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JapanVisitor has the largest collection of independent reviews of Japan-related books on the Internet: travel guides, Japanese fiction and fiction with a Japan setting, books on Japanese history, Japanese politics and society, Japanese food and cuisine, books on learning the Japanese language, books on Japanese art, design and photography, the nature and environment of Japan as well as books covering manga, anime and music. If you wish to have a title reviewed on JapanVisitor.com please see the contact details at the bottom of this page.

Japan From A to Z: Mysteries of Everyday Life Explained

Japan From A-Z

by James M. Vardaman Jr., & Michiko S. Vardaman

ISBN: 4-90073-741-0
128 pp

On a visit to Japan, you will notice many things and behaviors that appear odd, strange, perplexing, or just plain weird. What are the black trucks blasting out martial music? When meeting someone on business, how and when should you bow? Why is a cup of coffee so expensive in Japan? Why don't Japanese pour their own drinks? Why do Japanese trains stop around midnight? Asking such questions, you will invariably be answered either by a shrug of the shoulders, or with the non-answer: "It's the Japanese way".

Consequently, there are a plethora of small books available claiming to unlock the mysteries of Japan for you. Japan From A to Z is one of the better ones. In it you will find answers to almost 300 questions that first -time visitors and even residents ask about daily life in Japan. Even after having lived in Japan for several years I found a lot of answers that had so far eluded me. A fun read. Much of the information is based on surveys and statistics that are a few years old now, but that doesn't alter the validity of the answers.

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Japan by Rail (3rd Edition 2012)

Japan By Rail 3rd Edition.

by Ramsey Zarifeh et al

Trailblazer

ISBN: 1-8737-5697-6
Softback, 480 pp. Black and white with colour plates.

As the authors of Japan by Rail note, Japan's creation of a world-beating rail network, "given the country's topography and history of devastating earthquakes, is nothing short of extraordinary". On any given day, a staggering 26,000 thousand trains trace Japan Rail's 20,000 kilometres of track, which of course excludes the many private lines throughout the country.

Japan's famous shinkansen, or bullet trains, are still expanding their reach, with new lines planned for Kyushu and Hokkaido. Such feats of infrastructural enterprise means it is no surprise that the Trailblazer series of travel guide books includes Japan by Rail, now in its third, fully revised edition. While at first glance this chunky guidebook, with its obligatory pictures of Mt Fuji and maiko, sidebars on how to use Japanese baths, and amenity-dotted schematic city maps, appears to be a Lonely Planet clone, it has much to offer the traveller who makes rail their preferred mode of transport in Japan.

This guide is squarely aimed at the many foreign visitors planning to use the JR Rail Pass, which the authors rightly describe as the "bargain of the century". For the price of a return journey by bullet train between Tokyo and Kyoto, one can have unlimited travel on the Japan Rail network for a week, including most shinkansen. The deals for two- and three-week passes are even more favourable. The catch is that it must be purchased before coming to Japan. Regional passes, however, may be bought on arrival, though a tourist stamp in your passport is still a requirement.

Naturally, like its fellow tomes, Japan by Rail leads you through the pass-purchase process, but it really comes into its own with its unique Route Guides for each section of Japan. These allow the curious traveller to fully exploit the flexibility of their pass by providing points of interest and side-journey connections for every stop on a given route. For example, instead of bulleting directly from Shin-Osaka to Hiroshima in one trip, you can stop off at Fukuyama, view the Automobile and Clock Museum, then take a side trip on a local train to Matsunaga, the home of geta, with its inevitable Japan Footwear Museum. Having had your fill of offbeat museums, you can simply retrace your steps, as it were, to Fukuyama and pick up the next shinkansen. This simple yet ingenious approach relies on the ability of someone with a pass to get on and off train at will. It encourages travellers to regain some of the spontaneity that such guides have in fact been responsible for removing from overseas journeys.

Of course, the railway enthusiast will find sections devoted to rail history, train types (with illustrative photos) and timetables, though the latter are examples only and should not be relied on for the latest information. As the authors note, a site such as hyperdia.com is a great journey planner. Together with the usual potted history of Japan, culture notes, glossary, and language primer, the guide's sections comprise a well-thought-out, truly usable whole, further enhanced by previous readers' suggestions. Of course, no guide is without its quirks: the reference to Kyoto's "skyscrapers" will raise a grin on anyone who has actually been there.

If you plan to rely on trains in Japan to get around -- which in most cases you should -- then Japan by Rail may prove more useful than the standard guidebook. Since it limits its focus in this way, it is also somewhat more compact and cheaper, both of which attributes could be good news for your back pocket as you make your way around some fraction of the country's countless kilometres of rails.

Richard Donovan

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Insight Guides Japan

Insight Guides Japan

by Scott Rutherford (Editor)

Insight Guides

ISBN: 9-81234-828-X
406 pp

A winning combination of superb photographs allied to knowledgeable and contentious essays by a stellar array of Japan specialists make the latest Insight Guide Japan a worthy addition to the Japan visitor's suitcase or coffee table. Among the notable contributors are Alex Kerr of Lost Japan fame, who explores Kyoto and Nara, film critic Jeanette Amano introduces Japanese cinema and The Japan Times' Wayne Graczyk provides the baseball insight.

Many of Japan-based Gorazd Vilhar's images complement the thought-provoking text. Well-researched though brief travel specifics on accommodation, transport and language with a definite nod to the more up-market traveller round out the book. Recommended for visitors and residents alike.

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Time Out Tokyo

Time Out Guide Tokyo

Penguin Books

ISBN: 0-14101-352-4
320 pp

Based on the successful and easily-accessible listings format of London's original Time Out guide, the Tokyo edition is strong on off-beat attractions, where to eat and shop and the ever-changing nightlife scene in the nation's heaving metropolis.

Each entry listing in the various categories has the address, phone number, hours and a map reference - though the maps at the end of the book are a little optimistic for a city of Tokyo's size and urban complexity.

There are brief introductory sections on the city's history, geography and architecture, a resources A-Z and cool, funky photography. The guide makes for a must-read for first-time visitors to the capital as well as excellent additional reference for Tokyo residents looking for somewhere new. Recommended.

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Explorer Japan

Explorer Japan

by David Scott

AA Books

ISBN: 0-7495-3579-2
288 pp

Explorer Japan is a relatively hidden gem of the Japan travel guide genre. Packed with excellent photography and clear maps (as you would expect from an Automobile Association guide), the book is a well-organized, brief introduction to the main sights of the country.

Each place is rated from "Do not miss" to "Not essential viewing" with sections on contemporary and historical Japan, hotels and restaurants, travel facts and a practical A to Z section covering Japan broken down in to seven regional parts. There are also suggested walks, and running throughout the book, color-coded "focus" chapters on such quintessential Japanese things as Mt. Fuji, onsens, castles and Zen. Recommended.

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Dave Barry Does Japan

Dave Barry Does Japan

by Dave Barry

ISBN: 0-449-90810-0
212 pp

In the summer of 1991, American humorist Dave Barry and his family were sent on an all-expenses paid three week trip to Japan by his publishers. This extremely funny book is the result. If you already know Dave Barry's brand of humour, you won't need a recommendation to get this book. If you aren't familiar with him, but enjoy chuckling, and want some insights into what to expect on a visit to Japan, then I highly recommend this book. While much of the humor is based on the many differences between Japanese culture and behavior, it is in no way anti-Japanese, and pokes fun at American cultural assumptions just as much.

As he writes in the introduction "My most important finding, however, does not involve the differences between us and Japan; it involves the similarities. Because despite the gulf, physical and cultural, between the United States and Japan, both societies are, in the end, made up of people, and people everywhere - when you strip away their superficial differences - are crazy". During his 3 week trip he visited Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hiroshima, and during the course of the book takes aim at many aspects of modern and traditional Japanese culture including language, food ("The Japanese routinely eat things that have eyeballs or suckers or other flagrantly unacceptable organs still attached to them"), karaoke, Kabuki ("one hour of watching Kabuki is the equivalent of seventeen hours spent in a more enjoyable activity, such as eye-surgery"), Sento (public baths), and, being a humorist himself, he tackles the rarely reported Japanese comedy (Rakugo). There is only one small break in the non-stop humor of the book, and that comes when he writes of his trip to Hiroshima and his reaction to the Japanese sense of victimhood surrounding the atom bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Throughout the book he praises the high level of service he received everywhere in Japan, but, in closing, remarks "The Japanese always treated us politely; they rarely treated us warmly."

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Japan: A Bilingual Atlas

Japan: A Bilingual Atlas

by Kodansha International

ISBN: 4-7700-1536-4
128 pp

This small book should be in the bag or pocket of any visitor to Japan. Finding your way around any strange country or city can be difficult at the best of times, but if you can't read the local language, then it becomes terrifying, and while Japan has an efficient (but expensive) freeway/motorway system, the minor roads and city streets resemble a maze of spaghetti.

There is a national rail network, but also a multitude of private railways. Getting from A to B can sometimes mean not just changing trains, but changing railways. As well as a country map, there are maps of regions, 20 city maps, maps of the major sightseeing areas, Rail, Road, Subway, and Air route maps, and a series of thematic maps ranging from National Parks to Hot Springs to Bird Watching areas.

This may not be the only map/atlas that you need on a trip to Japan, but it should be the first.

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Tokyo: A Bilingual Atlas

Tokyo City Atlas: A Bilingual Guide

Kodansha International

ISBN: 4-7700-2503-3
128 pp

The foolhardy traveller who decides to venture beyond the usual tourist spots in Tokyo must first brave the tangled serpents of the subway system, and then solve the riddle of the Signless Streets and Anonymous Alleyways.
Addresses in Japan are based on ever-smaller nested squares of land, like a Russian doll set, rather than something as intelligible as street numbers. Thus when you' re on foot it can be nigh-on impossible to find a building just from the address. However, the latest edition of the Tokyo City Atlas almost miraculously solves the problem. Despite its handy B5 size, it manages to squeeze in all the Cho and Banchi block numbers on its fully bilingual maps, making finding a building almost a breeze.
The full-colour maps come in three scales - handy large-scale overviews of central and metropolitan Tokyo at either end of the book; medium-scale plans of central Tokyo; and detailed maps of the main tourist areas, showing names of most hotels, shopping centres, parks and other amenities. Not every building is labelled, but the major ones are, and this combined with the block numbers will orientate you in a flash, no matter how many jackhammers are at your back or schools of sailor suits are streaming around you.
As an added bonus, there are 7 additional maps of the Yokohama and Kawasaki city centres and U.S. military bases, and extremely useful indexes that will enable you to look up hotels, embassies, and thousands of other places of interest. And the rail and subway maps conveniently located inside the front cover will have you taming those Tokyo serpents in no time.

Richard Donovan

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Rough Guide
To Japan

The Rough Guide to Japan

by Jan Dodd, Simon Richmond et al

Rough Guides

ISBN: 1848366159
1079 pp

I recently took a vacation on Shikoku, and it being my first visit there I took along the latest edition of the Rough Guide to Japan to give it a test-drive, and I must say it performed very well indeed in all regards.
I was satisfied with the book's recommendations on which sites to visit, and perhaps more importantly which places that are not worth visiting. The inclusion of interesting sites not usually included in mainstream tourist literature indicates the depth of local knowledge that is the heart of the book.
Particularly useful were the many area and city maps that are clear, simple, to scale, and accurate, attributes that I find scarce on Japanese maps.
The detailed accommodation information covers the full range of prices, with an emphasis on the budget end of the spectrum, and includes some interesting options as well as information on which establishments speak English. Having all the telephone numbers in one handy place is also very useful.
The guide concentrates on places that can be accessed by public transport, particularly trains, and as most tourists in Japan don't rent cars, that is OK, but maybe a little more information on places off the beaten track would not go amiss.
As you would expect with any guide there is plenty of information on Japan, how to get there, travel within the country, traveling with kids, etc etc. There is also a useful guide to the language. Interspersed throughout the book are segments called Context which cover subjects such as religion, history, the Arts, movies etc.
Of course there are always more things that could be included into any guide such as this, but at more than 1,000 pages and using a small typeface, including more would make the book too large to be conveniently carried.
Useful not just for visitors, but for those who live in Japan too.

Jake Davies

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Rough Guide
To Japan

Rough Guide: Japan

by Jan Dodd, Simon Richmond et al

Rough Guide

ISBN: 1-85828-699-9
938 pp

With a wide range of guide books now catering for an increasing number of tourists, the Rough Guide stands out as one of the best informed and practically useful of the bunch. Certainly amongst the most comprehensive on offer, it covers a wealth of less well known attractions as well as all the major destinations. On the usefulness stakes, it is certainly not going to let you down. All the basic information that you require and expect in a guide book is present and up-to-date. But the great thing about the Rough Guide is not so much its practical value as how enjoyably it reads. The writing style is provocative enough to get a reaction, yet honest and balanced. The continuous flow of one description to another makes planning a trip with the Rough Guide a little like a walk in the author's own footsteps. On the whole, the Rough Guide recommends a larger number of hotels than the Lonely Planet and offers more encouragement to splash out than its rival. You get the feeling that a wider range of budgets are being catered for compared with the travel on a shoestring ethic of the Lonely Planet and that the Rough Guide leans slightly towards travellers on a shorter stay. The layout and design of the book is marred only by the choice of a very dense single block of text rather than an easier on the eye two column format, but overall, this is a very worthy reference.

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Flea Markets
of Japan

Flea Markets of Japan

by Theodore Manning

Kodansha International

ISBN: 4-7700-2902-0
175 pp

Manning has crafted a detailed pocket guide that catalogs all of Japan's major and minor flea markets. It has strong sections on both Tokyo and Kyoto. All told, 115 flea markets are listed. Each listing has directions, Japanese and English titles, a description of the items for sale, and a telephone number. Equally helpful are the Introduction, the sections Before Going Shopping and Shopping Guidelines, Things to Buy, and the annual Flea Market Calendar. Along with a section on basic Japanese, the book prepares the uninitiated on how to bargain, how much of a discount to expect, and what you might find.

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Lonely Planet
Japan

Lonely Planet: Japan 12th Edition

by Chris Rowthorn, Ray Bartlett, Justin Ellis

Lonely Planet

ISBN: 1-7410-4667-X
784 pp

Lonely Planet's experience at the forefront of guide book publication really shows in this 9th edition of their superb Japan offering. This is a guide that will particularly suit those aiming to stay in Japan for longer than the usual two week hop between the major cities as further flung treasures are given much more coverage than in lesser publications.
That said, Lonely Planet Japan is about as tightly edited as it is bound. For each attraction you get just enough information to work out whether it's worth going to given the time you've got and not much more. Even the most famous of sights will get no more than a dense half page. However, what it lacks in flowery language, it more than makes up for in sheer usefulness. Pitfalls are dealt with in a frank and direct manner and the overall feeling you get is that the guide has been written from hard won experience.
Like any Japan guide worth its salt, Lonely Planet Japan draws your attention to the language and its associated difficulties and helps you out with a brief section on useful phrases with entries both in roman characters and Japanese symbols. But for anyone serious about being understood the Lonely Planet Japanese Phrasebook wouldn't go amiss. In addition, a good supplement for gourmet thrill-seekers would be Lonely Planet's equally excellent World Food - Japan, as dining out can be a particular obstacle for non-Japanese speakers.
Well-organised and easily navigated, Lonely Planet Japan combines wide-angle overview with nitty-gritty specifics. In addition it's packed with functional maps, lots of evocative photographs and enlightening digressions on Japanese culture. What more could you ask for?

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Lonely Planet
Tokyo

Lonely Planet Tokyo

by Andrew Bender

Previous editions by Chris Rowthorn, John Ashburne, Kara Knafelc

Lonely Planet

ISBN: 1-740-59059-7
274 pp

Lonely Planet's main Japan guide runs to nearly 800 pages so if your visit is confined to the capital and its environs Lonely Planet Tokyo makes for a lighter alternative for the rucksack. The maps (including color versions) and the photographs are a marked upgrade from previous editions and the Japanese place-names and language section are a boon for linguistically-challenged visitors and residents alike.
As well as the now familiar LP sections on Accommodation, Things to See & Do and Getting There and Away - the guide includes useful Food and Drink, Entertainment and Shopping listings, in this updated edition.

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Living In Japan.

Living In Japan

by American Chamber of Commerce Japan

ISBN: 4-91568-223-4
466 pp

Finding out the long and hard way is one of those character-building experiences that goes hand in hand with living in a foreign country. However, the countless little (and not so little) details that can help you along are definitely best known about beforehand at least so that facing the reality is not such a shock. This is where the 14th edition of "Living in Japan" can help. Anyone for whom a medium to long-term stay in Japan is on the cards would not go far wrong picking up a copy of this comprehensive and very professional publication.
One would expect nothing less from the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan, an organisation that has been promoting the business interests of the foreign community for over 50 years. Establishing oneself in the world of work therefore forms an important part of this chunky volume and the ins and outs of visas, getting a job, studying in Japan, finances and even starting your own business are covered. But it is not all about work and lifestyle issues are given just as much weight. As an introduction to all the most important aspects of life in Japan this book must surely be unique. Sections on immigration, family issues and medical treatment answer many important questions on practical matters that you may not even have thought of asking. The lighter side of life is also dealt with sections on entertainment, travel, food and sports.
With such a broad range of topics (and it hard to think of anything that this book does not cover), the information offered is necessarily concise. Though certainly not lacking in any area, it also does not presume to give you everything you need to deal with your specific situation. The emphasis is more on covering the essential points that will set you on the right direction to making an informed decision, giving you plenty of suggested avenues for further research while dispelling a few illusions on the way.
"Living in Japan" should be considered as an essential reference not just for those preparing to make the move but for anyone at all who wants food for thought on the matter. For those who have already spent some time in Japan, there will be plenty that is already familiar (especially the sections on culture, food and entertainment) but this book will still fill many important gaps - as well as give you countless opportunities to kick yourself for not having bought a copy earlier.
Out of print

Will Yong

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