Travel to Japan – my reviews of books for travelers

If you’re ready to pack your suitcase and take off for Japan, whether as a tourist on vacation or a business traveler, you’ll need to speak some Japanese. If you can learn enough of the language to survive, your travels will go much more smoothly. Of course, you’ll also need to know something of the country and cities you’ll visit. Taking a break from my reviews of individual Japanese courses, I’d like to provide you with an overview of some useful books for language learning travelers.

As I’ve reviewed stacks upon stacks of Japanese language learning material for this site, I’ve come across several helpful resources for your trip. As a longtime language learner, I’m happy to provide these tips and recommendations. The following books and materials will strengthen your ability to speak in Japanese and get around Japan. Unlike other resources, the focus here is to learn enough Japanese to get by without needing to speak & write the entire language like a native (there are other resources for that larger goal).

Japan travel books & guides

The first step is to buy a thorough, understandable, easy-to-reference travel guide. The travel section of any bookstore is covered with books boasting hot tips on everything from restaurants and hotels & lodging to tourist attractions and nightlife. A few of these are worth most travelers’ time:

Frommer’s Japan has plenty of information about where to go, where to stay, and what to see when you get there, and is perhaps more opinionated and upstanding than other guides. It sometimes lacks detailed maps and directions, as well as color photos, making it more of a compendium of places and activities.

Speaking of photos and pictures, visually stimulated travelers should really check out Eyewitness Travel Guide: Japan and Insight Japan. Both guides offer full color photos on all of their glossy pages, combined with information about selected places to stay, eat and see. You’ll need something more detailed depending on the places you plan to visit, and whether or not you need good maps.

More rough-and-tumble travelers, including those on a budget or looking for a bit more adventure, would do well to grab Lonely Planet Japan or The Rough Guide to Japan, which many travelers find as useful as the guides mentioned above. Also in this category, but with its own unique touch, belongs Japan by Rail.

For maps, try the Periplus Japan, which maps the entire country and has detailed maps for Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.

Guides for a specific Japanese city

Japan is a diverse country, especially once we count the Ryukyu islands. Still, the majority of visitors head to one of a small number of cities. Assuming you’re one of that majority, you’ll find a number of more specific books to accompany your urban explorations.

For the capital, I recommend the Time Out Tokyo
for your travel facts and information. The Tokyo City Atlas works great for your city and transportation maps. If you’re into quirks and slice-of-life experiences, Little Adventures in Tokyo: 39 Thrills does the city proud.

The old capital, Kyoto, is probably on your itinerary. If your journeys take you there, Exploring Kyoto: On Foot in the Ancient Capital has loads of information, focusing on self-guided historical and sightseeing walking tours. Also, Old Kyoto offers fantastic insights into the heart of this historic city. For maps, check out the Moleskine City Notebook – Kyoto.

If it’s info on food & lodging you seek, Michelin Kyoto & Osaka lists places worth your consideration. Those destined for nearby Osaka can pick up the Osaka Travel Map as well.

Travel journals & unique perspectives on Japan

Japan – Culture Smart! will help you train yourself to observe the right etiquette. For the ins and outs of business etiquette, Japan: Doing Business in a Unique Culture is a crucial and interesting read that tells you bluntly what you should and shouldn’t do.

Japan Unbound details many of the struggles and successes of the country from the perspective of a native English-speaking translator.

The stereotypically beautiful idea of Japan is supported in Seeing Japan. The book offers a visual journey through the country in photographs, highlighted with textual explanations and musings.

The Essence of Shinto: Japan’s Spiritual Heart is among the few good reads on the traditions that underpin Japanese society & thought.

Phrasebooks & language lessons for travelers

In some of the travel guides above, you’ll find short phrase & vocabulary lists for tourists. It’s worth investing in a more robust language resource, since making yourself understood in Japan will involve speaking Japanese.

As a traveler, you want a quick and easy resource – a book that translates basic phrases between Japanese and English. Many phrase books pack in pronunciation guides, tidbits about grammar, and basic travel & cultural information. Also, look for one that translates phrases into Japanese script and offers a foreigner-friendly transliteration for each phrase – that way, you can try your hand at pronunciation and have a native speaker read the phrase if you fail. Books like Japanese at a Glance provide all of the above. BUT, for its clarity, organization and sheer number of phrases, and CD with MP3 recordings of all listed phrases, you currently can’t do better than The Ultimate Japanese Phrasebook.

Going the next step – learning to speak Japanese – will require a more serious investment, particularly a time commitment. I cover that road in my Japanese self study plan.

However far you decide to take your studies, you’ll do well with a good dictionary and some knowledge of the language. Check out my reviews of Japanese dictionaries and lesson courses to find other books and materials to prepare you for your trip. I sincerely hope my recommendations benefit you in your travels.

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