Artist’s journal of a trip through Japan gives a refreshing perspective

MY TRAVELS IN JAPAN: A COMIC BOOK ARTIST’S AMAZING JOURNEY

By Audry Nicklin (North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 2022, 127 pp., $15.99, hardcover)

“My Travels in Japan: A Comic Book Artist’s Amazing Journey” is a slim volume at 127 pages, but it packs a lot of stuff, like an overstuffed suitcase that barely makes the 50-pound weight limit but opens up to an endless array of Japan-related souvenirs and gifts to bring home, way past its weight class.

Like many Americans who travel to Japan, the book’s author, Audry Nicklin, has a passion for the country — for its culture, food, famous tourist hotspots and its pop culture. When her husband Connor is sent there on a business trip, Nicklin is crushed that she can’t go. Finally, she gets to fly to Japan to join him at the end of one of his trips. Again, like other Americans, she seems to be a typical tourist who’s excited to see the land of the rising sun.

After all, the couple have mapped out an itinerary that covers the “Golden Route” of Tokyo to Hiroshima, then back to Tokyo through Osaka, Kyoto and Nara before flying back home to Kentucky. That’s a tried-and-true tourist track, stopping at all the popular tourist cities to see the most famous attractions in each.

But unlike other tourists, Nicklin is a cartoonist, illustrator and watercolorist with a passion for Japan. So instead of (or maybe in addition to) taking lots of selfies and foodporn photos, and buying up postcards from every stop, she recorded it all in watercolor images and line-drawing-cartoons of herself and her husband, and other people they met, traveled or dined with. “My Travels in Japan: A Comic Book Artist’s Amazing Journey” is a wonderful journal of the couple’s journey, capturing the breathless excitement of everything and every place they see in images as well as sparse but effective text that gives extra context to her illustrations.

Some of her watercolor paintings are landscapes that give a sense of place like the lantern-filled cave of Henjokutsu near Hiroshima, or the canopy of towering bamboo at Arashiyama in Kyoto. They seem like quick reference sketches. But others are incredibly detailed — you might be tempted to use the word “photographic”— records of statues, castles, temples and shrines, food, animals (deer and monkeys are beautifully captured) and even train tickets and manhole covers. Yes, Japan has manhole covers that are custom-made works of art for major cities and sightseeing destinations. Nicklin also includes the souvenir stamped images from every train station, shrine and temple she visited, and collected in a special book she bought for the stamping. They make a cool extra record of her travels.

Any artist who’s done plein air painting, carrying paints, brushes and paper like the Impressionists did in the 1800s, will appreciate the effort it took to carry a bag with the supplies including bottles of water to dip brushes into up and down Japan. Artists can also appreciate Nicklin’s “Travel Journal Toolkit” at the back of the book where she illustrates all the supplies she had in her shoulder bag, and offers tips on where to stand to sketch or paint. She also explains how she drew reference images and took photos for changing scenes, like when the tide pulled out quicker than expected at the famous Miyajima “floating” torii gate near Hiroshima.

Non-artists have plenty to admire and enjoy in the book too. It’s a lovely, fun way to travel vicariously with a super-enthusiastic guide who has endless curiosity to dig deep and learn the history behind the surface culture of the places she’s admiring. If you’ve been to Japan, it’ll make you want to go back. And if you haven’t, this book should get you plotting your first trip pronto. It’s a fine introduction to the country and the culture, with lots of information on how to get around.

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