A very limited and somewhat inaccurate guide
I lived in Japan for quite a few years, and while I don’t need a travel guide to the country anymore I am always curious on how well new travel guides highlight all the madness and charm that can be found there. Consequently, I own a lot of travel guides to Japan. I have also hosted a lot of visitors in Japan, and have learned over the years what works and what doesn’t.
I admit that I have never been a huge fan of the Lonely Planet series, as their books tend to be just lists of places with tongue-in-cheek humor but not a terrible amount of depth. I have the previous Japan (Country Guide) and this “Discover Japan” volume covers much of the same information, only updated with color photographs and some flash and pizzazz.
Right from the start, I had some problems with “Discover Japan.” First off, it touts Japan as “one of the cheapest countries in the developed world” which is simply wrong. Japan is incredibly expensive to travel in, with Tokyo being one of the most expensive cities on the planet. Consider that this is a country whose smallest paper currency is equivalent to US $10 (1000 yen), and dollar coins (100 yen) are just chump change. I lived in the Kansai area, which is not as expensive as Tokyo, and even then it was hard to step out your door for less than a hundred dollars a day.
Along with this, it says that Visa and Mastercard are “widely excepted,” which is completely untrue and a dangerous thing to say. Japan is an almost entirely cash-based society, and I have had to pay for more than one visitor who blindly ordered at a large restaurant just assuming they could pay with their credit card and being shocked when they are told “cash only.” Even the ubiquitous convenience stores don’t always take plastic, and the cash machines close at normal bank hours so you have to get used to carrying large sums of cash around with you.
Next, we are presented with a “Japan’s Top 25 Experiences” list, with “Kyoto’s Temples and Gardens” being in the number one position. (The photo included is actually the Torii path at Fushimi Inari Shrine, made famous in the film Memoirs of a Geisha but located outside of Kyoto city, so don’t look for it there.) Probably my number one advice to visitors is “don’t waste too much time in Kyoto.”
Don’t get me wrong, Kyoto has some beautiful areas, but the dreamy city sold to you by guidebooks simply doesn’t exist, and those pockets of cherry-blossom lined streets are carefully tucked away in concrete urban sprawl. On top of that, some of Kyoto’s most famous buildings, like the Golden Pavilion Kinkakuji, are nothing more than modern replicas of older structures. (The modern Kinkakuji was built in 1955, for example) The nearby Nara Park, on the other hand, with its sprawling wilderness, tame deer than can be hand-fed, and giant Todai-ji temple with the massive Great Buddha statue, is always much more of a crowd pleaser. There is decent coverage of Nara Park in the book, but it deserves more attention than its more famous neighbor Kyoto.
Temples and Shrines are very much the focus of “Discover Japan,” and almost every regional chapter highlights the local version. This is the book for what we call the “green tea and onsens” traveler who wants to step back into Japan’s past that they see in samurai films rather than the modern country. I love shrines and temples probably even more than the next guy, but every visitor I have had to Japan gets “templed-out” pretty quickly, and has more fun standing in the busy street of Dontonbori Osaka with the mechanical signs waving tentacles at you and pumping out steam and every street hawker shouting for your attention. Yet Dotonbori gets little more than a brief paragraph. I was happy to see the Osaka Aquarium get a mention on the “must see” list, but I have to admit that the Osaka Aquarium is nothing compared to the much-larger Okinawa Aquarium which deserves the spot instead.
There is a lot more that could be done here. For example, every area of Japan has its own regional food which could have been mentioned, or even cool things sake brewery tours or some of Japan’s more unique attractions like the Studio Ghibli museum or the Instant Ramen museum or even some of the amazing roller coasters that Japan is famous for like the terrifying Eejanaika “4-D” roller coaster at Fuji-Q Highland amusement park near the base of Mt. Fuji. From reading this “Discover Japan” guidebook, you get the idea that Japan has not changed for a thousand years and you could expect to encounter shaven-headed men walking around in kimono and geta and white-faced geisha blushing around every corner.
The benefits of “Discover Japan” is that the book is really well put-together and visually beautiful. The pages are color coded for easy reference and the full-color pictures make a difference. There is a feature I really enjoyed, where a professional guide from each major region gives their personal “Top Ten” list of what to see. Also, the place names are written in the Japanese language, which is essential as the further you get away from Tokyo the less English-language signs you will see, especially on menus and in train stations.
My favorite Japan guidebook remains Gateway to Japan, which is admittedly out-dated and not ideal for a casual tourist but it is by far the most informative. Some of the local city guides, like Old Kyoto are also worth it and I have found some hidden gems there like the Japanese print dealer Nishiharu. If you plan on stepping into the steaming water of an onsen (and you are a fool to travel all the way to Japan and miss out on that!) then you will need How to Take a Japanese Bath. For visual splendor and to get you excited, the Japan (Eyewitness Travel Guides) is a good investment.
For me, even though it was well designed this “Discover Japan” book was just lacking too much, and only showed one face of the multi-faceted culture of Japan. Anyone planning a trip is better off picking up a few different books and making their own plans rather than following Lonely Planet’s pre-set itineraries and experiences.