If I had to point to one particular passion of mine which brings me the most joy, it’s food. Whether I’m trying new dishes, ingredients, and cuisines, or going back to a personal favorite, food is simply a large part of my life.
Because of this, much of my travel planning in Japan (and other countries) is based on this particular passion of mine, along with nerdy things like anime and tech stuff. By that, I mean that when I’m looking to plan a trip, I’m looking for areas which suit my need for great food, or perhaps somewhere that has a lot of anime-related point of interest, like the famous Ghibli Museum.
I mention all of that because it got me thinking about people who may come to Japan without a real plan. Perhaps some are expats, simply here to work because their company told them to. Perhaps you are planning to visit Japan, but don’t have a clue about what to do when you arrive.
Aside from this guide, here are a few resources to help you plan you ultimate trip to Japan:
- Japan Travel Essentials: The Full List of What to Pack for 2019
- The Ultimate First-Timer’s Guide to Tokyo — Things to Do & See in 2019
- Portable Wi-Fi rental in Japan: Best plans and deals compared (2019)
- Japan for First Timers: 43 Useful Tips and Things to Know
After all, many people just come here with a basic plan of, ‘Go to Tokyo, see these specific touristy things, then wander aimlessly until you leave.’
This may seem crazy in a world of Google and TripAdvisor, and the need for instant gratification which has infected us all, but sometimes you just want to have a guide to help plan your trip in advance.
So it’s for you that these books were made.
Choosing the Best Japan Guide Books for You
Our site seeks to give some of this information in bite-sized chunks, but the guidebooks listed below really cover these topics with the depth they deserve. I’ve also gone through and picked some of the best books that I feel can help your decision-making process, no matter your particular interest.
Whether you follow the plans in the books, or simply use the books as a way to create your own itinerary is completely up to you. Just be sure to say ‘no’ if someone offers you natto during your travels… trust me on this.
Each of the books listed will have their own pros and cons. And there’s really no ‘one book’ for everyone. Please just take these for what they are, suggestions. Do your own homework and decide on the best book for your needs.
After all, being informed is your best bet for a fun-filled Japanese adventure.
Compare these to each other, or the similar books also listed on Amazon.
1. Best for Foodies
Okay, I’m going to cheat a little on this one by offering two choices. The reason for this is because the first suggestion is simply too good for me to pass on, but, given its singular subject and location, it’s extremely limited for the purposes of this category.
Tokyo Ramen Perfect Guidebook, by …Yes! Japan Ramen Magazine
Personally, I think ramen is the ultimate Japanese food (which is somewhat ironic considering its origins in China), so this book is like a love letter to ramen fans everywhere. It’s a book for ramen fans, by ramen fans.
One of the things that stands out about this guide is that it’s absolutely filled to the brim with beautiful high-quality pictures, guaranteed to make your mouth water (as mine is now while reading through the book for reference).
More importantly, these pictures include vital details with accompanying information written somewhere nearby, including how to order with the very common ticket machines, which are used by most ramen restaurants in Japan.
While other guides may have some few details about specific dishes at specific restaurants, like a recommended dish and information about it, this guide offers that level of detail, if not more, for each restaurant featured in the book.
Some of the details you’ll find in this guide are:
- The recommended dish and the ‘data’ of that dish (e.g. noodle type, soup thickness, etc.)
- a breakdown of the ticket machine, including how to order it,
- tips for how to properly eat the ramen, the location of each shop, and,
- even words from each of the shop owners.
The reason this guide can go this far in-depth is due to its singular purpose. Whereas a normal food guide often needs to fit in information about the city, the history of the food and/or city, and occasionally, the surrounding attractions, this guide is only focused on the ramen and the people who make it.
This guide is offered as a hardcover, which is small and conveniently fits into a pocket if need be. It’s also offered digitally via Kindle. If you have Kindle Unlimited, the book is free!
Rice, Noodle, Fish: Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture, by Matt Goulding
It’s actually surprisingly difficult to find a food travel guide for Japan, that doesn’t end up simply being a Tokyo food guide. It’s as if the rest of the country doesn’t exist, and only Tokyo matters. So this book is a nice change from that formula.
While not as specific as the previous entry, Rice Noodle Fish does offer a great look at the cuisines from 7 different regions of Japan and gives us a look at the culture from the people and places that created it.
If you’re planning a trip to Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Fukuoka, Hiroshima, Hokkaido, or the Noto Peninsula, then this book has you covered. Introducing you to the area, and the specialties of each area, all in a highly entertaining and personable way.
“The world needs Roads & Kingdoms. It needs this book.” ~Anthony Bourdain
For those who don’t know, Japan is a drinking culture. That means alcohol is a HUGE part of life here and has a food culture all its own, and this too is covered within the pages of this book.
From Izakaya’s to Karaoke bars, Matt Goulding will take you through the famous Japanese nightlife, arming you with the knowledge you need to make the most out of a night you’ll never forget (or perhaps, a night you’ll never remember?).
2. Best for a Japanophile: A Geek in Japan, by Hector Garcia
Japanese culture is well known around the world as being a weird mix of both traditional and wildly zany.
Much of this has bled into their pop-culture to create some of the most iconic examples of geek culture to be embraced by the world as a whole.
This also means that a large segment of Japanese tourism is based on this Otaku culture, which has led to some of the best and most… interesting sites in Japan.
A Geek in Japan is a book specifically designed for those of us who grew up on Pokemon, Final Fantasy, and Dragon Ball Z, and ended-up developing a fascination with Japan because of it.
It introduces you to the culture and goes beyond a simple travel guide by helping to explain the origins of many of these obsessions, and why Japanese culture is the way it is.
That said, it is still a travel guide. Whether you’re looking for manga or maid cafes, this book should satisfy even the most discerning otaku. Not a self-professed geek?
No worries, this book is also good for those who simply want to know how a small isolated island nation became a tech and culture leader in the world today.
At this point you might be asking, “that sounds great, but does it help me create a travel itinerary?”
Short answer, yes. Long answer, yes, but rather than simply saying ‘go here, see this’, this book helps you decide on your trip by explaining specific areas of Japanese culture, Japanese music for example, and from this, it will cover some of the most popular places to listen to a live Japanese band, which helps you decide where to go.
3. Best for First-timers in Japan: Lonely Planet Japan
A travel guide mainstay, Lonely Planet is a quality guide for most situations. I recommend this as a guide for first-timers because it offers a little bit of everything inside its pages.
While not particularly specializing in any one subject, it’s great for those who just want to experience a little of all Japan has to offer. It’s also one of the few guides which doesn’t stick to only one area (e.g. Tokyo), instead truly offering guidance for ALL of Japan.
The greatest advantage of this guide is probably the fact that it’s has such a well-known and well-funded company behind it.
I say this because the Lonely Planet guides are all regularly revised, meaning that you can be sure that you’re getting accurate information. I’m not saying that other guides aren’t accurate, simply that the folks at Lonely Planet have the resources to do this kind of work that most others don’t.
Some other pros to Lonely Planet Japan include maps, detailed descriptions of the sightseeing locations, and also offers hotel and restaurant recommendations by the city which is always a great help.
For the backpackers out there trying to save as much space as possible, this book may not be for you. I say that because it’s quite large and may take up more space than you’re willing or able to afford in your bag(s). That said, this guide is also offered on Kindle Unlimited, solving the issue of lack of space, though many people would prefer the actual book to flip through.
4. Best for Repeaters: Frommer’s EasyGuide to Tokyo, Kyoto and Western Honshu, by Beth Reiber
Japan may seem small, it’s slightly smaller than California in fact, but it’s so jammed pack with things to see and do that it demands return trips.
For those who are planning that return trip, I feel that Frommer’s Easyguide is a great tool for you to use. If you’re reading this section then I’ll assume you already own one of the other guides mentioned here, or a different guide completely. If that’s the case, this guide is a great compliment to them.
Now in its 11th edition, Frommer’s EasyGuide to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Western Honshu is freshly updated every two years and is a no-frills travel guide written by one of the “Visit Japan” Ambassadors, Beth Reiber.
Small enough to keep in your pocket or purse, it’s best to think of it as something of a reference to be used when needed. I suggest using one of the other guides to prepare for your trip, then bringing this guide while actually out and about Japan.
The book is focused on Tokyo and Kyoto, but also covers popular day-trip locations and other favorite stop-offs around these two major cities. Personally, as fun as these cities can be, I tend to find the surrounding areas far more interesting, so this guide really helps in this area.
I suggest using this book in conjunction with the DK Eyewitness guide, as the DK book is too large for most people to want to carry with them all day (which is disappointing since it’s so beautifully detailed).
5. Best for Expats: DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Japan
For those of us who choose to actually live in Japan, often times we forget how to simply travel and truly enjoy this great country. That’s where the DK Eyewitness can be of great help.
Unlike Lonely Planet Japan, the DK series tells most of its story through the photos within its pages. I think this is of particular use to expats, as it reminds us why we (in most cases) came to live in this country, to begin with, giving us the kick in the pants we need to get back out there and explore!
This book offers a lot more than photographs though. Detailed city maps, 3D cutaway drawings of popular sites, interior maps, guided tours, and insight into the history of each area are just a few of the features of this guide.
I think this guide is definitely the choice for those living in Japan since it covers a lot of areas and activities which often require multiple return trips just to get the full experience. Areas like Fuji-Five Lakes, which I know from personal experience requires weeks to experience properly.
Unlike the other books mentioned here, this one is not available on Kindle, so paperback is really your only option. It’s also quite weighty for a book and doesn’t lend itself to carrying in anything smaller than a purse.
- Gateway to Japan by June Kinoshita and Nicholas Palvesky. Believe it or not, some Japanophiles use this for their bedtime reading. You really can feel the passion for Japan these authors have infused into every single page of this guidebook. It covers very interesting explanations of the different architectural styles and symbolism embedded in Japanese sites.
- Uncharted Tokyo. Considered the best free Tokyo guidebook by locals and tourists alike. Compiled by redditors in the Tokyo forum, who either live in Japan or who travel to Japan a lot, this guidebook is sure to be up-to-date since it is updated every year. It is particularly famous for being the best compilation of everything Japanese, including Tokyo’s off-the-beaten-path places you might want to explore and enjoy.
- Tokyo Eating Tour: The Backpacker’s Guide to the Various fast food restaurants in Japan by Hiroshi Satake. A great guide for the foodie backpacker, Tokyo Eating Tour covers some of the best and most popular Japanese dishes in the Tokyo area. More importantly, the guide covers how to properly eat these foods as well; I bet you didn’t realize you were eating sushi wrong! This guide is only available in Kindle editions, as much of the book seems to include hyperlinks to things like English menus for particular restaurants.
Unique Japan Experience & Memoirs
These are my wife’s favorite: