Japan & Tokyo guidebooks – which do I use?

September 5, 2008

in japan, travel

I get this question very often, and that is: which guidebooks do I use during my sabbatical in Japan? (I also get a lot of inquiries about the online resources, but I’ll talk about that in a future post).

I have so far used several books, but the main ones are:

  • Lonely Planet Japan (ed. October 2007)
  • Time Out Shortlist Tokyo (ed. October 2007)
  • Wallpaper* City Guide Tokyo 2008

These guides have different uses and reach. They are far from perfect but if used wisely can be a good source of information. In 2008 it is unthinkable to use just paper books with all the rich contents that are available online. What follows is a comment on the use I’ve made of them, pros and cons and recommendations. If you want to buy any of them on Amazon.com and you do so through the links in this post (see below), Amazon will give me a bonus equal to a small % of your total purchase, which is something nice for buying more stuff  🙂

Lonely Planet Japan (ed. October 2007)

I have mixed feelings about this HUGE guidebook (868 pages, at least 500 grams to carry around). Walking  all day with such a big and heavy item is not a pleasant thing, specially if you’ve already filled up your bag with a heavy digital SLR camera and other goodies.  It has a lot of information on the whole of Japan, but at the same time it has little of everything. The Tokyo and Kyoto chapters are the more complete, but they cannot compete with smaller dedicated guides (also published by Lonely Planet). If you are on a short trip to Japan, say to Tokyo, Kyoto and maybe one or two other small places, DON’T use it. Better get 2 smaller ones and complete them with info you find online. It is good for doing a general research though and in my case, that I’ve been visiting and day-tripping to some less frequented places like Asahikawa and Shirahama and day planning trips during the rest of the year, it has been useful. Most of the times it is better to wright down the interesting spots and then grab a map at the local Tourist Center, which you can usually find at the main train stations. Most “famous” attractions around Japan will give you an English leaflet describing the main features of the place. Some times, to avoid the extra weight, I took digital photos of the pages I was interested and used them for reference during the day. Otherwise I just jotted down on my moleskine what I wanted to see and the authors suggestions and tips.

Pros:

  1. Covers the whole country and many less-frequented places
  2. Useful information on the main attractions
  3. Includes brief essays on the local culture, food, history, literature, etc
  4. Good for general research

Cons:

  1. Big and heavy
  2. Having a lot of information on many places means that you get less content for each one. If you are traveling only to Tokyo and Kyoto you will be using less than 10% of the guide but carrying 100% of the weight
  3. Once you have chosen a hotel you don’t need all the other ones listed on the book

Time Out Shortlist Tokyo (ed. October 2007)

This small and practical book (192 pages) has given me many insights of typical places in Tokyo. As any shortlist, it has to sacrifice information to stay small and some people might not like this… but hey, there are bigger guides you can get! It is organized according to the main neighborhoods (Asakusa, Roppongi, Shibuya, Shinjuku, etc) a tourist might visit in, say, 7 to 10 days. Each neighborhood section provides a map of the area which proved particularly often each time I got lost (and in Tokyo it happens often the first time I visit an area). Has some interesting short essays too and the restaurants and bars suggested are mostly ok. Beware though: if you like to live like an insider and not resemble a tourist (difficult task for a European looking guy amongst all the Japanese) or visit those difficult to find small tiny posts that only locals know then…. this won’t be your best travel partner . I used to put it in a pocket and take it out if necessary. A different experience compared to the ever-present Lonely Planet I talked about before.

Pros:

  1. Small and user friendly
  2. Has basic info about sights and leisure places of the main touristic neighborhoods
  3. Includes good neighborhood color maps
  4. Practical transport maps, although the subway map needs to be updated as in June 2008 the new Fukutoshin line was added to the 15+ lines that cross Tokyo
  5. Includes basic Japanese phrases and other useful tips

Cons:

  1. Very touristic (but that is what it was made for)
  2. Being small means it leaves out a lot of info
  3. Includes just the most famous neighborhoods
  4. Some important attractions like the Tsukiji Fish market are not described (and I can imagine why)

Wallpaper* City Guide: Tokyo 2008

This is a different product compared to the other ones. Published by Phaidon and edited by the same people of Wallpaper*, it was created for the design (sometimes luxury) oriented traveler which wants to have a handful of well researched and useful recommendations for a short visit (from one to a few days), specially for people on a business trip that leaves little time for massive sightseeing. It has a discrete design that does not cry “tourist guide!” and is small enough to carry in your pocket (128 pages). It is not a replacement of the above mentioned guides if you want to know everything about the city (specially in the case of a humongous metropolis like Tokyo), but is a good complement. It has a relatively fast obsolescence as the trendy spots of 2008 might not be the same in 2009, but I think that is ok for what it aims. It costs almost as one issue of the Wallpaper* Magazine, even less that a single issue of Monocle (my fav print mag with lots of interesting travel info and more). An overall refreshing approach to a product that has remained the same for decades… and btw it has superb photography and print quality!

Conclusion: all have their strong points and flaws and if I had to go back in time I would get them all again (actually the Wallpaper one was lended to me by my friend Tunde) but I would leave the Lonely Planet one at home (in Japan) and carry around my self made guide only (more on this soon!).

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