Whilst the internet is awash with great travel tips about what to do in Japan, there’s something quite satisfying about breaking the spine of a newly-bought travel guide whilst taking off in an aeroplane, and then subsequently touching down with a well-thumbed, annotated and loved version of the same some time later.
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Here are five books which I think you should consider when you plan your trip to Japan this year.
Great for: The first-time time traveller who isn’t looking to do their trip on the cheap
There isn’t much to say about the Lonely Planet series that hasn’t already been said. This book is suited to perhaps the more mature traveler, as many of the recommendations tend to be on the pricier end of the scale, and the book may not cover nightlife as well as other books do. That said, the maps are very user-friendly (it even includes a bonus Tokyo pull-out map), and it covers the general (useful for people who have never ventured to the Far East before) and the specific (great for even the seasoned traveler) with great authority.
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Great for: The Japan nerd who wants an encyclopedic level of knowledge about Japan’s key points of interest
This book is for the real Japan enthusiast; it goes into an astonishing amount of detail for such a small book. It isn’t as comprehensive in terms of breadth of coverage as some of the other Japanese travel guides, but it would make a great supplementary book for history buffs or those who want to make sure that no stone is left unturned when visiting a particular point of interest. There are examples of write ups of attractions in this book that go into more detail than the official Japanese-language pamphlet that you’re given there.
Great for: Anybody who is venturing across Japan on the train
If you are planning to take the train in Japan (and you absolutely should), then I highly recommend this book. It’s not full of images, and it’s a little dry in places, but it’s an absolute wealth of information about how to use your Japan Rail Pass to the max. All of the directions and instructions given, in my experience, have proven to be extremely accurate, and the book has evidently been extremely well researched. It’s also great for first-timers who may benefit from helpful guides on Japanese customs (e.g. how to stay in a ryokan, how to use the toilets, etc.).
Great for: The discerning reader who wants a slightly controversial and challenging read as they voyage about Japan
This book has had a bit of a hard time from the critics and online reviewers, but I’d encourage you to give it a chance. I remember reading this whilst traveling on the shinkansen in Japan in 2010, and it gave me a great feeling of empowerment, as it comprehensively deals with Japan’s history, development to the 21st century world-leader it has become, but doesn’t shy away from tackling controversial issues, and some of the darker days in Japan’s narrative: I felt like I could better engage with the country. It is written in a slightly bookish and academic style, but I happen to like that, and as long as you don’t take everything that’s written at face value (it does have a slight tendency to peddle out-of-date ‘truths’ about Japan), then it’s a great book to have in your pocket as you travel about.
Great for: The first timer who wants one person’s creative take on his trip to Tokyo for inspiration.
Japan really isn’t all about Tokyo, and I tried to avoid including guides on this list that focus just on the capital, but I had to make an exception for this adorable little book. It’s primary appeal is its aesthetic; it’s just a lovely book to look at. It is a collection of maps, musings and observations of Tokyo drawn by a French illustrator. It’s not super informative, and in places does demonstrate the author’s lack of depth of knowledge of Tokyo, but it’s a really enjoyable coffee table book (it’s too big to take with you), and will serve to get you excited about your trip and the discoveries and memories you will make when you’re there.
There are plenty of other books I could have included on this list. Let me know which ones have been helpful for you in the comments!
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