Traveling Japan In Mysterious Fashion

The Mystery Tray Disappears by Nishimura Kyotaro
The Mystery Train Disappears by Nishimura Kyotaro
Go to a random bookstore in Japan and you’ll quickly find the section with travel guides. Domestic travel guides. From the southern islands of Okinawa to the northern Hokkaido, every area in Japan is covered. Because domestic tourism in Japan is big. Really big. Not so surprising, really, as there are big geographical and cultural differences all across Japan. In fact, only 200 years ago, Japan consisted of many separate domains with a mostly decentralized government.  A teacher from Tokyo once even told me that Fukuoka felt to her like some foreign country where they just happened to speak Japanese!

But with such differences, it’s not strange that domestic tourism is so popular. For example, people go on two-day trips to hot springs, or on trips to try out local culinary specialties. The word kuidaore, a word strongly associated with the city of Osaka, literally meaning “eating till you drop”, is often used when talking about these gourmet trips.

Other reasons for the huge tourism market are the extensive railway network (that includes high-speed bullet trains) and plenty of domestic flights that allow for speedy transportation within the country. And all of the trains and planes actually run precisely according schedule, something that seems a bit more rare here in the Netherlands, making these types of transport easy and free of stress.

The Japanese bullet train features heavily in Nishimura Kyotaro’s books
Always on time
And this love for domestic tourism also explains why the “travel mystery” genre is so popular in Japan. Travel mysteries are usually set at popular tourist destinations, or focus on certain types of transportation (especially trains).  The most clichéd story-type in this genre is the tourist who accidently witnesses a murder and tries to solve the crime herself (protagonists are often women in this genre), visiting many tourist destinations and eating a lot of local specialites during her adventure. So these stories actually share a lot with travel guides / travel programs and the writers of these stories usually do research settings extensively. So the genre serves as easy-to-read entertainment that also satisfy the travelling wishes of the reader.

The two big names in this genre are Nishimura Kyotaro (Kyōtarō) and Uchida Yasuo. Nishimura is famous for his train mysteries, which of course focus heavily on the use of trains in Japan. Because pretty much all trains run on schedule, precise to the minute, many of his mysteries focus on alibi tricks and what trains a murderer took to get from place A to B. Which might seem boring for people in countries with less developed railway networks, but in a place with an extensive railway network like that of Japan, coming up with a perfect route from A to B with the trains is almost an art. It seems as if Nishimura writes a book every month and as I write this post, he has written 489 books. They’re not all travel mysteries, but I’m sure at least 95% of them are.

The Togakushi Legend Murders by Yasuo Uchida
The Togakushi Legend Murders by Yasuo Uchida
Uchida Yasuo’s Asami Mitsuhiko series is also strongly connected with the genre. In this series, the detective Mitsuhiko is a freelance writer for a tourism magazine specializing on local history. Because of his work, Mitsuhiko has to travel all over Japan, doing research on local legends and visiting tourist spots. And yes, he always encounters crime. The crimes are often one way or another related to the local history Mitsuhiko has to research and while the mystery is usually quite light in these books, the local flavor is really entertaining.

Both Nishimura and Uchida are also strongly connected with TV dramas, coming up with original screenplays for TV movies. In fact, the travel mystery genre, in my opinion, works much better on the screen.  For you don’t just want to read about a certain location, you want to see it, you want to hear it, you want audiovisual image of the destination, right? At times, these travel mysteries almost feel like dressed-up travel programs, but that doesn’t make them less entertaining.

But no matter the format, travel mysteries are a genre that manages to fuse two popular forms of entertainment in Japan. So if you’d like go on a trip in Japan, you might want to start by reading travel mysteries. It’s what many people do in Japan and it’s a lot cheaper than a real trip too!

Available in English:
• Uchida Yasuo. The Tokagushi Legend Murders. Tuttle
• Nishimura Kyotaro. The Mystery Train Disappears. Dembner Books

Ho-Ling Wong


  1. Leslie Gilbert Elman

    Once again you’ve made me aware of books and authors I never would have found otherwise. Thank you!

  2. Deborah Lacy

    What a cool post. The train mysteries sound particularly interesting.

  3. springwinter

    I’ve been seeking for this kind of article, and now finally its over. Thanks for your article.

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