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

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.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
Life and Style
The veteran poverty campaigner Sir Bob Geldof issues a stark challenge to emerging economies at the Melbourne HIV/Aids conference
health
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and John Malkovich talk Penguins of Madagascar at Comic-Con
comic-con 2014Cumberbatch fans banned from asking about Sherlock at Comic-Con
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
filmGuardians Of The Galaxy should have taken itself a bit more seriously, writes Geoffrey Macnab
News
Sir Chris Hoy won six Olympic golds - in which four events?
news
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform