A Beginner’s Guide to Japan is not really a travel book.
Since the author, Pico Iyer, is a renowned travel writer, you could be forgiven for thinking it would be. Indeed, many reviews for this book center around that expectation.
So if it’s not a travel book, then what is it?
A Beginner’s Guide to Japan is a series of short, self-contained anecdotes, observations, musings, and quotations, assembled by an Indian man who has lived in Japan for thirty years, is married to a Japanese woman but doesn’t speak Japanese. Each of these little sections is meant to be an individual brush stroke, they add up to an interesting and sometimes contradictory view of Japan.
Many of the anecdotes and quotations are not Japanese in origin; Oscar Wilde comes up quite a few times in this book.
Some of the anecdotes are a bit shallow, some of them are funny, some of them provoke interesting and mixed feelings. The writing is very spare and quite evocative in places.
The book does feel somewhat presumptuous, owing to the aforementioned fact that the writer doesn’t actually speak Japanese. However, the book does not make many definitive pronouncements and the author’s background is mentioned up front.
A Beginner’s Guide to Japan is recommended for those that enjoy cultural musings, evocative writing, and can get past the fact that the writer has written a book on Japan without speaking the language.