feature
Published April 21, 2020

See the best of Japan without leaving your home

In the past few years, I found myself jetting away nearly every month, mostly domestically, but frequently internationally as well. Travel was a favorite pastime.

With COVID-19 continuing to spread and killing thousands, I have been confined to my home these days. The usually bustling travel industry has come to a near standstill. However, I see a unique opportunity to experience the world like never before.

Whether it is through cooking, music, arts, or literature, I’ve been exploring more of the world at my own pace. There are no itineraries or reservations pressuring me to make the best of the moment. Of course, I’m not immersed in all the sensory experiences of a foreign place, but I can also go as deep as I want into a particular subject without fear of missing out on something else.

The allure of Japan

Japan has been a favorite place of mine, as evidenced by the number of times I've visited and written about it [1] [2] [3] [4]. It's also apparently a favorite for most of the rest of the world, as can be seen by the ubiquity of supermarket sushi, the rising popularity of Japanese-style design, and recent trends like the KonMari Method of tidying up.

When it comes to experts on Japan, no one rivals Monocle Magazine. I’m a subscriber and swear by their city travel guides. They have been reporting about the island nation since their founding. The cover story of the first magazine issue, Japan Takes Aim, is a deep dive into the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force.

When I saw that Monocle was about to publish The Monocle Book of Japan, I immediately reserved a copy. Since I just received mine, a short review seemed timely for you, who are also restricted to your homes.

The Book

Here is how Monocle itself describes the book and its subject:

Japan may be one of the world’s biggest economies, a global leader in everything from architecture to food and a country whose brands have flourished around the world, but it remains a bit of a mystery. Somehow it is simultaneously familiar and hard to fathom — or it has been, until now. This book is the culmination of years of reporting across the country by Monocle and it delivers a unique insight into the people, places and products that define Japan. Whether you’re planning a visit or simply curious, The Monocle Book of Japan will unpack the nation for you. We’ll take you from snowy Hokkaido in the north to the tropical southern islands of Okinawa and, along the way, deep-dive into the worlds of culture, design, retail and more. It’s Japan revealed as never before. [5]

book 0

The cover is bound in soft paper with a brilliant foil imprint. The head-band, tail-band, and the narrow ribbon bookmark are made from a pale gold weave. Words are set in Monocle’s signature combination of Plantin and Helvetica. The pages inside are printed on soft, matte paper for word-heavy spreads and glossy sheets for the photo-heavy Portrait of a nation section. Regular readers of Monocle’s print or digital publications will feel right at home with this book. The multi-column grid-based layout is punctuated with the occasional mosaic-like collage or full-page illustration.

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Those vivid, playful illustrations are the work of Satoshi Hashimoto, whose mid-century style has become a staple of Monocle’s brand. The largest is a six-page illustrated tour of the entirety of the Japanese archipelago.

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The content inside comes together from a team of nearly 20 writers and 40 photographs. Yet, it would be foolish for me to only list out these constituent parts because they come together into a cohesive whole that is purely Monocle in execution. The book, while large and striking from the front, finds a home on a bookshelf, among other large illustrated books without screaming for attention.

outside

Inside

It begins with a preface from Monocle’s founder and editor-in-chief, Tyler Brûlé. He describes his life-long love for the Land of the Rising Sun.

brule

The Monocle Book of Japan is steeped in the same essence as Monocle’s travel guides. It’s as if they took one of their city travel guides, gave it nearly ten times as much space, and expanded the scope to a whole country instead of just a city. The book is divided into a familiar list of sections.

  1. Portrait of a nation: By itself, this section could be a book on its own. Photography and words describe the breadth of Japan’s history and culture. It can serve as a primer to the unacquainted and fill gaps for seasoned visitors.
  2. Culture: The museums, films, magazines, music, and more that form the manifestations of the Japanese experience.
  3. Design and architecture: A wide range from the historical to modern, world-renowned architecture to local crafts.
  4. Transport: Transport, like Shinkansen bullet trains and a colorful variety of cars, is an emblem of Japan.
  5. Business: A survey of businesses, small, large, old, and new.
  6. Meet the people: Vignettes of Japanese people from a dog with a busy modeling career to the CEO of MoriTrust, an immovable force of Japan’s commercial real estate.
  7. Hospitality: What to eat and drink, where to stay, and where to grab a cup of coffee.
  8. Retail: The wide range of Japanese retailers from large department stores to niche specialists.
  9. City snapshots: Brief introductions to the vast assortment of Japanese cities like Sapporo, Hiroshima, Kyoto, and of course, Tokyo.

While you can read those city snapshots and experience the highlights of each city, this book’s gift is the chance to explore the vastness of one single topic, all from one place. Without having to spend months visiting every corner of Japan, we can learn about every significant traditional craft or visit the best of the country’s more than 1000 museums.

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In short

Whether you long to return to Japan or still have yet to go for the first time, considering purchasing a copy. While COVID-19 restricts our movement, this book can serve as a vehicle to take you all over Japan and into the depths of its culture from the safety of your home. Once the world begins to open back up, it can transform into a guide.

The Monocle Book of Japan is available today for £45 from monocle.com and will be available in early May from other book retailers.


  1. Japan · Culture and Life · arun.is ↩︎
  2. Japan · Cityscapes and Cars · arun.is ↩︎
  3. Japan · Museum Guide · arun.is ↩︎
  4. Japan · Fertility Festival · arun.is ↩︎
  5. The Monocle Book of Japan · monocle.com ↩︎

Thanks to Q for reading drafts of this.

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