A guide book can really make or break your trip. Good guide books tell you about the major attractions, as well as well kept local secrets. Maps and neighbourhood guides are also essential for finding your way round a strange town. While it’s possible to do a lot of research online, this doesn’t help you if you are half way up a mountain trail with no signal! Online research also doesn’t organise things to do in such a convenient way as a guide book; it’s easy to miss unusual or out of the way things as they won’t come up on a standard search. Having a good guide book in your bag is the best way to guarantee you’ll get the most out of your trip.
The Rough Guide to Japan
Covering the whole of Japan, the book is divided up in to geographical sections, with Tokyo and Kyoto having their own chapters. Most major towns have maps of the city centre and there’s also good maps of the Tokyo subway and rail system. Colour sections highlighting regional food, festivals and manga make interesting additional reading. There’s a good introductory section covering most aspects of Japanese culture, as well as essential travel knowledge. A language section at the back covers most of what you’ll need to know and has a
decent menu reader. The guide was last updated in February 2011 so it is starting to date a little.
Lonely Planet: Discover Japan
This guidebook is perfect if you only have a week or two in Japan. All the minor cities and attractions are stripped out, so only the best experiences remain. The guidebook looks at both cultural, historical and modern attractions, so it gives a good mix of things to do and places to see. There’s good sections on Tokyo and Kyoto and sample itineraries to help you get started planning your journey. There’s a handy pull out map so you don’t have to carry the whole book around while navigating. The guide was updated in November 2013 so it’s one of the most recent guides around.
Eyewitness Travel: Japan
The main advantage of this book is that it is filled with great pictures and useful diagrams. This really helps you to get the most out of your trip as you’re able to visualise the parts you most want to visit in advance, and the photography in particular is very evocative and inspiring. The focus is on Tokyo, with Kyoto and other regions getting smaller chapters. As a result, this would be a great book for someone doing a shorter trip who wants to pack in as much as possible.
Japan Pocket Guide
Another stripped back offering, the Berlitz guide has the advantage of actually being pocket sized, so perfect for those trying to cram in some sightseeing between business meetings. Again, only the main attractions are covered, and city maps are simplified to fit in the guide. As a result, this guide is probably unsuitable for those looking to get off the beaten track. However there are good photos, itineraries and an excellent context section for those that are stretched for time and space during their visit.
Time Out Tokyo
This guide books covers all the main things to see and do in Tokyo, and has an excellent chapter covering the history and personality of the city. Restaurants, shopping and nightclubs are well covered, so this is perhaps a good book for someone wanting to live like a local. However the maps can be a bit simplistic and confusing; whether this is an issue for you probably depends on your confidence as a navigator. The book is a few years old now, so is starting to date; check out the Time Out Tokyo website and Twitter feed for the most up to date news.
Lonely Planet Kyoto
The Lonely Planet city guides are packed with information and are good for most budgets; most options highlighted are mid-price, although travelers looking to save or spend will find the guide useful as well. The layout is simple and clear, with colour pages and photos throughout. The guide was last updated in 2012, but all of the major sights, hotels, restaurants and shops are still valid. This guide also features the handy detachable map for quick navigating.
Perfect for design-conscious travelers, Wallpaper* guides focus on the hippest hotels, swankiest restaurants, most stylish boutiques and the best museums and galleries. The Sapporo guide is updated every few years, but bigger cities like Tokyo are updated every year; great for return visitors who want to check out what’s new. The guide is pocket sized and tightly edited, featuring only the must sees; ideal if you only have a few days to get round the city. The focus of the guide is distinctly upmarket, which could be a plus or minus depending on your budget and standards.
Tokyo Crumpled City Map
Ok, so this one isn’t a specific city guide, but one of the main reasons for buying a specific city guide is to get a detailed map so you can find all the stuff you want to see and do. The map is printed on waterproof fabric, so there’s no danger of tearing it or it dissolving in the rain. The map comes in a handy pouch, along with an index of the major destinations, making it a good companion to a traditional book. Alternatively, if you want to wander and allow luck to decide your trip, this is the perfect guide; the index listing will point out the major landmarks, while the details will allow you to explore the smaller streets.
Japan By Rail
This is a brilliant book if you are planning to spend a lot of time traveling by rail. There are detailed reports on stations and their facilities, and kilometer by kilometer route guides. These are a great way to work out what you are seeing out of the train window! All of the major cities are covered as well, although perhaps not as in-depth as in some of the other guide books. However there is good coverage of some of the more obscure towns that serve as railway hubs; useful if you find yourself having to stay overnight while changing trains.
Hiking in Japan
Japan is well known for its landscapes, with much of the country covered in mountains and thick forests. Hiking some of Japan’s best trails is a great way to see a different side to the country that most tourists won’t experience. There’s few other places in the world where you can soak aching legs in a natural hot spring at the end of the walk! The book covers all of Japan, and all the routes are ranked by length and difficulty, as well as any seasonal closures. Many of the hikes are close to major cities and can be completed in a few hours, so the appeal isn’t limited to serious explorers.
Japan – Culture Smart!
Japanese customs and etiquette can be intricate and impenetrable to the outsider. Most of the guide books we’ve looked at cover the major dos and don’ts; and you’ll generally find the Japanese are quite indulgent of the occasional tourist faux pas. However if you plan to stay in the country for a longer period, especially if working or studying then this is great guide for brushing up on your manners. The book covers business and personal situations, as well as some guidelines to help you read between the lines when talking to a Japanese person.
A Geek in Japan
Written by the author of one of Japan’s biggest blogs, “A Geek in Japan” is more of a culture guide than one discussing hotels and tourist attractions. It’s a great additional guidebook to take with you if you are keen to understand more about Japanese culture and customs than a normal guide would provide. The book discusses Japanese history and traditional arts and goes on to look at salarymen, manga, J-Pop and cinema. There’s a chapter on visiting Tokyo as well as some useful travel tips for foreigners visiting Japan.