Haruki Murakami's Japan: See the real – and surreal – land of the rising sun

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The Independent Travel

At the Uniqlo UT store in Harajuku, Tokyo, printed T-shirts, packaged in canisters, are delivered to the customer automatically on vending-machine shelves. Some have manga designs, but discriminating shoppers also browse four styles of shirt bearing the words "Norwegian Wood", the coming-of-age book that made Haruki Murakami a literary star in 1987. The writer is due another big year in 2011. Norwegian Wood has been adapted into a movie to be released in UK cinemas next month. In September, his latest novel, 1Q84, will be published in English.

Murakami is often described as one of the world's greatest living novelists. Over the past two decades, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, A Wild Sheep Chase and Kafka on the Shore have won him ardent fans everywhere. His fiction is wildly surrealist, frequently philosophical, but also accessible. His narrators are sensitive young men who sit in cafés, cook spaghetti and drink beer. They break up with girlfriends and then acquire new ones. They listen to jazz and classical music, or read American and Russian novels. They express themselves with decidedly un-Japanese directness. It's just that strange things happen to these regular guys: talking cats pop up, as do seers, psychics and even a giant frog who can cause earthquakes. Dreams, memory and reality blur in a labyrinth of competing narrative threads, but the typical Murakami narrator is almost always standing in an actual place, his worn-out tennis shoes taking him to subway stations and shopping areas that exist today. Usually, those places are somewhere on the east coast of Japan, specifically western central Tokyo – where the author himself now lives.

The best place to start a Murakami Tour is at Otsuka Station, far from the glittering skyscrapers, flagship designer stores and Lost in Translation locations usually on a Tokyo itinerary. A few practicalities first: save cash by finding a better-value, connecting flight to Japan via Paris, like the route operated by Air France. Buy a JR rail pass while you're in the UK – it allows unlimited travel, including on bullet trains. You'll need a Pasmo card (like London's Oyster) for the excellent subway. Sprawling Tokyo isn't a city for walking, despite the habits of the lovers in Norwegian Wood ("We kept walking all over Tokyo in the same meandering way, climbing hills, crossing rivers and railway lines, just walking and walking with no destination in mind...").

From Otsuka, join the Toden Arawaka streetcar line, one of Tokyo's two surviving trams. The 20-minute ride to the end of the line takes you between the backs of tidy, white-tiled houses, affording a close-up view of life in urban Japan. It doesn't take much imagination to gaze on to a sunny veranda and see a melancholy young Murakami hero smoking cigarette after cigarette as Miles Davis drifts out from his stereo.

The tram terminates at Waseda, at the campus of the university of the same name. Murakami studied here in 1969, and so, too, does the narrator of Norwegian Wood, Toru Watanabe. Today, the area is leafy and peaceful, with a red-brick ceremonial hall modelled in the American Ivy League style. It's hard to believe that Waseda's tranquil avenues, lined with cafés, book stores and stationers, are just a couple of subway stops from the vertical neon fantasy of the Shinjuku station area. Here, go to DUG, the cosy jazz bar where Toru Watanabe sinks whisky-and-sodas (see dug.co.jp for a map).

Between 1974 and 1981, Murakami ran his own jazz bar, called Peter Cat. The bar is no more, but a stroll between the Sendagaya and Gaienmae subways takes you through Jingu Gaien gardens. This is where the author, noted for his love of running, trains for marathons. You'll pass Jingu baseball stadium, home to the Yakult Swallows. It was here in 1978, as American pitcher Dave Hilton thwacked the sweet spot, that Murakami "first thought I could write a novel ... Something flew down from the sky at that instant, and whatever it was, I accepted it". Writers seeking inspiration can see games from April to October.

In Murakami's world, characters either try to escape Tokyo – leaving it for rural Hokkaido to the north, or Shikoku to the south – or are drawn to it. One smaller city that often figures as the place characters "leave behind" is Kobe, three hours away by bullet train. Murakami was born in Kyoto (a stop on the same rail route), but he grew up in Kobe. It was completely rebuilt after the devastating earthquake in 1995, an event Murakami marks in After the Quake. (Visit Kobe's touching Earthquake Memorial Museum, staffed by survivors of the disaster.) As a child, the writer lived in the wealthy suburb of Ashiya, a 10-minute ride on a local train from the city centre. A walk down the manicured river path is idyllic. Only the large sign with a symbol of a wave and the words "Tsunami Hazard Zone" recall the seismic peril beneath the ground.

Ninety minutes south of Kobe, across the Inland Sea, see rural Japan on Shikoku Island. Port town Takamatsu is the location for Kafka on the Shore. Slurp the Shikoku speciality, fat and silky sanuki udon noodles, which Murakami's idiot-savant Nakata enjoys with gusto, "I'm in udon central!". From here by train, like 15-year-old runaway Kafka Tamura, you can reach the forests and temples of Kochi.

Murakami's Japan doesn't titillate the visitor with geishas, samurai or Hello Kitty. But it offers both the romance of rural escape and an urban experience at once familiar, and yet unlike our own. Giant frogs and talking cats not included.

Susie Rushton travelled with Inside Japan Tours. A 15-day self-guided trip to Tokyo, Kobe, Shikoku and Kyoto, including accommodation and travel within Japan, tailor-made information pack, full telephone support, and taxes, starts from £1,466 per person. The award-winning specialists can also tailor an itinerary to suit time-frame, interests and budget. See insidejapantours.com or call 01173144620. Air France fares from London Heathrow to Narita, via Paris Charles de Gaulle, start from £547 return. See Airfrance.co.uk or call 0871 663 3777. Visit seejapan.co.uk for more information on Japan

Japan: art, history & cool rooms

* Japanese hotels are not renowned for value. Now there is "the b" chain, a bijou group of boutique hotels with stylish rooms, fantastic bathrooms, great service and perfectly-placed locations in Tokyo, Kobe, Nagoya and Hakata. The English-language website is easy to use (a rarity) and prices affordable; doubles from £100; ishinhotels.com.

* Kobe made its Michelin Guide debut last month, in the Kansai region guide. Famed for its richly marbled beef, Kobe scores a couple of three-star restaurants, 10 two-star establishments and 37 one-star eateries. Not bad for a city of just 1.5 million people.

* For a fascinating insight into Japanese nationalism, visit the Yushukan Museum at the controversial Yasukini shrine in Tokyo. This version of world events plays down Pearl Harbour, "re-interprets" the 1937 Nanking Massacre and even suggests Gandhi was inspired by Japanese imperialism; yasukini.or.jp.

* For the ultimate cultural break stay a night at Benesse House, the art gallery and hotel on tiny Naoshima island, an hour's ferry journey from Takamatsu. The Tadao Ando-designed complex houses world-class art including a room dedicated to five Monet water lily paintings; benesse-artsite.jp.

* Marunouchi, close to Tokyo Station, is the hot new shopping district in the capital, and Brick Square mall is its latest addition. Shop, eat and marvel at the faux-European red-brick architecture.