JQ Magazine: Book Review – ‘Cool Japan: A Guide to Tokyo, Kyoto, Tohoku and Japanese Culture Past and Present’

"Cool Japan focuses on giving an inside look into the enduring and captivating qualities of Japan’s culture and history and how it can be discovered by visiting Kyoto, Tokyo, and the Tohoku region." (Museyon Guides)

Cool Japan focuses on giving an inside look into the enduring and captivating qualities of Japan’s culture and history and how it can be discovered by visiting Kyoto, Tokyo, and the Tohoku region.” (Museyon Guides)

By Julio Perez Jr. (Kyoto-shi, 2011-13) for JQ magazine. A bibliophile, writer, translator, and graduate from Columbia University, Julio is currently working at Ishikawa Prefecture’s New York office while seeking opportunities with publications in New York. Follow his enthusiasm for Japan, literature, and board gaming on his blog http://brittlejules.wordpress.com and Twitter @brittlejules.

When was the last time you picked up a non-fiction book and felt like you were escaping to a faraway land? Cool Japan (Museyon Guides) is the special kind of guidebook that does just that.

The author, Sumiko Kajiyama, is a journalist and scriptwriter residing in Japan. Her other books include Ghibli Magic, The Man who Changed Animation Business, The Way of Work by Top Producers, and Important Things to Enjoy Your Work and Life.

In any bookstore you will find Frommer’s, Lonely Planet, and Fodor’s travel guidebooks. You may own a few already from trips you have taken in the past. While these guides are meticulously researched and written to suit a traveler’s needs, there is an inherent problem that they all have in common: over a relatively short amount of time, prices for services or goods can change, hostels can move or go out of business, and new ones can pop up in yet undiscovered places. For these reasons, and many that need not be mentioned, the Internet has become an invaluable tool for anyone planning a trip. Many digital communities of travelers have evolved for the exchange of current information. Furthermore, smartphones allow today’s travelers to access all of this information on the go.

So you may be wondering, why buy a guidebook at all? There are many reasons to buy the ones listed above, despite the weakness of having an ever-decaying reliability of information. Cool Japan is a special because it does not squander space listing information that may no longer be relevant by the time it gets into your hands, but instead Cool Japan focuses on giving an inside look into the enduring and captivating qualities of Japan’s culture and history and how it can be discovered by visiting Kyoto, Tokyo, and the Tohoku region.

As any attempt of a book covering all of Japanese history and culture discoverable in modern day tourism would lead to an encyclopedic text, Cool Japan focuses on two of Japan’s most famous cities, Tokyo and Kyoto, and a region that has become more well-known to the world in the wake of the2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. What makes Cool Japan’s focus unique and successful is that these locations are presented through cultural and historical lenses that give the reader an in-depth appreciation of the locales that would normally require dry textbook reading.

Kajiyama explores Kyoto not by simply recounting its grand history as a capital dating back to over a thousand years ago, but through the lens of great historical figures, creating almost cinematic stories that bring Kyoto to life. Through learning about Murasaki Shikibu and her Tale of Genji, Oda Nobunaga, and Sakamoto Ryoma, the reader is presented with cohesive stories that are exciting to both experts in Japanese history and those who know nothing of it. In other words, Kajiyama takes to heart what is really “cool” about Japan and demonstrates how these elements are present and visible in Japan today.

Kajiyama concretely demonstrates how these cool aspects of Japan are timeless by using great insight to make the narratives simultaneously historical and modern. Sometimes in tangible ways, such as showing how The Tale of Genji continues to inspire adaptations across genres. Other times she focuses more on concepts, such as how Zen Buddhist conceptions of simplicity and the elimination of waste in art have influenced different people across time. (Matsuo Basho’s poetry and the designs for Steve Jobs’ Apple products may have more in common than you would think!) Juxtaposing modern and traditional Cool Japan is especially noticeable in the Tokyo section of the book, where Kajiyama highlights the places where you can find Japanese traditional arts and enjoy Kabuki theater as well the areas that appeal to shopaholics and otaku culture enthusiasts. Tokyo is enough of a metropolis to warrant its own guidebook, but Cool Japan manages to make a solid introduction of the city’s potential for those interested in the fine arts, theater, food, temples, anime, maid cafés, music, and much more.

The Tohoku region, a part of the nation rich in its own unique history and culture when compared with Kyoto and Tokyo, is also presented through the lens of historical figures. The reader is introduced to areas of Tohoku by learning about the poet of frog-jumping-into-the-old-pond fame, Matsuo Basho, the legendary and popular feudal samurai lord Date Masamune, and the spiritually heroic poet Miyazawa Kenji. The reader joins Basho on his famous journey through Tohoku catalogued in his masterpiece The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Basho’s journey, beautiful photos, and the fascinating history of the Date samurai clan guide the reader through the first leg of the journey through Sendai and beautiful Matsushima. Kajiyama seamlessly depicts these sites from different perspectives across vast stretches of time, the way Basho and Date Masamune knew them, their history long before those two men, and even how those places were affected by the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. The journey concludes in Hanamaki, the home of the great poet Miyzawa Kenji, who wrote the famous poem “Unbeaten by Rain,” a timeless tribute to the enduring power of the human spirit in the face adversity, which is held close to the hearts of many in Japan, and in the world, to this day.

Overall, Cool Japan is the perfect book for someone who wants to make a trip to Japan and is looking for well-written and well-researched information about the country and what manner of cool things there are to see there. The details of planning the trip are left up to you as you leaf through the fascinating text and beautiful photos of Japan at its coolest. Cool Japan will also appeal to those who are not planning on visiting anytime soon and but are curious about this concept of Japan’s soft power first discussed in “Japan’s Gross National Cool” by Douglas McGray.

For those interested in guidebooks that explore travel through cultural and historical themes, Museyon Guides has also published similar well-researched and expertly curated books such as Chronicles of Old New York, Chronicles of Old Boston, and Chronicles of Old Paris. Another fascinating take on travel guides can be found in their Film + Travel series, which explores traveling in all the continents of the world through the lens of famous films.

For more JQ magazine book reviews, click here.