From Kimono to Kawaii: Drawing Japan Travel Inspiration with Abby Denson

From Kimono to Kawaii: Drawing Japan Travel Inspiration with Abby Denson

In honor of Women's History Month, we are featuring articles from some of our amazing women authors. This week we interview author and artist Abby Denson about her upcoming book Uniquely Japan, which comes out in April from Tuttle.

Can you describe the process behind creating Uniquely Japan? How did you go about choosing the topics that you cover?

I've been going to Japan yearly for 10+ years and over that time I've taken a lot of photos and learned a lot! That and also the fun of drawing illustrations that are inspired by my travels came together in this project, which I look at as a kind of multimedia souvenir scrapbook that highlights my personal favorite things about Japan and has some good basic information for readers who want to learn more about Japanese cultural topics.

The process involved deciding on which topics to include, searching my photo archive (which took longer than you may think), creating illustrations and informative text that would be fun and simple for readers who are new to the topics, and designing the format and chapter breaks.

Mainly I went by my personal favorite topics, which made it fun to put this together, and I tried to include a mix of topics that are well known as well as some possibly lesser-known topics, such as taxi lanterns.

What are two of your favorite sections in Uniquely Japan? Why?

Any of the food sections, since I love to draw (and eat) delicious food! I also am pleased with how my drawing on the Tengu page came out.

What does a typical day look like for you when you are working on a book?

It depends on what my schedule is day to day. When I have a deadline I'm shooting for, I usually try to complete at least one page a day, making sure to account for having one or two break days during the week. Being an author isn't my only job, so time management is important! When writing text, I need to focus fully in silence, but when drawing or designing the page I can listen to music or podcasts, which makes the process more enjoyable. When I have a lot of pages to correct and color in Photoshop, I sometimes sing along with music I'm listening to, and that's fun!

What do you hope that readers take away from Uniquely Japan?

I hope people will have fun reading it while they're learning about Japan, and since we are still enduring the pandemic, maybe it can help ease the frustration of not being able to travel there right now.

Do you have any plans to return to Japan in the future? What are some of the things you would be most eager to do upon arrival?

Absolutely! It was my routine to go to Japan every year for vacation, and I'm missing it badly. I miss my friends most of all, but I'm eager to eat some great sushi and ramen, and visit shrines, temples, and outdoor markets.

Can you tell us more about how you developed your drawing style? How did you first get involved in comics?

My style is influenced by manga (one of my formative favorites was Rumiko Takahashi), U.S. indie comics (such as Love and Rockets), and my favorite fine artist, Keith Haring. For color, I love bright pop art and psychedelic color schemes. I came to my style pretty naturally based on what I like visually, combined with the way my art naturally flowed from my hand. My first comic Tough Love started as a self-published mini-comic zine influenced by BL manga, but with my own punky DIY take on it. I hadn't originally planned on getting into comics, but when I had an idea that inspired me, that fire pushed me through the work-intensive creation process!

What is something you are looking forward to in 2022?

Getting the chance to speak at book festivals and meet my readers. Also, hopefully returning to Japan again!

What have you read recently that stuck out to you?

Himawari House by Harmony Becker and Weeaboo by Alissa Sallah, both of which I think should be of interest to those interested in Japan and Japanese pop culture. Also, Lil' Leo by Moto Hagio, an adorable cat comedy manga by legendary manga artist Moto Hagio. It was recently released in the U.S.

Can you tease any upcoming projects?

2022 is a big year for me — I have two books coming out! Uniquely Japan and Kitty Sweet Tooth Makes a Movie, which will be out in October! It's the second volume of the Kitty Sweet Tooth series featuring an adorable purple cat as she becomes a movie theater manager, and then directs her own movie with the help of her witch and genius (not mad!) scientist friend! These books are illustrated by the brilliant Tokyo-based artist Utomaru, and aimed at children in the 6 to 10-year-old age range, but movie fans of all ages will enjoy the many references we packed into these books!

Kitty Sweet Tooth also appears briefly in my Cool Japan Guide and Cool Tokyo Guide books from Tuttle, so you can look for her there too!

In the spirit of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, are there any female graphic novelists whom you feel have paved the way, in the industry in general or for you personally?

As mentioned before, Rumiko Takahashi was a major initial influence. I also love the work of Colleen Doran, Lynda Barry, Roberta Gregory, Dame Darcy, Moto Hagio, among countless others.

Who are some of your female role models (in your field or in general)?

I'm lucky to have an awesome mother and aunts and other family members who have shown me amazing support and been positive role models. Professionally, I think of The Year 24 group of manga artists in the seventies, who blazed trails in shoujo manga which eventually echoed globally and influenced what I (and many other cartoonists) are doing today. That includes Moto Hagio, Keiko Takemiya, Riyoko Ikeda, and several others, many of whom do not have English editions unfortunately, though I encourage readers to learn more about this group. Currently, you can get U.S. editions of several books by Moto Hagio and Riyoko Ikeda's Rose of Versailles series was recently released in the U.S. with a gorgeous edition!

Award-winning artist and author Abby Denson has scripted many comics including The Amazing Spider-Man and Disney Adventures. She is the author of the graphic novel Dolltopia (Moonbeam Children's Book Award) and the acclaimed coming-out story Tough Love: High School Confidential, as well as the popular travel books Cool Japan Guide and Cool Tokyo Guide (Ippy Award), and children's storybook Kitty Sweet Tooth. Visit her at