Japan Travel Guides 4

Books on Japan: Japan Travel Guides 4

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.

Lonely Planet Japan

Lonely Planet Japan.

by Lonely Planet
Paperback; 928 pp
ISBN 1-78657-035-2

To the Western traveler, Japan is typically Asian enough to be exotic, modern enough to be familiar, and Japanese enough in its modernity to be puzzling. Guide books to Japan therefore have a lot of explaining to do! Lonely Planet's Japan takes on the task with what what comes across as ease. Even at 928 pages long, Lonely Planet Japan manages to be not only non-threatening, but positively inviting (and still compact enough to be grabbable).

Color coding organizes the guide's pages, printed on fine, high-contrast, quality paper. The pink "Plan Your Trip" section concisely conveys the basics in regard to sights, regional features, timing of visit, weather, itinerary, budget and more - setting out a big buffet of things to see and do, and at the same time easing what can be the fraught process of deciding what to go for. Blue tabs divide the regions, are quickly thumbable to, and open with an easily scannable page that manages to cover a lot of very useful base information starting with "Why Go?" and including weather, sightseeing highlights, and recommended eating and sleeping lists. Other pink-edged pages are "check this out"-type photo pages with beautifully shot full-page or half-page photos of sightseeing highlights, and pointers to more information about them. These occasional photography features show Lonely Planet's savviness about imagery in the internet age. Here, visual appeal is ensured without the riot of imagery that can clutter other guides at the expense of on-the-road practicality. Speaking of which, the maps throughout are frequent, and as good a navigation aid as printed maps can be, with instant clarity of design, eye-directing use of color, and a less-is-more approach to text. The pull-out map of Tokyo is, alone, almost worth the price of the book for its concise comprehensiveness.

The nitty-gritty of Lonely Planet Japan is, of course, its information. It goes without saying that all the essential sightseeing for all the main - and even some slightly out-of-the-way - places is covered. A combination of paragraph-long guides, "Off the Beaten Path" and "Worth a Trip" text boxes, maps, and eating, staying, getting around sections ensure that the traveler will get the most out of each area, with URLs pointing to more. There is lots throughout for hikers and skiers, too. Every name comes with its Japanese transliteration for point-and-ask convenience while traveling generally non-English-friendly Japan. Tasteful text color design facilitates the page-scanning experience.

The green-coded "Understand Japan" section at the end provides extra hue and depth to any Japan sojourn with a very comprehensive but efficiently worded primer on everything from the people, to food, to history, to manga, to modern icons, to the environment. Ideally this should be read some time before you go as it has very good pointers to extra reading/viewing, but at least deserves to be read on the plane over. It is followed by the gray-coded "Survival Guide," at the very end, that really is essential pre-trip reading, especially when it comes to transport information.

In all, this 15th edition of Lonely Planet Japan is a well-built good-looker that guarantees your time in Japan will be well spent - whatever kind of traveler you are - and will be a constant go-to while spending it.

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Lonely Planet's Best of Tokyo 2018

Lonely Planet's Best of Tokyo 2018.

by Lonely Planet
Paperback; 258 pp
ISBN 1-7870-1115-1

The (pretty quickly) dogeared, muddy-thumbed blue tome that's been a denizen of backpacks since the '70s now shares its stable with a new generation. Lonely Planet's Best of Tokyo 2018 looks more at home on the coffee table, with its retro matte postcard-style cover and 258-page slimness. It is stylish, easy on the eye, featuring great clarity and contrast of layout on every page, with an optimum balance between easily scannable text and beautifully reproduced camera-pro photos.

But looks are definitely not where it stops - this arty-looking offering couldn't be more practical. The information is organized very intuitively, with the first 30 or so pages covering special Tokyo happenings throughout 2018, "Need to Know" facts that can make all the difference, to the nitty-gritty of Japan trip-planning. The next, and biggest, section, called "Top Experiences" proposes things to see and do and places to go in Tokyo. The remaining, and still substantial sections, take the same area-by-area approach to dining, then shopping, then evening drinking, then entertainment, plus a page or two for sports fans, and some accommodation pointers. The very last section, "Tokyo Today" covers arts, pop culture, architecture, and other facets of Tokyo that contribute to the uniqueness of the metropolis. There are color area maps at the end with clear indicators of what's where.

What this city-slicker of a guidebook does share with its more artisanal older blue brother is the Lonely Planet family's economical but colorful way with words. That together with the color-coded ease of text navigation, great indexing, good maps, and overall design professionalism gives Lonely Planet's Best of Tokyo 2018 almost as much the feel of a travel catalog aimed at potential Tokyo tourists as a guidebook for those with a ticket already in hand. Dare to even casually thumbflick through it without being drawn to come and see for yourself the gorgeous, sophisticated, multi-layered, activity-packed Tokyo portrayed here.

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Lonely Planet's Kyoto City Map

Lonely Planet's Kyoto City Map.

by Lonely Planet
Paperback; 2 pp
ISBN 1-7865-7912-X

Lonely Planet's latest (September, 2017) Kyoto City Map is out and it is what you need if you are headed for one of Japan's most tradition-filled and well-known cities.
Of course, one problem with any map of Japan is that most streets don't have names. Houses, business, schools etc all have address numbers, but they are not even close to being sequential. For example, 2-17-13 is very likely not close to 2-17-14, although it could be next to 2-11-29.
This is not so much of a problem for people most likely to use an English Kyoto city map to find the most famous landmarks, and that would be tourists.
On one side of the map is a Kyoto train transit map (including rail, subway and tram lines), a suggested walking tour, a basic (fewer than 20 words/phrases) vocabulary of useful Japanese, a little information on getting around, a few useful phone numbers and top sites to see in Kyoto.
On the other side is the basic Kyoto map. There is one inlet at the bottom of the northwest side of Kyoto, where Kinkakuji and the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest can be found.
The map case is 9.5 by 20 cm (3.7 by 7.9 inches), while the fully-opened map is 63 cm by 50 cm (24.8 by 19.7 inches). The map comes in what Lonely Planet says is a water-proof cover. I did not dunk it in water to test it out, but I'll believe it for now.
This map in itself will not tell you detailed descriptions on the best things to see (few maps do), but if you already know what you want to see (most likely Kinkakuji, Ginkakuji, Kyomizudera and maybe Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine for openers), this map is very helpful.

By Marshall Hughes

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Four Pairs of Boots: A 3,200 Kilometre Hike The Length of Japan

Four Pairs of Boots: A 3,200 Kilometre Hike The Length of Japan.

by Craig McLachlan
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
288 pp
ISBN 1-4922-0785-3

New Zealander Craig McLachlan has written extensively on his walking adventures in Japan. He has traveled two pilgrimage routes, the Shikoku Henro (Tales of a Summer Henro), and the Shikoku Kannon Pilgrimage (Wandering with Basho), as well as climbing many mountains, including the 100 Famous Mountain (Hyakumeizan - the 100 Mountain Challenge) and all of Japan's mountains with peaks higher than 3,000 meters (Japan: Coast to Coast), so it's hardly surprising that he co-authored Lonely Planet's Hiking in Japan.
His first book, however, was Four Pairs of Boots, which chronicles his epic 99 day journey on foot in 1993 from one end of Japan to the other. He was not the first to make this journey, and he certainly won't be the last. In English, probably the best known writings on the journey, was/is Alan Booth's Roads to Sata, which remains, in mine and many others' opinion, one of the best pieces of travel writing on contemporary Japan, and which McLachlan acknowledges as an inspiration to making his own journey.
There are obvious similarities that will invite comparisons. Both were fluent in Japanese and chose routes that avoided as much as possible the big cities and major tourist sites. Both had spent most of their time in Japan living in big metropolises and wanted to explore the quieter backwaters of rural Japan where few foreigners ventured. But there were also some differences, including that a little over a decade separated the two journeys, and in that decade the bubble had burst on Japans' economic miracle. Also, Booth started at Cape Soya at the northernmost point of Hokkaido and then headed south, whereas McLachlan started at Cape Sata and headed north. As far as I can remember, Booth spent nights mostly in ryokan and minshuku, which McLachlan did sometimes, but he mostly camped out, or stayed with friends or friends of friends, which adds a slightly different dimension to the adventures.
Perhaps the one factor that makes the most difference is that whereas Booth took 128 days to complete the journey, McLachlan did it in 99. He seems to focus on getting it done as quickly as possible, whereas Booth savors the journey more. McLachlan's stated aim in undertaking the journey was to discover the "real" Japan, which he defined as the "private face" as opposed to the "public face", which is what tourists experience. This is roughly corresponding to the Japanese duality of honne and tatemae. I think this is strange, as Tokyo, and the other big cities, are where the vast majority of Japanese live. What he experienced was a more rural, traditional, and perhaps conservative Japan, but I would not call that more real. He is a good writer, and does a good job of describing what he sees on his journey as well as filling in with background information to make sense of it, but by far the biggest emphasis is on his encounters with people he met along the way, and so many of these encounters include drinking copious amounts of alcohol. As with any long distance hiking journal, there is a lot of repetition, that is after all the essence of the activity, but the one thing that soon began to irritate was being constantly reminded how great his Japanese language ability was.
I have walked many thousands of kilometers in rural Japan, some along some of the routes he took, and I can say that he gives an account similar to my own experiences, so I would recommend the book to anyone who wants to delve behind the facade of tourist Japan.

Jake Davies

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Deep Kyoto: Walks

Deep Kyoto Walks.

Amazon e-book

Deep Kyoto: Walks is a collective paean to an adoptive city. (Though there are a few Japanese contributors, most are ex-pats.) Editors Michael Lambe (www.deepkyoto.com) and Ted Taylor, long-time residents and Kyoto-philes, realised that one way to explore Kyoto's hidden depths in written form was to engage their friends and acquaintances to document a favourite city walk. Whether by luck or editorial inducement, the writers have created a patchwork of complementary portraits of 'their' Kyoto that overlap enough to give us two or more views of iconic aspects of the city, but not so much as to become redundant. A peak that looms in the distance in one piece becomes the focus of the next; an historical figure intertwined with the city's history wanders through different parts of the city, leaving a distinctive legacy in each.

Indeed, the fundamental theme - while lightly trodden in the main - is history: of place, but equally of person. For many authors, the assignment to write about a memorable walk in a favoured city is also a challenge to look back on their own past, and observe how both they and the city have evolved in the intervening period. Kyoto the city is here a palimpsest of its residents' hearts, and we are invited to peer through the yellowing layers of washi paper.

Though not a book to be read in one sitting, there are many insights to be gained, both for the Kyoto virgin and veteran. Some of the writers are experts in Japanese cuisine or history, such as John Ashburne and John Dougill respectively. In general, they fall into two camps: the 'progressives' and the 'traditionalists': those who accept, perhaps even welcome, change in the city, and those who bemoan what has been lost and call for the protection of what remains. Pico Iyer, the most famous name among the contributors, appears to occupy the former camp, largely sanguine as he is in the face of the 'modernisation' that has occurred in the decades since he wrote his dreamy love letter to the city, The Lady and the Monk, and still revelling in the incongruities he observes.

This is a collection of fresh, invigorating prose which, while some of it may lack professional polish, makes up for it in enthusiasm and good research. If you have never been to Kyoto, reading it is likely to inspire a longer, lingering visit; if you happen to be lucky enough to live there, then it will get you out the door and exploring a new facet of Japan's 'cultural capital'.

Richard Donovan

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Japan's World Heritage Sites

Japan World Heritage Sites.

by John Dougill
Tuttle, 2014
Full-colour hardback, 192 pp
ISBN 978-4-8053-1285-8

Most coffee-table photo books of Japanese scenes are destined to sit around as dust-collecting decorations rather than be consulted as bona fide reference works. But John Dougill's overview of Japan's UNESCO World Heritage Sites achieves the balance between attractiveness and utility that will ensure Japanophiles are hoisting it into their laps on a regular basis and using it to inspire them for the next trip in a country undeniably rich in both natural and cultural wonders. Given its scope, however, and the emphasis on photography befitting its coffee-table format, the book is an introduction to Japan's heritage rather than the definitive guide to it.
Since ratifying the World Heritage convention in 1972, UNESCO has registered 18 natural and cultural sites in Japan, although the number of individual spots is considerably greater, with places like the former capitals of Kyoto and Nara having registered a large number of shrines and temples, for example. The sites span the northern and southern extremes of the Japanese archipelago, from Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido to the Ryukyu Kingdom on Okinawa Island. They include such iconic spots as Mount Fuji, but also lesser-known gems like the far-flung Ogasawara Islands, which host not only amazing flora and fauna, but a remarkable blending of Japanese and Western culture and genes. Interestingly, both these sites were only registered in very recent years.
Dougill set out in 2012 to visit all the sites (17 at the time of writing), and his introduction adds a welcome personal touch to the necessarily fact-driven nature of the body sections. A noted Japan scholar (see my review of his fabulous city guide Kyoto), Dougill deftly directs his prose through informative geographical, historical and social overviews of each site while never overloading us with details. Indeed, the reader is likely to be left wanting more.
The book does not provide a list of suggested further reading. What it does offer, however, in introductory sidebars is up-to-date information on "practicalities" such as access and contact details, sometimes including web pages. Fittingly, the book concludes with a list of sites awaiting confirmation of World Heritage status. (In fact, since the book's printing, the Tomioka silk mill achieved registration.)
The full-colour photographs, some spilling over two pages, are consistently high quality, and often awe-inspiring. A mixture of the author's own take on the sites and the work of professional photographers, they always enhance rather than overwhelm the writing. Informative captions bridge images and text, while area maps and plans provide further visual orientation. You may not be able to plan your entire trip with Japan's World Heritage Sites, but it will definitely motivate you to make it.

Richard Donovan

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Cool Japan Guide: Fun in the Land of Manga, Lucky Cats and Ramen

Cool Japan Guide.

by Abby Denson
Tuttle, 2015
Paperback with Flaps edition, 128 pp
ISBN 4805312793

Join American cartoonist and Japanophile Abby Denson, her husband Matt Loux and cartoon cat alter ego Kitty Sweet Tooth on a fun-filled exploration of Japan and Japanese culture in manga form. Abby takes the reader on a journey from pre-departure to return home via Japanese festivals, onsens, restaurants, cartoon conventions at Big Sight in Tokyo with lots and lots of handy tips along the way.
Kitty Sweet Tooth provides the essential must-know Japanese words and phrases at the beginning of each chapter and then each colorful frame comes packed with tips for traveling on Japanese trains, what to eat and drink and how to get by in Japanese style inns (ryokan) with tatami floors, futon mattresses, squat toilets and sliding rice paper shoji screens. Abby's colorful cartoons really come into their own, though, when describing all the delicious food options available in Japan from yakitori to yoghurt. Another useful chapter deals with entertainment including onsen baths, kabuki, karaoke, Takarazuka and Comiket and Comitia - two huge comics festivals that are held at various times throughout the year. There is also an informative section on Shopping in Japan including what the various shopping meccas (Ginza, Akihabara, Shibuya, Harajuku etc) of Tokyo have to offer. The back of the book is packed with info on travel resources, Japan apps, recommended attractions (festivals, museums, temples, shrines) and a list of restaurants and cafes. Overall Cool Japan Guide makes for an entertaining and useful introduction to any trip to Japan.

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Fighting Monks & Burning Mountains: Misadventures on a Buddhist Pilgrimage

Fighting Monks and Burning Mountains.

by Paul Barach
Sky Dagger Press, 2014
Paperback, 358 pp
ISBN 0990930408

Adventures can generally not really be planned, as there must be some element of the unknown in the experience, however, it is often best to do some preparation. Paul Barach seems to have planned an adventure by not doing any preparation. Aged 28 and dissatisfied with his job, he decided to fulfill a dream he had when younger of walking the Shikoku Pilgrimage, the 750 mile route around the island of Shikoku that visits 88 temples associated with Kobo Daishi. Like many non-Japanese who undertake the pilgrimage, it was less for religious practice and more to find possible answers to the question of what direction his life should next take. Much is made of things he did not do in preparation: learn Japanese, check the weather forecast, test his walking shoes, and of these the only one that is really critical is checking your footwear. Hundreds of non-Japanese walk the pilgrimage without a command of the Japanese language, and it may at times be inconvenient, but hardly crucial. Not checking your footwear, however, is a recipe for disaster. Choosing to walk the pilgrimage is summer is not a popular time because of the heat, but again not really crucial.
At this point I think I need to mention that I have walked the Shikoku pilgrimage, and I too started in the heat of the summer, so my reading of the book was colored by my own experiences.
First off I have to say that the author is a good writer. He was able to convey much of the experience of walking the route, the brutal heat, the periods of intense self doubt as you ask why the hell you are doing this, the hatred that builds towards the too heavy pack you carry, and the loneliness and sense of isolation. His account of climbing the first nansho, a temple high in the mountains, captured well the experience that causes many first time pilgrims to give up. He writes with a lot of humor, often self-effacing, but by the end of the book I started to feel it was maybe slightly too much humor. The inability of most Japanese to correctly pronounce "Seattle" stopped being funny at the second mention. If you are planning on walking the pilgrimage yourself then it's worth a read, though much more practical information can be head from the many online journals of pilgrims. If you are wanting to learn about the pilgrimage or about Shikoku, there is nothing here that can not be found at other sources. Ultimately it is not so much about the pilgrimage and Japan, but about what happens when you spend an extended period of time outside your comfort zone. Not the best personal account of walking the pilgrimage, but by no means the worst. What answers did he find by the end of the walk? No spoiler from me.

Jake Davies

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The Nakahechi Trail: A Glimpse of Old Japan

The Nakahechi Trail: A Glimpse of Old Japan.

by Richard O'Hara
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Paperback, 120 pp
ISBN 1541350561

The Kumano Kodo is one of the world's great pilgrimage routes. It ranks with Camino de Santiago in Spain, the Inca Trail in Peru, Char Dham in India, and Pilgrims Way in England (Many in Japan would add the 88 temple route in nearby Shikoku.)
The Kumano Kodo is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Prior to being so feted, the route for a thousand years was – and is - a place to commune with the divine. It was where the aristocracy from Kyoto retreated to visit the three main shrines: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha and Kumano Nachi Taisha.
The Kumano trail is actually a network of trails that span out across Wakayama Prefecture, which is south of Osaka. To walk the five main links would take months.
Richard O'Hara, a writer and pilgrim from the United States, documents his trek on one of the better known paths: the Nakahechi. This route, according to the main Kumano site, states that "…starting in the 10th century, the Nakahechi route was extensively used by the imperial family on pilgrimage from Kyoto."
His work is part travelogue, part personal history, and replete with photos. The book gives a brief introduction of Kumano. It moves from there to how he got there, the people he meets while hiking, the places he stays, and the amazing experiences he has.
O'Hara writes in a breezy, accessible style. For those planning on hiking the Kumano Kodo, this is a valuable work; for the armchair hikers out there, The Nakahechi Trail: A Glimpse of Old Japan is a fun read about a place that has yet to be ruined by the hordes.

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The Maze of Tokyo: 38 Tours in & around the Capital of Japan

The Maze of Tokyo: 38 Tours in and around the Capital of Japan.

by Axel Schwab

Lulu

ISBN: 1447807251
99 pp

Unless you are the kind of traveler who finds wonder in absolutely everything, Tokyo is not the kind of city where you can pick a spot, wander at random and necessarily find a lot that you can take home with you in the way of impressions. Not only is it a huge city, it can also seem quite uniform in its appearance if you don't know where to go. Tokyo is full of treasures in the form of characterful shopping districts, museums, parks, therefore, a guide to Tokyo's best is indispensable if you are a tourist in Tokyo, or have come here to live and want to explore it.

The Maze of Tokyo: 38 Tours in & around the Capital of Japan is a brief guide to Tokyo intricately compiled by a German electrical engineer who was resident in Japan's capital for five years.

The Maze of Tokyo is, at a slim 99 pages, more comprehensive than a tourist map but more easily accessible, and portable, than a full-fledged tourist guide. The Maze of Tokyo suggests 28 tours of central Tokyo, and nine tours around Tokyo. Around Tokyo actually stretches the definition of Tokyo, taking the adventurer as far afield as Nikko, Zushi, Hakone, and Mt. Fuji, to name a few.

The word adventurer is key to The Maze of Tokyo. As its slimness suggests, The Maze of Tokyo is not an exhaustive commentary; rather, it sets you in the right direction and points out in a paragraph, maybe two, what to see there, some of the major features, and, if appropriate, lightly seasoned with a little historical and cultural information.

A good example of how The Maze of Tokyo tackles the maze that is Tokyo is its guide to Shinjuku. The author points out just six features of the 24-hour dynamo of a city-within-a-city that is Shinjuku, explaining just how big and complex it is, but with just enough advice to get you around the main sights of Shinjuku - and entrusting the rest to your curiosity, your wits, and your sense of adventure. Oh, and your interests: there is a list at the front of recommended tours for those interested in various aspects of Japan, including, for example, families with children, history buffs, photo lovers, shopaholics, nature fiends, lovers of art, manga and cosplay fans, bookworms, those into their luxuries, and more.

The Maze of Tokyo is guaranteed to get you to the places in Tokyo, and beyond, that matter, as well as a lot of good shops, bars, and restaurants. Almost every entry is accompanied by a URL, pointing you instantly to further online resources. The Maze of Tokyo includes over 20 online maps, regularly updated, for mobile phones. The Maze of Tokyo is full of clearly followable maps and photographs, albeit in black and white, and a comprehensive appendix/index. A slim, up to date, concise companion.

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Osaka Insider: A Travel Guide for Osaka Prefecture

by Patrick Mackey

CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

ISBN: 1466419970
216 pp

Osaka is Japan's second city and the third largest in terms of population, and with the nearby Kansai International Airport it is also the second most busy port of entry into Japan for foreign visitors, and yet Osaka gets very few tourists especially compared with its more prestigious neighbors of Kyoto and Nara.
Osaka Insider, a brand new guide to Osaka Prefecture, is trying to change that. Written by a long-term resident of Osaka it goes beyond the main tourist attractions and encourages visitors to explore what can be seen and experienced in a more authentic side of Japan. Certainly Osaka does have some popular tourist attractions, Osaka Castle, though a concrete reconstruction, is a major castle, Shitennoji Temple is one of the oldest temples in Japan, and the tombs of Ojin and Nintoku are the biggest in Japan and even larger in area than the pyramids of Egypt. There are some world-class museums too: the National Museum of Art and the Osaka History Museum being two I personally like, but for those who want to get beyond these major sights the book offers insights into areas less visited even by domestic tourists.

The book offers all that a guidebook should, basics of language, how to get around and orient yourself, a listing of many of the festivals, etc. Historically known as the "merchant capital of Japan," Osaka has lots to offer the shopper, both in the modern malls and shopping centers but also in the more traditional shopping districts. Osaka is home to its own cuisine and this is covered in two guides to ramen and okonomiyaki. Surprisingly the book only has a few simple maps, however it does include links to more detailed maps on the web, but perhaps more useful than maps are very detailed step by step directions to each of the places listed.

The book would be useful for anyone planning on being in Osaka for a few days but is more useful for anyone bored with major tourist sites that more and more resemble theme parks and wants to experience a deeper and more realistic side to Japan.

Jake Davies

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Japan by Rail (2nd Edition)

Japan by Rail (2nd Edition).

by Ramsey Zarifeh

Trailblazer

ISBN: 1-8737-5697-6
496 pp

The eagerly awaited, fully revised and expanded second edition of Japan By Rail was published in 2007 and is a definite alternative to challenge for space in your luggage along with the other "major" guides on Japan.
This handy book is geared to visitors arriving with the Japan Rail Pass and planning to see the country by train. With some of the world's quickest and most punctual rail services, seeing Japan by train can be a joy in itself.
Much of the first half of the book thus takes the reader through everything you need to know on the Japan Rail pass, possible routes and Japanese railways and train etiquette. The level of detail is impressive and the practical information for the visitor both on Japan in general and Japanese railways in particular makes this book pretty much a must for visitors who a) have bought the Japan Rail Pass and b) like traveling by train.
The book is also useful for residents of Japan looking to see more of the country by rail - a quick, greener alternative to the nation's packed and stressful highways and expensive domestic air network.
The heart of Japan By Rail are its guides to the country's two main gateways - Tokyo & Osaka - and detailed route guides to the cities and attractions of Japan's four major islands: Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku.
A typical city guide contains a well-spaced map with place names in English and Japanese in the key, what to see and do in each place with opening times and prices plus information on the main station, local transport, where to stay and where to eat and drink.
Author Zarifeh rounds out the book with four appendices: a Japan rail route guide, glossary, useful Japanese phrases and train timetables.
There are some reasonable color photographs and a number of special boxed texts on various points of interest.

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Japan By Rail: Includes Rail Route Guide and 29 City Guides

by Ramsey Zarifeh

Trailblazer Publications

ISBN: 4-91568-223-4
416 pp

With most of the "major" guide books on Japan covering essentially the same ground equally well, it is sometimes interesting to see Japan from a different perspective and this is what Japan by Rail offers us. As the title suggests, this book gives you Japan as viewed from the country' s extensive and highly efficient railway network, arguably the best way to get around on a short stay.
Zarifeh strongly recommends the Japan Rail Pass, a ticket available to tourists entitling them to unlimited use of the national railways including bullet train services. One need not be intending specifically to purchase a JR Pass to make the book useful but a distinct love of train travel is quite essential. The author is obviously an enthusiast himself and the text is packed with facts about Japan's rail network, its history and transport related attractions. Those not sharing the same enthusiasm for specifics might not be so concerned about whether or not a certain service has a buffet car or vending machines or what style of toilet it is equipped with but the information is there all the same.
Rail routes also determine the structure of the guide itself. Information is presented in the format of stops on recommended routes with distances given in kilometers and stations given a write up according to how worthwhile stopping off would be. In the case of smaller towns, the information may not extend very far from the station itself. Major destinations are of course given more weight. One quirk of this system is that locations which are of little importance to the foreign tourist take up page space that may have been better used to give more detail about the big attractions. That said, the highly personal touch of a very knowledgeable writer makes this book unique where other guide books are almost facsimiles of each other. Where else can you read about the Shakespeare theme park on the Japan Sea Coast or the mysterious legend of Christ' s last years spent in Aomori Prefecture?
With regard to depth of information on the railways, Japan by Rail cannot be faulted, but with other, more general purpose guidebooks on the same shelf, most of them giving adequate information on rail services for practical purposes, this may not be the one guidebook that a non-rail enthusiast would want to pack for the trip east.

Will Yong

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Diary of a Tokyo Teen: A Japanese-American Girl Travels to the Land of Trendy Fashion, High-Tech Toilets and Maid Cafes

Japan by Rail (2nd Edition).

by Christine Mari Inzer

Tuttle

ISBN: 4-8053-1396-X
128 pp

Like many things in or about Japan, Christine Mari Inzer's 128-page travel diary depicting her return to Tokyo can best be described as "kawaii" (cute). In the end, it is more than just that.
In 2013, Inzer left her family in America and returned to Japan for eight weeks as a 15-year-old, five years after leaving the place of her birth. This book tells of her observations, joys and challenges of seeing Japan through new, adolescent eyes. Her honesty and openness, spiced with her optimism and vulnerability, help the reader understand what she is feeling.
There is nothing groundbreaking in the book as related to Japan in general or Tokyo in specific, but the strength of this book is not its listing of things to do but its look into the world of wonderment. The tiniest pieces of snark can be found on occasion, but what else can you expect from a 15-year-old? She is never mean spirited, and you get the feeling she is basically a self-assured girl who has the confidence that comes with being loved by her parents and her Japanese grandparents, who hosted her during her stay.
Inzer draws her humorous takes on Japanese TV, traveling to Harajuku alone for the first time, street fashion, modeling scouts ("perverts"), her first trip to Kyoto (i.e. Ryoanji), geisha in Nara, "the problem with Japanese boys" and other things and places.
At first it might appear that the audience for this book would be pretty small, but actually the book will appeal to a wide variety of readers. Even veteran ex-pats living in Japan will enjoy it unless they are completely jaded.
While Inzer's drawings are, naturally, cute and of high quality, the occasional photos could be of a higher standard. It is hard to criticize a teen for not being a professional photographer, and perfect pictures may have actually detracted from the feel of the final product.
This book can easily be read in one sitting as some pages can be finished in literally a few seconds. The reader would best be advised not to rush through it, but to enjoy the details of Inzer's kawaii art work.

Marshall Hughes

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