Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

Tokyo, more than most, is a city of villages; a slow-cooked casserole of parts and pieces, each with its own seasoning, smells and flavours. It is a city where cloud-kissing feats of architecture tower above tiny feudal shrines; ancient food markets bustle beneath vast neon hoardings; and labyrinthine gaming arcades border old-world pubs with flags instead of doors. In Tokyo, every street, alley, nook and cranny has its own story. And so does each inhabitant.

Which is exactly why so many writers, from home and abroad, have sought to evoke the city's unique atmosphere over the years – from its feudal history to the ravages of global war, its extraordinary post-war regeneration to the technological revolution that helped shape the modern world. Here is a selection of books that capture Tokyo in all its glory.

After Dark by Haruki Murakami (2004)

Tokyo is a city where the lights never go out. Even when the last train from Shinjuku station has departed, the department stores have locked up, the Nikkei has stopped trading, “the basal metabolism that maintains life continues undiminished”, as Japan's most famous modern author puts it in After Dark.

The story is told through one night in Tokyo, from midnight until dawn. First, we meet Mari, a young woman smoking and reading in a cafe. By the time the sun rises, she will have met Takahashi, a peroxide-haired manager of local love hotel, where a Chinese prostitute is beaten up by a mysterious man. Meanwhile her sister, Eri, has been asleep for two months, until the TV in her room flickers eerily with life, then sucks her in.

But as the hands of the clock cut deeper through the shadows, all manner of human life emerges. We are taken from late-night restaurants to love hotels and pachinko parlours to see a side of Tokyo only visible in darkness.

Only, in Tokyo, it's never that dark: “The giant digital screens fastened to the sides of buildings fall silent as midnight approaches, but loud-speakers on storefronts keep pumping out exaggerated hip-hop baselines. A large game centre crammed with young people; wild electronic sounds; a group of college students spilling out from a bar; teenage girls with brilliant bleached hair, healthy legs thrusting out from micro mini-skirts; dark-suited men racing across diagonal crossings for the last trains to the suburbs." A must-read for any night-owl – or jet-lagged – traveller.

Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri (2015)

Standing amid the near-endless flow of people scrambling over the busy Shibuya crossing every day, or beneath the skyscrapers of Ginza, or under the neon lights of Shinjuku, few realise there is another slice of life in this city, unseen and ignored. It is the army of homeless men who live in tent-villages under bridges and in the parks across the city.

Many of them are the people who helped build modern Japan in the aftermath of the Second World War, but fell by the wayside as progress sped away.

Kazu, Miri's protagonist, is one of them. A former labourer at the Tokyo 1964 Olympics, his life spiralled downwards, and then he died. Now, he haunts Ueno Park, Tokyo's largest green space, listening in on conversations between the park's residents as well as other people who pass through it and the nearby train station. "We had houses,” he says. “Nobody starts off life in a hovel made of cardboard and tarps, and nobody becomes homeless because they want to be."

This unflinchingly tender ode to poverty and loss offers a fascinating account of life in Tokyo's shadows. But it also captures the anger felt by some at the announcement of the 2020 Olympics seven years ago, despite the country still traumatised by the earthquake and tsunami that shook the country in 2011.

Sanshiro by Natsume Soseki (1909)

You can't write a list of Tokyo-inspired books and not include Natsume Soseki – arguably the greatest novelist of the Meiji Era (1868-1912). He was, as the Japanese say, “a child of Edo” (or, as we might say, a true Tokyo-er) and set most of his novels in the city.

Sanshiro tells the story of a small-town lad thrust into the push-and-pull of big city life. It follows the eponymous student who leaves his rural home to study at Tokyo's Imperial University, where he meets women, makes friends, visits entertainment districts, gets drunk, and attends lectures as he seeks to understand his place in a city-in-fast-forward.

“What startled him most of all was Tokyo itself, for no matter how far he went, it never ended,” writes Soseki. “Everything looked as if it were being destroyed, and at the same time everything looked as if it were under construction. The sheer movement of it all was terrible."

And as the pages turn, a wide supporting cast brings the novel – and its setting – pulsatingly to life, as Sanshiro learns how to navigate this terrifying new world.  It is a stunning and profoundly human portrayal of Tokyo on the cusp of modernisation that feels 50 years ahead of its time, as well as a crucial social commentary on 20th century Japan.

Stranger in the Shogun's City by Amy Stanley (2020)

In 1853, Japan – after centuries of isolation – opened its borders to trade with the world, changing the face of the country forever. Nowhere has this turbulent time been better documented than through the eyes of one woman, Tsuneno, in Amy Stanley's painstakingly researched historical biography.

We meet Tsunero at birth, “the loudest, the most passionate” daughter of a Buddhist priest, before she marries aged 12, then flees her unfulfilled village life for the bustle of Edo (as Tokyo used to be called) as it teeters on the brink of modernity. She works menial jobs, marries a bunch more times, including a samurai, and lives through various misfortunes, from rape to financial ruin. And yet, Stanley argues, “wise, brilliant, skillful” Tsuneno “always claimed what was hers.”

Through Stanley's masterful storytelling, we can almost hear the geishas giggling on street corners of Ginza, smell the unagi grilling in street-food shacks in Shinjuku, and see the technicoloured gowns of Kabuki players in Ueno. But most of all, we fall in love with this most extraordinary woman, whose story Stanley based on the hundreds of letters she sent home. Beyond that, it provides more than a fleeting glimpse of the shadows of Japan's Edo period that still stir beneath Tokyo's pavements today. 

Rice Noodle Fish: Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture by Matt Goulding (2015)

In this sumptuous travelogue, food writer Matt Goulding covers some 5,000 miles across the country in search of Japan's epicurean heart and soul. Travellers to the capital might want to skip the non-Tokyo bits, but they shouldn't. It can all be found in Tokyo.

It's not just Goulding's infectious enthusiasm for Japanese food that will inspire readers to want to try things they'd never otherwise try (anyone for gizzard shad, cod sperm, or maybe some dried sea cucumber ovaries?), but his katana-sharp prose hoists what could have been another run-of-the-mill travel guide into something far more entertaining.

As he munches and crunches his way through restaurants and street-stalls, tearooms, tempura temples and tuna auctions, he teaches us how to get the most from a visit to one of the world's most food-centric nations.

“What to eat?” he wonders at one point. “You've crossed a dozen time zones to get here and you want to make every meal count. Do you start at an izakaya, a Japanese pub, and eat raw fish and grilled chicken parts and fried tofu, all washed down with a river of cold sake? Do you seek out the familiar nourishment of noodles - ramen, udon, soba - and let the warmth and beauty of this cuisine slip gloriously past your lips? Or maybe you wade into the vast unknown, throw yourself entirely into the world of unfamiliar flavors: a bowl of salt-roasted eel, a mound of sticky fermented soybeans, a nine-course kaiseki feast.”

Read this book and you will know the answer.

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