vintage, 2003).
Murakami wrote these six short stories in response to the 1995 Kobe earthquake, and they share common themes of disquiet, change, and the sometimes surreal. The terrain explored here is psychological, not geological or geographic, and the stories are not necessarily set in Kobe. Note also that, for whatever reasons, Murakami seems to be more respected by critics abroad than he is in Japan. The stories included are “UFO in Kushiro,” “Landscape with Flatiron,” “All God’s Children Can Dance,” “Thailand,” “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo,” and “Honey Pie.” (According to Jay Rubin, the translator, Murakami insisted that the title not be capitalized.)

Here is an interview with Murakami from not long before he finished these stories. To look at reviews, start with the Complete Review, which links to many reviews and has one of their own (scroll down). Some other resources are here. Here are reviews from Laura Miller (Salon), Michiko Kakutani (The New York Times), Jeff Giles (The New York Times), Bill Robinson (Mostly Fiction), Clay Risen (Flak), Lolita Lark (RALPH), and Hertzan Chimera (The Open Critic). And here are worthy blog posts from Howard Choo, Martin, Hazel Sheffield, and Tracy. One of the stories is being made into a movie, and Brian and A. Walter have links to a trailer.

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Photo of a Tokyo factory by twinleaves used under a Creative Commons license.

Natsuo Kirino, Out (Kodansha Int’l, 2003).
Crime fiction in the Tokyo suburbs. A young mother who works the night shift at a dead-end job strangles her neer-do-well husband, and enlists her co-workers to help her dispose of the body. Such things rarely go smoothly. Kirino won Japan’s Grand Prix for Crime Fiction, the top prize for a mystery, for this, her first. Kirino’s Tokyo is one that few tourists will see.

The Complete Review links to various reviews and offers its own (scroll down). Andrew Duncan interviews Kirino. So do Metro.co.uk and JapanReview.net. Blogger silk stocking read it recently.

Buy this book at Amazon.com.