Certain books must be read, even with the knowledge that the reading will be painful. Kobo Abe's masterpiece "The Woman in the Dunes" is one such book. Called an "existential fable," it is no surprise that Abe's favorite writers were Franz Kafka, Friedrich Nietzsche and Edgar Allan Poe.

The Woman in the Dunes, by Kobo Abe
Penguin, Fiction.

This surreal tale relates the story of Jumpei Niki, an amateur entomologist who is trapped by the men of an ostracized, isolated village, and is obsessed with finding a new species within an ever-shifting landscape of sand. He is tricked into accepting shelter at a young widow's home at the bottom of a sand pit, and when he awakens the next morning, the ladder is gone. Abe masterfully builds sexual tension, and his dryly searing commentary on the human condition can be uplifting, in true existential form, but still bring something cool for relief: "If life were made up only of important things, it really would be a dangerous house of glass, scarcely to be handled carelessly. But everyday life was exactly like the headlines. And so everybody, knowing the meaninglessness of existence, sets the center of his compass at his own home."

Within your own home, spend some time with a Japanese classic; Abe also wrote the screenplay for the highly acclaimed 1964 movie of the same name, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara.

Abe's existential masterpiece is a tall glass of spiritual refreshment that may seep inside your skin and into your mind.

Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.