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C. E. Stevens
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For some reason, English-language travel guides on Japan tend to fall short. Either a book attempts to stuff in too much information to the point that it resembles the size and uselessness of a phone book (the regular Lonely Planet guide to Japan comes to mind) or is so superficial (i.e. lots of pretty pictures, little substance) that a first-time traveler might use it as an "idea book" for sketching out a general itinerary, but need to rely on something else when they're actually on the ground in the country. Lonely Planet's "Discover" series has attempted to split the difference ever since they came on the scene a few years ago, and while I think they could benefit from a bit more substance, I actually think this book does an admirable job: I can recommend it for both pre-trip planning and on-the-ground reference. I tend to be quite hard on Japan tour books, but despite my skepticism, I found that I like this book.
Just as a little bit of background, I lived in Japan for two years (one year in Yokohama, one on the rural island of Shikoku), speak the language, and have traveled extensively in the country from Hokkaido to the southern reaches of Okinawa and many places in between. I say this to give background on my perspective, and perhaps explain why I tend to be tough on tour books on Japan: if they skimp on key details or omit a place that a tourist should know about, I tend to notice. And, Discover Japan does omit some places, but nothing criminal for the average tourist who will concentrate largely on Honshu (if, however, you plan to concentrate primarily on one of the other islands--Kyushu, Hokkaido, Shikoku, or the delightful Okinawa--this guide is likely not for you). I really have to applaud this book's emphasis on Central Honshu: Takayama and Kanazawa are fascinating towns, and the natural beauty is incredible as well. The temples, onsen, ryokan, etc. are no less impressive than those in Tokyo and Kyoto, but because they're more off the beaten path, they tend to be less expensive, less crowded, and more personal than those in the bigger tourist draws. I recently reviewed another guide that almost completely omitted this part of Japan ... which is grossly negligent, considering any visitor with at least a week in Japan should at least consider going to this region. Honestly, if you're more interested in traditional Japan than modern Japan, and your time is limited, you might even consider concentrating on Kyoto and then prioritizing Central Honshu over Tokyo (as unconventional as that might sound).
Some other "pros" to this book:
* There is an emphasis on *experiences* as much as *sights*, and rightfully so. I really think Japan is as much about experiences as it is "must see sights"--odds are, it will be your first dip in an onsen, or a kaiseki meal, or a meditative stay at a temple on Mt. Koya, or walk through the food floor of a department store, or walk through one of the temple "shopping streets" (e.g. the one leading up to Sensoji in Asakusa or Kiyomizudera in Kyoto), or maybe a stroll through the pop culture meccas of Harajuku or Akihabara that will be your lasting impression of the country. This guide does a good job of bringing these to your attention, and recommending them in their itineraries. I think one of the keys to enjoying Japan is understanding what YOU enjoy and building your itinerary with that in mind: if you're spending 5 days in and around Tokyo, the places I'd prioritize for someone interested in the traditional side of Japan (e.g. Sensoji, Meiji Shrine, Kamakura, Nikko, museums, onsen, kabuki, etc.) would be quite different from those I'd recommend to someone more interested in modern pop culture (e.g. a trip to Robot Restaurant, people watching in Harajuku, a visit to a maid cafe in the "otaku" heaven of Akihabara). This might be blasphemy to some, but I'd argue that Japan has no sights that EVERY traveler "must see" ... rather, what the "must see" or "must do" experiences are different and depend on the individual traveler.
* Good "helpful tips" along the way that really should be MUST READS for first time (and even second or third time) travelers to Japan. Being familiar with the Suica card and/or rail passes, understanding how restaurants and onsen "work" (and not being intimidated by them!), knowing that post office ATMs can be among the most reliable for travelers, etc. makes your trip less frustrating and more fun.
* Good coverage of locations, especially for someone spending less than 3 weeks in Japan and/or focusing primarily on Honshu. It's not *perfect* coverage (more on this below) but I think it will give most people enough coverage of sights, hotels, restaurants, etc. for what they need.
It's not all rainbows and unicorns, however ... I have some grumbles as well (but, these are mainly minor nuisances rather than fatal flaws):
* More walking tours would be nice ... Tokyo is less a city than a collection of distinct neighborhoods, and the key to enjoying (and understanding) them is to stroll through them. If you find yourself turning into a "prairie dog" (i.e. taking the subway to one sight, popping your head up, then heading right back underground to take the subway to another) you're missing some of the fun of Japan.
* Even for the main tourist cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, coverage is not perfect. Personally, I'd recommend taking along some supplemental guides depending on your interests (some of my favorites include "Food Sake Tokyo", Diane Durston's Kyoto books ... I'd shy away from things like "Lonely Planet Tokyo" if you already have this guide ... often, there aren't that many differences between the "country" and "city" guides)
* More, and more detailed, maps. Many of this guide's maps are too vague: you need more landmarks, more information, and more detail. Odds are, you'll not find half of the interesting little alleyways and shops in the area around Kiyomizudera if you're squinting at the "Southern Higashiyama" map. Kamakura is a nice walkable town, but only if you have a map!
* There are a few places that I believe deserve more detail (or are omitted entirely). Kamakura is one: although it does get a few pages, I think it deserves more: the Daibutsu here is just as impressive as the one in Nara (and the outdoor setting is arguably more dramatic), the little shopping lane that runs parallel to the main street deserves mention--this is a great place for souvenirs ranging from pottery to tenugui "hand towels", and I would argue that for anyone who can't make it to Arashiyama in Kyoto, the bamboo forest at Hokokuji is a must-see. I'm probably biased because I lived in Yokohama, but I never cease to wonder why Osaka always gets a decent amount of coverage in Japan guide books but Yokohama barely a mention (if anything). If you're doing a day trip to Kamakura from Tokyo, consider a sunset cruise of Yokohama's harbor on the "Sea Bass" and have a delicious meal in Yokohama's large and charming Chinatown (and maybe a drink at the top of Landmark Tower--not cheap, but incredible views) before heading back to Tokyo. Finally, if you're going down to Okinawa and have the time to go to the Yaeyama islands, do so ... in particular, I love the island of Taketomi.
* The suggested itineraries have good ideas, but are often too ambitious. Japan is as much about the journey as the destinations; as a result, less is often more. Don't try to do too much, and you'll end up enjoying yourself more.
Thanks for bearing with this long review. Overall, while not perfect, I actually like this guide quite a bit. Personally, of the English-language options that I'm aware of at least, I consider this and the Rough Guide my favorites (with a slight nod to the Rough Guide, as it has more detailed information). I'm sure Lonely Planet is afraid of cannibalizing its flagship series, but if this "Discover" series pushed the information-to-pictures ratio just a little bit more toward the "information" side, I'd consider this just about perfect.