Writing about Japan from 5,000 miles away

Mount Fuji from KawaguchikoI write murder mysteries featuring expat Londoner Josie Clark, who lives in Tokyo, where she’s inclined to stumble across a surprising number of bodies. I love sharing my experience of Japan through my books – I try to make my readers feel as though they’ve actually been there themselves. But it can sometimes be a bit of a challenge, as the places I describe are on the other side of the world, so I can’t just pop out and take a look to remind myself what they’re like.


I’ve lived and worked in Tokyo, and I’ve travelled around Japan, but I don’t live there now. So sometimes I rely on memory and hope nothing has changed in the meantime. For instance, I wrote about a visit to the kabuki in The Cherry Blossom Murder, at a time when the kabuki-za in Ginza was being demolished and rebuilt. It was a relief to go back and find the new kabuki-za looked a lot like the old one.

Tokyo kabuki-zaIn The Haiku Murder I wanted to set a scene in Akihabara, Tokyo’s vibrant and zany Electric Town, though I hadn’t been there in years. What to do? Google street view is a godsend, but a trap as well as it can sometimes give you a very funny idea of how things look.

I know that most people wouldn’t notice if I misdescribed the AKB48 cafe in Akihabara, but for the dedicated AKB48 fans out there, a mistake would discredit the whole book. I had to actually go to Akihabara to check. (In case you’re wondering, AKB48 is a popular girl group.)

AKB48 cafe AkihabaraSometimes I discover new places through writing about them. Like the Aoyama Flower Market Tea Room, which I came across online. It sounded lovely – a cafe inside a flower shop.

So I put it in the book, and then had the fun of actually going there, sitting on the hard wooden benches, smelling the scent of flowers and damp earth, admiring the glass tables with holes in them for plants to grow through and tasting the Rose Parfait, which really tasted of roses. Knowing all that makes the scene in the book come alive.

Aoyama Flower Market Tea RoomThe best thing about writing about Japan is that it keeps me going back there, to revisit places I love and to discover places I’ve never explored before.  And sharing my discoveries with my readers, who enjoy immersing themselves in the Japanese atmosphere and finding out about what Japan today is really like. The worst thing is the twelve hour flight and the jet lag. But at least I’ve always got an excuse to go and see my Japanese friends – strictly for research purposes, of course.

This is a revised version of a post that originally appeared on the Alliance of Independent Authors’ self publishing advice blog.