Sunday 20 May 2018

Travel Guides - Japan

My recent trip to Japan was a long time in the making.
I've been wanting to go ever since I studied Japanese at school.

I'm not sure why I didn't prioritise it earlier in my travelling career, except for the vague notion that I've had that I should do the bigger long-haul trips to Europe and the America's in my younger years and save the shorter, closer-to-home trips for later.

Certainly there was no jetlag before, during or after our time in Japan (not like our trip to Cuba and Mexico 18mnths ago where I was shattered for the entire first day in Cuba and for several days again when we finally got home).

We started planning Japan about a year ago.
We knew we wanted to catch some blossom time, but it also had to fit around our work schedules, B17's HSC exam timetable and Mr Books club football commitments.

I patiently waited until August 2017, though, for the latest Lonely Planet Japan to be published before really getting into the nitty gritty of the planning.

At work we're regularly asked which is the best travel guide.
Every trip I take, I decide to do a thorough comparison, to help me answer this question, but every trip leaves me with even more indecision than before I started. There are simply too many variants involved - the type of holiday you want, the author of the particular guide, your mood, the country you're visiting etc.

After Vietnam, I felt that the LP was good for the day-to-day on the ground stuff, like where to get tickets, how much they cost, how to get to and find the various places and what plugs, visas and shots you might need. I found the Eyewitness books good for the history of the country (great to read on the plane) as well as highlighting favourite venues to visit with maps and great colour pics. The Wallpaper city guides had great walks, a focus on the architecture (& shopping, although I've always ignored that section) and good suggestions for drinks and meals. The Trip Advisor app was our main go-to for restaurants and experiences at this time. Their rating system helped to narrow down the often overwhelming choices available.

In Cuba the LP helped us to work out where we actually wanted to go. It was such an unknown adventure, we didn't even know where to start. Yet it was the Eyewitness guide that filled in the gaps for some of the smaller towns that we stayed in. In the bigger towns and cities, the LP walks were a fabulous way to orient ourselves and to see a great cross-section of the area. In Havana, I grew frustrated with the LP because of how they divide the city up into the various suburbs for what to see and do, but then put all the sleeping, eating and drinking sections together at the end. When I'm staying in Centro Habana, I want ALL the stuff associated with Centro Habana to be together. I don't want to have to flick around trying to find a good place to grab a rooftop cocktail! Which is where the Wallpaper Guide came in handy again. Cuba is also where we embraced AirBnB for the first time. All but one of our stays was found on the app.

In Mexico, the Eyewitness guide had fabulous maps and walks around most of the ancient sites. As did the Moon Guide, but everything in the Moon guide was catered for American tourists only, from giving all the prices in US dollars (as opposed to the Mexican peso!) to where to find American food and other places that American likes to hang out together. Useful only for helping us to cross off certain places to not go to for dinner or to hang out! It also had some odd comments that we found skated very close to offensive.

With all this under my belt, I thought that for Japan we would use the LP to plan some of the bigger stuff as well as do their walks, use the Eyewitness Travel Japan for the history and iconic sites, AirBnB for accommodation and Trip Advisor for food.

For the record we have never knowingly stayed in a LP recommendation for accommodation. I have looked at their options over the years, but they're either too expensive or not actually anywhere near where we want to be. Back in my pre-internet, pre-app, backpacking days, the LP did help me track down YMCA's and Youth Hostels. But now I prefer a quieter, cleaner, cosier form of accommodation, embedded in the local community, which is why AirBnB has been perfect for us. 

We take the time to read all the reviews and comments. We look for English speaking hosts, and factor in things like distances public transport, restaurants and other things to see and do. We adjust our expectations for every country we travel to. We take the time to find places that sound like they will suit us and meet our needs and we leave honest reviews that take into account all these factors. Cuba and Japan are two very different countries which demanded two very different styles of travel, yet AirBnB worked beautifully for us in both. 

Trip Advisor used to be great, but the current filters are not very useful and keep going back to the default ones they want you to use. It is still handy to check out nearby restaurants and experiences when you first arrive in a new city, but it's getting harder to sort out the ads from the genuine reviews. I still write honest reviews, but I've become warier. Most of our Japan eating experiences came from friends, our AirBnB hosts or the good old-fashioned serendipitous walk by.

The LP helped me to narrow down my choices about where to actually visit. When I first sat down to fill in the blanks for our 3 week trip, I was overwhelmed - the new edition was so thick with options. So I started with the lovely colour top 25 photographs and a piece of paper. I wrote down which of the iconic sites and places I really wanted to see. Then I read through the 'First time in Japan' and the "If You Like' sections. Each chapter then had a small box of highlights for that region/city.

Sadly, I barely used the Eyewitness guide at all. I found the history section very dry and uninspiring and it didn't cover all the places we were planning on going to (whereas the LP did), so I didn't pick it up again. I also picked up a LP Best of Japan not long before we left, but ran out of time to read it & decided not to pack it to save on weight and space. The road map of Japan came along for the ride, but we used the MapsMe app the whole time instead. The map was handy, though, in the early stages of planning to see where all the places where in relation to each other. The final two books on my pile were a LP Pocket Kyoto & Osaka and a LP Tokyo.

The LP Tokyo was an old edition. I tore out the map and marked out the walks as suggested by LP for Shinjuku and Shibuya (the 2 areas where we were staying). I also tore out the two chapters for these suburbs and just took them along instead of the whole book. The Kyoto & Osaka book was brand new so I didn't want to tear it up (yet!) The Pocket guides really are handy for tucking into your pocket or handbag, although nothing any of the books said prepared us for 4 days in Kyoto during Golden Week!

Golden Week crowds at Fushima Inari-Taisha, Kyoto

I felt very prepared for this trip and had a number of things I REALLY wanted to do. I got to tick most of them off. The rest can wait for the return trip! Mr Books fell in love with the JapanTravel app which he used to plan all our train travel. We like to be organised at the beginning, then as we became more confident in using the trains and buses and negotiating the crowds, we're happy to make stuff up as we go along.

In the end, it was the Lonely Planet books, MapsMe, AirBnB and JapanTravel apps that got us around Japan with the best results.

I will happily conduct more intensive research and guide comparison for future trips!

My blossom photos.


  1. Lovely photo of Fushimi Inari, it was one of my favorite places in Kyoto. I also loved the Heian Garden and Kiyomizu-Dera. I really miss Japan, I wish I could go back!

    1. I'm missing Japan already too! I hope I turn out to be like so many of friends who have been back to Japan 3-4 times. It's so easy from Australia and every now and again, the local airlines do amazingly cheap flights....

  2. Wonderful - I'm glad you had such a fabulous time. I like Cadogan Guides (if they still exist) as LP and Rough Guide always seem to be carping about prices and making you go and see some manky thing as an authentic experience, in the places we've been!

    1. I've heard of Cadogan's but I think they only cover Europe. I understand what you mean about 'authentic experiences', I think that's one of the reasons why I didn't like the LP Vietnam.
      I've checked out the occasional Insight and Footprint Guides over the years, but they haven't proved as useful in the planning stages.

      During both my trips to the UK and my one trip to Washington/NY I found some great city walking guides that took me to interesting places and told me what I was looking at as well. Now that's a job I would love!! Creating walking tour travel guides :-)

  3. I remember when you could only find information on where you were traveling via travel guides but now there is so much more to find online and great for preparing the type of adventure you are seeking. I do like the Lonely Planet guide books a lot because they also tend to do some off the beaten path areas and gear towards more "affordable" choices. So glad you found the best books/apps for your trip. What an adventure you must have had!

    1. The internet has certainly changed travel. A number of the smaller out-of-the-way places we visited in Japan weren't in any of the guides - it was google that helped us out there.

  4. Memorable trip..great insights into culture (Memories of a Gheisa) and travel book reviews!
    I had to think on this post when I heard Friesland, The Netherlands is TOP European vacation destination 2018 selected by Lonely Planet! If any book lovers ask in the bookstore...great trivia to tell them!
    Now, what is the next big trip?


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