I recently arrived back from a two-week break in Japan, visiting my in-laws, and was once again confronted with the question as to why on Earth, after 8 years living over there, I chose to return to the UK. Going from one country to the other is like stepping from the world of Star Trek: TNG into the world of early Grange Hill - in the first, everything is clean, works well, and people are nice to each other; in the second, everything is a bit shit and you feel as though society rests on the tip of a rubbish chute at all times, ready to tip over the edge.
As a tribute to my second home, I thought I'd sketch out an early foray into a perhaps-never-to-be-written 'fairytale Japan', based on the highly evocative prefectural names that were chosen mostly during the meiji period towards the end of the 19th century. Here, the main islands (not including Okinawa) are imagined as 46 'lands' with very distinctive, almost Planescape-style characters, which change as you go across the border. The translations are not direct (a lot of Japanese words and concepts don't really translate well into English - trust me, I used to do it for a living), but capture something of the flavour of the original while taking poetic license to make something weird and fantastical. The descriptions don't have much to do with the actual preferectures, but basically just derive from their names.
Here's the map - you will notice that during the numbering I forgot about Nara and Saga (which in the latter case, if you know anything about Japan, is entirely understandable; there is a Japanese comedian whose entire shtick more or less revolves around taking the piss out of Saga Prefecture). I had to tag them on at the end.
1 - Kagoshima - Islands of the Deer Children. A sylvan land populated by deer-people, who are haunted by ghosts of wolves.
2 - Miyazaki - The Cape of Shrines. A land of many shrines to many gods, each with its own priests.
3 - Kumamoto - The Origin of Bears. A land populated by many bears who are born from a great Bear Mother.
4 - Oita - The Vast and Varied Plain. A land made of up a great patchwork of many different, small domains, all independent from each other and jostling for supremacy.
5 - Fukuoka - The Hills of Good Fortune. A beautiful, orderly, Arcadia-esque piedmont of great prosperity.
6 - Nagasaki - The Long Cape. [This is one of the less evocative names.] A cape with many small islands, surrounded by wild, stormy, barely navigable seas; the result is many communities totally isolate from each other and the outside world, and all insular and strange as a result.
7 - Kochi - The Land of Great Knowledge. A land dominated by many places of secular learning and those devoted to the study of magic, ruled by scholars and sages.
8 - Tokushima - The Virtuous Island. The home of many chivalrous lords, each competing with the others to be the most virtuous of all.
9 - Ehime - Land of the Beloved Princess. The domain of a great and beautiful lady whose people worship her as a goddess.
10 - Kagawa - The Land of Scented Rivers. A paradise of perfumed rivers, lined with willows, whose people while away their time like lotus-eaters in idle frivolity.
11 - Yamaguchi - The Mouth of the Mountains, a great gateway that leads to high, icy plateaus.
12 - Shimane - The Roots of the Islands, where huge tunnels are bored down into the very depths of the earth.
13 - Hiroshima - The Wide Island [another less evocative one], a vast open grassland travelled by wild nomads.
14 - Tottori - Land of the Bird Catchers, a place full of many varieties of birds, which the people catch to use as steeds or beasts of burden.
15 - Okayama - The Land of Hills and Mountains [the last unevocative one]. A land without barely a scrap of flatland, whose people have to scramble about the sheer cliffs like goats.
16 - Hyogo - The Barracks. A great complex of fortresses, staffed by huge garrisons, each rivals to each other and fighting constant internecine wars.
17 - Kyoto - The Capital City. A stereotyped, fairlyand version of the real place (watch the Ghible Princess Kaguya for details).
18 - Wakayama - The Mountain of Harmonious Song, whose people devote themselves to the pursuit of music and dance, and, like sirens, seduce travellers into their endless performances.
19 - Osaka - The Great Slope. A city built on a huge escarpment, which is constantly being rebuilt to stop it sliding downhill, like an architectural travellator.
20 - Mie - The Three Layers. A land comprising three different parallel 'layers', like artificial realities, which one can slip in and out of through portals. One is a permanent dawn, the other a permanent noon, the last a permanent dusk. Each has its own ruler, who seeks to dominate and subvert the others.
21 - Shiga - The Land of Nourishment and Celebration. A land of permanent banquets and bacchanals, whose people compete against each other to provide the greatest feast.
22 - Fukui - The Well of Good Fortune. A pleasant land at the centre of which is a well which dispenses an elixir of life; pilgrims come from across the world to drink from it.
23 - Ishikawa - The River of Rocks, where avalanches continually tumble down the mountainsides and into the sea.
24 - Gifu - The Base of the Mountain of the Philosophers - the foothills of a great, high mountain ruled by the wisest of the wise. Its people are the many pilgrims who have come over the eons in search of truth.
25 - Aichi - The Land of the Knowledge of Love, whose people are obsessed with the pursuit of lust and romance.
26 - Toyama - The Mountain of Riches. A mountain riddled with silver and gold mines, whose people live in fabulous wealth and spend it on absurdly large and wondrous palaces.
27 - Niigata - The New Lagoon. A long coastal realm whose people exist in the liminal space between person and sea-creature, transferring from land to sea and back again as they go about their lives.
28 - Nagano - The Distant Fields, a mountainous domain where a beautiful pastoral utopia always seems to be just 'over there', but can never be reached no matter how far one journeys.
29 - Shizuoka - The Quiet Hills, cursed into complete silence.
30 - Yamanashi - The Pear Mountain, a land of orchards, whose people are fat and merry - almost horrifyingly so.
31 - Kanagawa - The River of the Gods, a holy river whose waters cleanse away sin, like a Ganges of the Pacific.
32 - Tokyo - The Eastern Capital, rival to Kyoto, and its evil twin - unrefined, coarse, commercial, violent.
33 - Saitama - The Protruding Sphere, a perfectly spherical, glass mound which towers above the surrounding plains, and in which its people live.
34 - Gunma - The Land of Many Horses, like the talking horses of Gulliver's Travels, ruled by a horse-king.
35 - Tochigi - Land of Horse Chestnuts, a bucolic woodland whose animal-people live off the bounty of the forest.
36 - Ibaraki - The Fortress of Thorns, a realm ruled by an evil queen, whose castles are created from huge, endlessly growing thorn bushes.
37 - Chiba - The Land of a Thousand Leaves, a totally impenetrable 'Old Forest' or Mirkwood-type woodland, dark and shadowy and filled with strange beasts and wild ghosts.
38 - Fukushima - The Island of Good Fortune, which rises from the swamps all around it, and which is home to a benevolent king and his blessed people.
39 - Yamagata - The Mountain Form, a mighty tower-like peak which rises far into the sky, and which has never been ascended.
40 - Miyagi - The Shrine-Fortress, home to a militaristic caste of warrior-priests who occasionally venture into other lands to smite the unholy.
41 - Akita - The Autumn Fields, a land where it is always autumn, and the people all ageing, without young.
42 - Iwate - The Stone Hands, where the land is shaped into two massifs each shaped like a fist; the people who live on both detest each other and fight an unending war.
43 - Aomori - The Blue Forest, which is as it says - a forest of blue leaves.
44 - Hokkaido - The Route to the Northern Sea, a pathway to a 'grey havens'-type harbour, which people travel when they have tired of their lives in this world, and wish to pass to the next.
45 - Nara - The Holy Plain, where great gods and goddesses walk the earth.
46 - Saga - The Land of Aid and Celebration. An oasis for the weary and injured, who find succor in its great hospitality, but frequently desire to remain for eternity afterwards...
[I am currently running a Kickstarter for the 2nd edition of Yoon-Suin, the renowned campaign toolbox for fantasy games. You can back it here.]