Looking for travelogues about Tokyo or Seoul
July 19, 2023 12:15 PM   Subscribe

Looking to read modern travelogues about Tokyo or Seoul. Any advice?

I'm about to do an extended trip to both Tokyo and Seoul, and I'd love something that gave me a modern feel for the places. I have previously enjoyed books like Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik and Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris when I moved to Paris, and those types of books could serve as inspiration to this question, but I'd welcome writers of all sorts - locals, travellers, immigrants, you name it. I'd prefer something somewhat modern (last 25 years, maybe? Up to 50 if it's a classic). I'd be interested in blogs, podcasts, websites, essays or anything, but a book would be number one on my list.

Note: I also have a particular interest about the relationship between North and South Korea if that links to anything.
posted by evadery to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Have you read any of Pico Iyer's books? He's an amazing travel writer who's lived in Japan for many years, and has written frequently about it in multiple books, but the one you might enjoy most is A Beginner's Guide to Japan. There are also numerous essays in his many other collections you might enjoy, and Falling Off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World has an amazing recounting of his trip to North Korea in the '90s.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 3:43 PM on July 19, 2023 [1 favorite]

Speaking of David Sedaris, the last story in his 2008 collection When You Are Engulfed in Flames is about his doing what they call a Geographical, in Recovery -- he moved to Japan for a few months in order to quit smoking. I've always wondered if it was successful, but that's not so important; the story's great for its description of shopping in Tokyu Hands and elsewhere in Tokyo.

A couple other recommendations for readings about Japan, a 1992 book called Tokyo Sketches by Pete Hamill. Plus the guy who documented hitch-hiking the length of the country, what was that book? Ah, Hokkaido Highway Blues, from 1998, by Will Ferguson. (Note this was repackaged as Hitching Rides with Buddha in 2005.)
posted by Rash at 4:41 PM on July 19, 2023 [1 favorite]

Not a travelogue, but a novel to give background for both Japan and Korea (North and South), Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. (Apple made this into a TV show last year, but I haven't seen it.)
posted by Rash at 4:45 PM on July 19, 2023

I read Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo and Miri Yu’s Tokyo Ueno Station (both novels) before I went to Japan and thought they have a good representation of modern life in Tokyo.
posted by anotheraccount at 5:59 PM on July 19, 2023

Not exactly what you are asking about, but if you’re interested in North Korea as well, the graphic novel Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle is very good.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, although fiction, is set in Tokyo and gives a vivid inside look into the ubiquitous convenience stores of Japan and Japanese work culture.
posted by coraline at 2:43 AM on July 20, 2023

Japanthis is full of interesting historical information about the neighborhoods of Tokyo, and the blog owner does guided tours (not sure if he's doing tours at the moment, though). Also, the NHK is doing a series of 30 minute videos in which someone introduces a Tokyo neighborhood and some of their interesting bits, I'm liking them a lot.
posted by sukeban at 5:19 AM on July 20, 2023

Most of the travelogue-type books I remember enjoying take in much more of Japan than just Tokyo, but you might be interested anyway: Hokkaido Highway Blues (1998) by Will Ferguson (already mentioned), The Sun in my Eyes (2001) by Josie Dew (I expect its predecessor, A Ride in the Neon Sun, is good too), Japanese for Travellers (2007) by Katie Kitamura, and Sushi and Beyond (2008) by Michael Booth (there's a follow-up, The Meaning of Rice, that I haven't read yet).

Two that are Tokyo-focused:
  • Wrong About Japan (2005) by Peter Carey, a lightly fictionalised account of the author's trip to Tokyo with his anime-loving twelve-year-old son;
  • or, if you're interested in some history mixed in with your modernity, Anna Sherman's travelogue The Bells of Old Tokyo (2019).
Then there are some books written by Westerners about longer and more immersive experiences, which I'm not sure I'd describe as travelogues, but which might still appeal:
  • Atomic Sushi (2006) by Simon May, who spent a year teaching philosophy at Tokyo University;
  • Angry White Pyjamas (1997, so just outside your 25-year stipulation) by Robert Twigger, an account of a year's intensive training in aikido in Tokyo;
  • and The Blue-Eyed Salaryman (2005) by Niall Murtagh, about an Irishman's 14 years at Mitsubishi, on the outskirts of Tokyo.
Finally, you might also be interested in the "part graphic memoir, part cultural meditation" Japanese Notebooks (2015) by the Italian graphic novelist Igort, who spent some time working in the manga industry in Tokyo.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 7:37 AM on July 20, 2023 [1 favorite]

Jenna Park has some interesting pieces from a recent trip to Seoul.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:24 PM on July 20, 2023

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