Guided through Japanese labyrinths in style

Now that Japan’s remaining COVID-19 restrictions are further reduced, it’s time to look forward to visiting this amazing country again. And frankly, especially with Christmas around the corner, you can never have too many travel guides to help you start planning your next trip. Sometimes websites and apps are not enough.

A travel writer who chooses to write a guidebook covering all of Japan, rather than a particular city or region or aspect of culture, has a problem. How do you do justice to its seemingly endless range and diversity of people, places and experiences?

Camera iconHotel Nadeshiko Shibuya, Tokyo. Credit: wide steve

Melbourne writers and avowed Japanophiles Steve Wide and Michelle Mackintosh have found the perfect solution with Japan: A Curated Guide to the Best Sights, Food, Culture and Art. Paint with broad strokes, don’t forget the non-negotiables: but dive deeper and fill in the details according to your personal taste and style. In other words, priest.

On the other hand, tackling a city as large and diverse as Tokyo still poses the same problem. It is, after all, a megalopolis. Australian travel writer and broadcaster Ben Groundwater’s solution again involves tasteful personal curation, this time articulated via a clean, minimalist aesthetic. The result is Neon Lights in Tokyo: an insider’s guide to the best places to eat, drink and explore.

Japan: A curated guide to the best sights, food, culture and art (Plum/Pan Macmillan Australia, $45).

Wide and Mackintosh’s latest love letter to Japan is so lavish yet uncluttered, so filled with convenience stores and yet set in an art gallery that your browsing feels distinctly and distinctly choreographed.

Maybe it’s the clever use of graphic design (sidebars, icons, maps, as many circles as squares framing the photograph, a muted color palette, strong sense of vertical flow, maybe be inspired by Japanese calligraphy, etc.), which defines pleasant spaces for the imagination to dance?

It’s a travel guide that seeks to balance the old with the new, and despite what I said above, it’s incredibly comprehensive. The five main sections are titled Before You Go, Culinary Japan, Japan by Region, Culture, and Favorite Things. While the former covers the basics like eras, seasons, where to stay and train journeys, my favorite section is, yes, Favorite Things.

Camera iconJapan. Credit: Provided

Because this strikes me as the most distinctive, textured, “organized” section, covering as it does a history of Japanese fashion, pop culture, vegetarian and vegan Japan, Zen and the Wagashi art, vending machines and art and stamps sewer station.

Take the latter. Collecting regional rubber stamps from each of Japan’s railway stations and, on the street, checking out decorative manhole covers for the sewage system are big things in Japan: “If you like illustration, design of logo and intricate graphic representation, it’s a fun thing to do,” write the authors. A secular counterpart to collecting stamps from shrines and temples!

The section covering the regions of Japan has entries of similar quirky appeal while being eminently more convenient for potential travelers. A typical sidebar, like the one in Yamadera (Yamagata Prefecture) includes detailed information about this scenic village’s transportation, what’s nearby, atmosphere, food and drink, sights, gardens, and parks, museums and galleries, literature, arts and crafts and a website address.

For my money, easily the best new guide to Japan on the market.

Asakusa Kannon Temple, or Senso-ji, is Tokyo's oldest temple.
Camera iconAsakusa Kannon Temple, or Senso-ji, is Tokyo’s oldest temple. Credit: William Yeoman/western australia

Neon Lights in Tokyo: An Insider’s Guide to the Best Places to Eat, Drink and Explore (Hardie Grant Explore, $33).

Ben Groundwater is candid about his ambitions. “I don’t offer this as a definitive list of the best and the best in Tokyo. This city is so huge, and it changes so rapidly, that anyone who would claim such a thing would be delusional.

Its more modest goal is to “share a few of my favorite iterations from various places” and arm readers with the “knowledge and confidence” to explore further.

And you will be compelled to explore. Wandering through the Groundwater guide, I felt variously back at places I’ve been before – Senso-ji, Mandarake, Nakamichi-dori – and vicariously places I’ve never been – Flash Disc Ranch, Tofu Sorano, Nezu Museum – so evocative and descriptive are the photographs:

“Tokyo is an anonymous big city that does better than almost anywhere the friendly culture of small bars. For proof, simply stroll through one of its many yochokos, networks of downtown alleys that are lined with tiny drinking holes and smoky izakaya, with punters shuffling side-by-side between them.

Takeshima Street, Tokyo.  Will Yeoman the Western Australian
Camera iconTakeshima Street, Tokyo. Will Yeoman the Western Australian Credit: Does Yeoman/western australia

Like any good card, the clear, sensible, and slightly offbeat layout and design helps. And the logical organization of organized content. Between an airy introduction and an essential The Essentials section flourish a fine set of itineraries (Home of the Hipsters! Vintage Fun on the Chuo Line!) and generous chapters on everything from otaku (commonly translated as “nerds ”) to rekishi (history) to Americana (no translation needed) and a few irresistibly retro bars and cafes.

Linking Routes and Chapters is a handy neighborhood index that gives you page numbers for Akusaka, Ginza, Harajuku, Omotesando, Shibuya, and more. : Basically, where all the nice people hang out. (Nothing wrong with that.) Probably the place I’m most looking forward to visiting is Yoseido Gallery, Ginza, which specializes in contemporary woodblock prints.

A subjective and elegant guide to one of the greatest cities in the world.