I think it greatly enhances a trip to read or watch something about it before, during and after a trip. And it doesn’t have to be non-fiction — fiction or historical fiction are just as valuable. They give you a sense of history and culture. It also gives you a sense of time and place. Buildings and sights cease to be just brick and mortar and become settings in a story. History is no longer just facts and dates but the events that shaped people’s lives.
I just finished living in Japan and as a result it was often the subject of books and movies I chose to read as I traveled around the country. Here are some of my favorites that I would recommend for your next trip:
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee – This is on a short list of one of the best books I have read in years. It is a wonderful multi-generational book of Korean immigrants in Japan throughout the 20th century. Japan and Korea have a complicated and long history and this fictional book gives some insight into that relationship.
A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton – I read this book several years before moving to Japan and it is what made visiting Nagasaki a priority. This book is a wonderful way to learn both about the bombing of Nagasaki as well as the unique history of the city.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami – Murakami is one of Japan’s most popular authors and you will find his books throughout Japan. This is the only one of his book’s I have read but it was outstanding.
Sho Gun (the book or movie) is a classic look at Japan’s classic era of the Sho Guns and samurai warriors.
Gung Ho (movie with Michael Keaton) – This probably seems like an unlikely candidate for the list. This is a mid-1980s comedy about car manufacturing. However, the work ethic and Japanese culture is so realistic that I think it is worth recommending.
Lost in Translation (movie) – A fun movie with three main characters; one of which is the city of modern Tokyo!
Last Samurai (movie with Tom Cruise) – Another wonderful historic representation of the transition of Japan in the 1870s.
Hiroshima Maidens by Rodney Barker – This book is based on the true stories of children and young women injured during the WWII bombing of Hiroshima.
Silence (movie by Martin Scorsese) which tells the about the persecution of Christians throughout Japan in the 16th and 17th century.
Others would also throw in Memories of a Geisha. I didn’t love it, but it deserves a mention (and of course I did watch the movie a second time before going to Kyoto)