Guidebook to Japan?
February 22, 2008 4:57 AM   Subscribe

Which Japan travel guide should I get?

I'm going to Japan in September for 4-5 weeks in a touring opera company. I know very little about the details except that all accommodations are taken care of, that food's done at a set per diem rate, our days are fairly structured, and I can guess that we'll be going all around Japan.

So! I'm looking to:
1) Save as much of my per diem as possible (so good, cheap food recommendations in many cities are a big plus)
2) In the (perhaps limited) free time I have, get some guidance in terms of sight-seeing and things to do.
3) Have some maps that show me where said sight-seeing and food options are.

Bonus points for historical background, double bonus points for a more local, less touristy sort of viewpoint.

If Rick Steves wrote a Japan guide, I'd get it, but alas, no dice.
posted by sdis to Travel & Transportation around Japan (10 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
The Lonely Planet Guide is as good as any of the generic guides: Tony Wheeler lived in Japan for a while, so the Japan series is really adequate.

But any of the mass-market guides will do the trick.

The ultimate, best-ever, greatest, penultimate guide to Japan would have to be "Japan Inside Out" by Jay and Sumi Gluck. It's out of print now, but worth tracking down.

They self-published the book in 1990, and actually started writing it in the 1950s, when they came to Japan to teach.

The Glucks were especially interested in classical studies, and lived in Iran for a while in the 1960s.

Their Japan guide, Japan Inside Out, was really great because they went everywhere in Japan, and explained where to stay, what to do, and why to do it.

Part of the problem with generic Japan guides like Lonely Planet is that places off the beaten track are generally ignored, which is fine if you're in a hurry.

There was plenty of explanation in the Gluck book about the source of Japanese customs, and tradition, as well as Japanese history, and how Japan fitted in with the greater continuum of history.

The Glucks were interested in and knew a lot about the Silk Road, and their descriptions of Nara are and its connection with, say, Central Asia was fascinating.

I lived in Japan for ten years, but I never outgrew their guide and it always sat in the back of my car, ready for action.

But, Japan Inside Out is hard to find. Jay Gluck died in 2000, in Kobe. I remember feeling pretty sad. I think Jay and Sumi's son tried to keep working and reprinting the book, but it has vanished from sight.

Anyway, Lonely Planet should work, combined with a bit of Internet browsing.

Where are you going in Japan? I'd be interested to know.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:21 AM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Rereading your question, I was also going to say that there isn't a lot of good English-language writing on Japan. One of my favourites would have to be 'Mirror in the Shrine: American Encounters with Meiji Japan', by Robert Rosenstone because he writes about Fukui Prefecture, where I used to live.

But it doesn't really work as a general backgrounder for the country you're about the visit.

Alan Booth did a lot of walking in Japan, and his two books 'The Roads to Sata' and 'Looking for the Lost' are pretty much classics, but are now quite dated: 'Sata' was written in the early 1980s based on a walking trip in 1978. 'Lost' was published in the early 1990s based on walks in the 1980s. This is an important point, because Booth was quite critical of Japan, and the criticisms he makes are now a little irrelevant.

A lot of folks might recommend 'Dogs and Demons' by Alex Kerr, but it might not be the best book for a short trip to Japan: it's somewhat negative, and the book's outlook may affect how you experience the country during the short time you are there.

Chris Bamforth has written a good series of travel articles in the Japan Times.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:34 AM on February 22, 2008

I highly recommend the Kodansha book Gateway to Japan, edited by June Kinoshita and Nicholas Palevsky. It's old, but provides an extraordinary amount of detailed historical/cultural info. Between that and the latest Rough Guide, I had a really easy time making my way throughout the "middle" of Japan (going in a loop that began in Kyoto, looped around through several of the smaller cities and villages in the Kinki, Chubu and Kanto regions, finishing in Tokyo). I definitely recommend buying two guides, whatever they are, so that you have two resources to contrast, compare, and build on each other.
posted by tigerbelly at 5:52 AM on February 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

Second Gateway to Japan. I learned more reading that than I did in my Japanese History class, but that doesn't get in the way of its great utility as a places-to-go guidebook.

The Lonely Planet book is also good.

I have to say that any guidebook that's slightly out of date may prove to be frustrating at times, because things can change fast there. During my time in Japan, there were at least two occasions where I was trying to go to a place listed in a guidebook, only to find not only that the business was closed, but that the entire city block had been razed.
posted by adamrice at 5:58 AM on February 22, 2008

I'll be a descenting voice about about the Lonely Planet... or Liar Planet as I started calling it after wondering up and down the same street looking for a cashpoint until I realised the map was just wrong (... and other similar incidents). And it was the newest version.

I rated the Rough Guide and that's got a lot of history in it.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 7:47 AM on February 22, 2008

No one guidebook is going to be best, so: Make your own. Seriously.

Anytime I travel, I construct a "Frankenguide": a mishmash collection of torn-out Lonely Planets, printed websites, Wikitravel guides, history books, anything that might come in useful when I'm on the road. It might not look pretty, but it gets the job done and is infinitely customizable.

With the official guidebook portion of the Frankenguide, I usually use the bits that are timeless so that I can buy an older guidebook for a fraction of the cost. Besides, most of the hotel/hostel/restaurant reviews -- the stuff that has an expiration date -- can be found online anyway. Failing that, the guy working the counter at the corner supermarket will have a better idea on where to get the cheapest tamago kake gohan than the overworked guidebook author who's screaming around Tokyo visiting 859 restaurants in a single afternoon.

Think about what you want on your person when you won't have access to a computer. Rip it out of an old guidebook, print it from a website, and save the rest for when you have Internet access.
posted by nitsuj at 7:50 AM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I bought and studied every English language guide to Japan that I could find before going for a three week trip to Japan (chronicled on this ancient website) in 1999. I was really struck by how poor the available information was then. I would just go to your local library and get everything you can. I was struck by how inaccurate and out-of-date a lot of different guidebooks were. I love to travel, in general, and I love to read guidebooks as a genre. Anyway, compared to Italy, for example, the coverage for Japan was really bad in terms of specific, practical information.

A couple of recommendations outside the realm of strictly tourist guides: the Japan Travel Bureau publishes (or published, they may be out of print) a really great series of small pocket books, really fun to read, that I picked up in Tokyo, but I believe you can order from Amazon or Amazon retailers. See this link here.

Another book I really enjoyed was "36 Views of Mount Fuji: On Finding Myself in Japan" which I read after we got back. It's particularly interesting if you try to speak Japanese at all, as I recall. Perhaps surprisingly, I thought Dave Barry's book about Japan was really good, in particular I remember thinking his description of his feelings about visiting Hiroshima mirrored my own.
posted by thomas144 at 8:24 AM on February 22, 2008

Oh and I just remembered Time Out Tokyo (or at least their website) had a couple of interesting things that the other guidebooks didn't (like where the biggest comic shop in the world is... )
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 8:53 AM on February 22, 2008

Third Gateway to Japan. If you want an in-depth reference covering almost everywhere, that's the one to get.

I wouldn't have been able to succeed my first time, without Lonely Planet's Travel Survival Kit, but it hasn't been published in over a decade. Plus there's lots more English around Japan now, making things easier for the newbie.

As for Japan Inside Out must say I was very disappointed, when I finally got to peruse a copy (in a Nara ryokan). Way out of date, too dense with info, little tiny print, and written in a peculiar, abbreviated style.

I'm also using nitsuj's "Frankenguide" approach these days -- a manilla envelope of double-sided photocopies (made mainly from guidebooks borrowed from friends and the library, and web-pages) is much lighter and less bulky than toting around actual guidebooks (which contain at least 75% irrelevant info, concerning places nowhere near your itinerary). And as you complete various stages of your journey, you can jettison the no-longer-needed pages.
posted by Rash at 11:12 AM on February 22, 2008

Another un-recommend to the Lonely Planet Japan. For it's brickiness, it certainly lacks in useful information. Somehow I carry it whenever I go somewhere new, and I never ever open it.

What am I doing instead?
For one, even small towns in Japan are pretty well-organized tourism-wise. Every little town has at least one interesting thing, and there's always a map, and often a translation.

Second, I'm going with locals. If you don't know any, find some. I meet a lot of people throuch (whether to stay with them or just go around), and also do a lot of friend-of-friend networking.

As for books, I'd recommend having one book you can prep your travel with (both DK and Eyewitness Guides have nice books on Japan that will help you choose places to visit and have some basic maps), and pick up your free maps when you get where you're going.

If you're spending a lot of time in Tokyo, I highly HIGHLY recommend the bilingual Tokyo City Atlas. It will save your ass many times over the $12 cover price. All the big neighborhoods are mapped in high-detail, with buildings labelled, all the block numbers (insane addressing system), and even subway station exits.

Time Out Tokyo was the best of the guide books I saw on Tokyo at the time I was looking (about 18 months ago).
posted by whatzit at 4:44 PM on February 22, 2008

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