I’m a big fan of guide books and phrase books. Before I go on a trip anywhere, I like to look up places worth visiting and mark the pages in the guide book I’m going to take. I also like to try to learn a few key phrases, but also have a phrase book to fall back on when my language memory fails me.
On our first trip to Japan, we invested in a copy of the Rough Guide. We looked at the Lonely Planet Guide as well, but decided that we preferred the layout of the Rough Guide, which contains a lot of history of the country and its towns and cities and is organised by region and then by city/town. In each section there is a short history followed by orientation advice, key places to visit and places to stay and eat. The maps are clear and the index is pretty comprehensive (some of the out-of-the-way places, although mentioned in the Guide, don’t appear in the index). Because we weren’t back-packers, we felt that the hostel-hopping and nightlife/drinking culture that was the main focus of the Lonely Planet Guide wasn’t for us.
The Rough Guide came in handy while we were travelling around and deciding on places to visit while we were in Japan. As well as the pre-marked pages, we had the option of reading about other places and expanding our itinerary or swapping some of the things we’d originally planned to do. Having a sense of context was also helpful, and much of the advice was spot on. It was a bit cumbersome to cart around with us, though, so for our third trip this year, I bought a new copy for my Kindle. I found this harder to use in relation to pre-marking places. One frustration with the Kindle’s bookmarking system is that when you come to revisit the pages you’ve marked, you don’t necessarily see the passage that you marked the page for. Quite often, I found that the information I wanted to access was halfway down a page, but the bookmark showed the first sentence of the page which wasn’t always directly relevant. I certainly missed being able to look in an index and then flip through the pages to the relevant section! Still, having the Kindle version saved on space in the suitcase.
One of my wedding presents from my best friend was a copy of the Lonely Planet Japanese Phrasebook, which we used extensively while on Honeymoon. Because we hadn’t started to learn Japanese properly at college, but just used language tapes and my husband’s memory of the beginners’ class he’d done a couple of years earlier, this proved invaluable.
The book includes start out information, from the basics of pronunciation to the different number systems used in Japan, and is packed full of properly useful phrases in sections such as Accommodation, Money, Sight Seeing and Eating Out. The Japanese is in kanji and kana so that, if you have trouble with your pronunciation, you can always hand the book to the Japanese person you’re talking to and they can read what it is you’re trying to say! The most useful thing about this book that we found, as vegetarians, was the Culinary Reader, which describes ingredients and foodstuffs, so that you can avoid animal produce if you need to. It certainly helped us to navigate our way through the array of onigiri (おにぎり) in many a Kiosk/baiten (売店/ばいてん).
For our second trip to Japan, we invested in a couple of city-specific guides. We bought the Lonely Planet Tokyo Encounter guide mainly for its pull out map, which was better than any of the Tourist maps we’d picked up on our first visit. The book is a handy pocket size, which made it more useful when out and about in the capital than the Rough Guide, and we found plenty of places to eat as a result of using this guide book. It’s a punchy little guide, ideal for anyone who only has a few days in the capital and wants to maximise their experience.
My favourite city-specific guide book, but not my husband’s, is the wonderful Exploring Kyoto on Foot by Judith Clancy. Ms Clancy has lived in Kyoto and developed a good knowledge of different areas of the city, including places slightly off the tourist track.
We used this book to enhance our visits to places like Gion, Higashiyama and the Teramachi district of the city, as well as out of town places like Kurama and Fushimi Inari. The detail was perfect for me, as an historian, because I love to know about the history of places I am walking through, but I think the amount of walking we ended up doing was too much for my husband! Some of the maps are a little inaccurate – we ended up getting completely lost on Fushimi Inari because we took a wrong turn while following the map in the book instead of picking up a map at the temple – but others helped us make the most of places we would otherwise probably just have drifted through.
The last book in my pile is a new one, which my husband bought for me as an anniversary present this year. Unfortunately, our anniversary fell after we had returned home from our third trip, but I am looking forward to putting it into use next time we are in Kyoto. The book is called Old Kyoto and is a list of the traditional shops, restaurants and inns that have stood the test of time in the ancient capital. It’s a good book to read without actually visiting, because many of the stories of the families who run these establishments are charming.
So there we have my top 5 books to take to Japan. Enjoy!