Interview | “Uniquely Japan” author Abby Denson
Traveling to Japan is a dream for many lovers of Japanese history, cuisine, and pop culture. Japan is the the land of swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, the mangaka Osamu Tezuka, and animation director Hayao Miyazaki. It’s the land of Godzilla, talking toilets, bento boxes, sushi, and cherry blossoms. It’s a land of enchantment that many lovers of Japanese culture have longed to visit.
Abby Denson, a comic book creator who loves to travel, has done just what so many have longed to do and visited Japan. She’s shared her experience of traveling abroad to the land of the rising sun in several graphic travelogues published by Tuttle Books including Cool Japan Guide (2015) and Cool Toyko Guide (2018). With her recently published follow-up Uniquely Japan (2022) Abby is once again sharing her love of Japan with the readers. Her books are chock full of fun facts about Japan, and her latest book is no exception. Each chapter highlights interesting travel facts about Japan including the seasons, arts and crafts, fun and games, fashions, various food dishes of Japan, high tech around Japan, and so much more. The facts are mixed with her own drawings as well as photographs from her travels.
Abby spent some time with us and shared about her love of traveling to Japan and some of her favorite things to do when visiting the country.
What brought about your idea to combine your traveling adventures to Japan and combining it with your art?
I had already been making fictional comics and had a few books out, and I also had a dessert blog where I drew comics about sweets in NYC. So when I had these fun travel experiences, it was natural for me to want to draw and share them with readers. I like to share my enthusiasm about things! I would post the food and travel comics online and also make little photocopied mini-comics collecting them.
What made you want to travel to Japan, and when was your first visit?
I was in art school starting to create comics, and I was interested in the comics culture in Japan because at the time there was not as much female representation in the American mainstream comics scene (among creators and readers), and in Japan they had entire genres of manga dedicated to an audience of women and girls and many very famous female creators whose work I admired. I had a few Japanese penpals I met through the comic work I was doing, and when I saw the opportunity to enroll at Sophia University in Tokyo for their Summer Session I went for it!
Can you speak Japanese? If so, how long did it take for you to learn the language?
I can speak enough Japanese to get around and do things like order food and navigate the transit system, as well as make casual conversation about hobbies and personal interests. I can read two of the three alphabets and am working on my kanji skills. Enrolling in one or two semesters is a good start to get the basics, but it’s a years-long endeavor to become fluent. I recommend trying classes at places like Japan Society, and I find the app Duolingo to be fun for practice.
Thanks to the international success of Japanese pop culture, Japan is getting a lot of fans who want to visit it for the first time. What would you recommend for those who have never visited before?
For first-timers, Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto are good destinations to start with. If one is very short on time and can only visit Tokyo, a good place to see a lot at once is around Ueno Park, where you can see temples, a shrine, museums, a zoo, and the park itself all at once. It’s also near Ameyoko, one of my favorite shopping streets, which has a great atmosphere and lots of food and clothing shops. Of course, Sensoji temple is a can’t-miss, and for more of a nature hike I’d recommend Mount Takao. For fans of anime and manga, I’d recommend the Ghibli Museum for sure; a Ghibli theme park is opening soon as well. They should also visit Nakano Broadway, Ikebukuro, and Akihabara to check out the many manga, anime, and video game shops. Of the three areas I think Nakano Broadway is my favorite for the retro atmosphere, and there are a lot of good clothes and food shops there as well.
Do you have a favorite place in Japan to visit again and again?
That’s a tough question! I usually try to check out places I’ve never been every time I visit. I do find myself around Nakano Broadway, Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, and Shibuya whenever we’re in Tokyo. I also really love going to Chinatown in Yokohama.
What top 5 places do you recommend someone visit for their first time ever to Japan?
1) Tokyo. I listed a bunch of Tokyo destinations in your earlier question, but there is so much to see and do in the area that you may never need to leave the city!
2) Kyoto, a beautiful and historic city where there are many great shrines and temples to visit as well as the International Manga Museum. I recommend checking out the autumn illuminations if you can, especially at Kiyomizudera Temple. Try out the local tofu dishes!
3) Osaka, a fun and lively city with great local specialties including takoyaki and okonomiyaki. Check out the Namba and Shinsekai areas to see some amazing signage and a lot of good restaurants and shops.
4) Nara, a day trip from the Osaka/ Kyoto area where you can see Todaiji Temple and feed the deer roaming around Nara Park.
5) Kamakura, a day trip from Tokyo with its famous giant Buddha as well as the lovely Hasedera Temple grounds and Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine.
What are some of your favorite museums to visit?
Just to name a few, I recommend the Kyoto International Manga Museum, Ghibli Museum, Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum, The Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum, Japan Folk Crafts Museum Osaka, though I tend to prefer walking out in the city streets and parks rather than going to museums when I visit Japan, so I am not a big museum expert.
I loved in Uniquely Japan where you discuss the variety of art forms in Japan such as manga, origami, shodo (calligraphy), and ukiyo-e (woodblock prints). Is there a favorite art form from Japan that you enjoy?
As a cartoonist, I have a lot of interest in manga and calligraphy, anything with pen or brush and ink. Though I also love looking at ukiyo-e, and the use of color.
What’s your favorite current manga and anime?
My latest favorite manga I read is the classic historical fiction series Rose of Versailles by Riyoko Ikeda, which only recently became available in the US in a gorgeous hardcover edition. Her visual emotional storytelling is just mind-blowing to me! A more recent slice of life story that I recommend is A Man and His Cat by Sakurai Umi, about the relationship between a man and the cat he adopts. It’s extremely charming. For anime, I’m currently enjoying watching Muteking the Dancing Hero and The Case Files of Jeweler Richard.
You have a section in Uniquely Japan just dedicated to food from Japan ranging from rice dishes, noodles, bento and sweet snacks! That must have been a hard research task eating lots of great Japanese food!
It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it! Honestly, trying new foods is one of my favorite aspects of travel, so my food chapters are always quite long.
What is your favorite themed café that you’ve visited in Japan?
I loved Polar Bear Cafe in Takadanobaba (themed after the manga / anime by Aloha Higa), though sadly that location has since closed. The good news is it moved to Okinawa, so please visit the cafe if you’re there! I also had fun visiting the Ranma ½ theme cafe that was in Tower Records last time I visited. A lot of times the cafes are short-term pop-ups for certain anime or manga themes so when visitors are in town they should check out which cafes are open. Cambiare is a Suspiria-themed bar in Golden Gai that I like (good for horror movie fans).
I was surprised to find out from your book Uniquely Japan that KFC is extremely popular in Japan for Christmas! Have you had KFC on Christmas while in Japan?
I have not, mainly since I haven’t been in Japan during Christmas week yet, but someday I hope to try it!
You’ve got a new graphic novel coming out in October as well – Kitty Sweet Tooth Makes a Movie. Can you tell us a little about it?
Kitty Sweet Tooth Makes a Movie is the second book in the Kitty Sweet Tooth series, which is about a cute and enthusiastic purple cat who loves movies, sweets, and traveling. This time Kitty directs a movie with her friends, who include a witch, and a (not mad, but misunderstood) scientist! In the first book, she creates magical desserts to screen with movies at the movie theater. In this story she has an action-packed adventure. They ride in a high-tech transforming vehicle to film on location under the sea, in the jungle, in the mountains, and even in outer space! I’m hoping with these books to interest more girls in creating movies and for kids to learn about collaborating with friends to make something great for the community to enjoy. I’m also having a blast coming up with these wild and fun stories, and filling them up with movie references that older readers will pick up on. The series is illustrated by the brilliant Tokyo-based artist, Utomaru. She recently created the character designs for the anime Muteking the Dancing Hero, which you can see on Funimation.
Filed under: Interviews
About Mike Pawuk
Mike Pawuk has been a teen services public librarian for the Cuyahoga County Public Library for over 15 years. A lifelong fan of comic books and graphic novels, he was chair for the 2002 YALSA all-day preconference on graphic novels, served as a judge for the Will Eisner Awards in 2009, as well as helped to create the Great Graphic Novels for Teens selection committee for YALSA. He is the author of Graphic Novels: A Genre Guide to Comic Books, Manga, and More, and co-author of the follow-up book Graphic Book II both published by Libraries Unlimited/ABC-CLIO Publishing.
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