Books on Japan: Travel in Japan
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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
by James M. Vardaman Jr., & Michiko S. Vardaman
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.
Japan by Rail (3rd Edition 2012)
by Ramsey Zarifeh et al
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.
Insight Guides Japan
by Scott Rutherford (Editor)
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.
Time Out Guide Tokyo
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.
by David Scott
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.
Dave Barry Does Japan
by Dave Barry
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."
Japan: A Bilingual Atlas
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.
Tokyo City Atlas: A Bilingual Guide
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.
The Rough Guide to Japan
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.
Rough Guide: Japan
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.
Flea Markets of Japan
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.
Lonely Planet: Japan 12th Edition
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.
Lonely Planet Tokyo
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.
Living In Japan
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.
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