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Best Overall: Lonely Planet Japan at Amazon
"It's comprehensive without being overwhelming."
Best for Kyoto: Old Kyoto: A Guide to Shops, Restaurants, and Inns at Amazon
"Weaves in Kyoto's history and local context so you get a well-rounded experience of the city."
Best for Tokyo: Fodor’s Tokyo at Amazon
"Has great guides to top neighborhoods that will help you plan your trip, no matter the duration."
Best Rail Route Guide: Japan by Rail at Amazon
"Features a kilometer-by-kilometer guide to Japan’s most spectacular rail journeys."
Best Phrasebook: DK Eyewitness Japanese Phrase Book at Amazon
"The book’s detailed pictures make it easy to point to what you want to buy, order, or do."
Best for First-Timers: Frommer’s Guide to Tokyo, Kyoto & Western Honshu at Amazon
"Compact enough to slip into your purse and take with you for reference when you're out and about."
Best for Experts: The Rough Guide to Japan at Amazon
"Goes beyond the "Golden Route" and offers a comprehensive look at regions outside those areas."
Best for Foodies: Food Sake Tokyo at Amazon
"Written by a Japanese American chef, this book guides visitors through the city's buzzing culinary scene."
Best Cultural Guide: Cool Japan Guide at Amazon
"Teaches you how to navigate the country's wide shopping scene."
Best Etiquette Guide: Etiquette Guide to Japan at Amazon
"Gives a great introductory look at manners and customs for travelers."
Our Top Picks
Best Overall: Lonely Planet Japan
Lonely Planet’s guidebooks are known for being comprehensive without being overwhelming. They're a great way for first-timers to prepare for a trip abroad, as well as a resource for those making return visits to find activities and sites that go beyond the well-beaten tourist path. The other bonus? They’re regularly updated, meaning you’re less likely to wind up at a permanently closed restaurant or search fruitlessly for a now-closed ryokan. This one features hotels, shopping, and restaurants that fit a range of budgets, as well as insights and suggestions for experiencing Japan’s onsens, hiking, performing arts, and more. At just over 900 pages—but with plenty of color maps and itineraries—it’s a great guide for a trip to Japan, whether it’s your first or fourth.
Best for Kyoto: Old Kyoto: A Guide to Traditional Shops, Restaurants, and Inns
Diane Durston’s updated version of her 1986 guidebook is, admittedly, almost seven years old, but if you’re looking for an in-depth look at Kyoto’s historical side, it’s an absolute gem. It’s not just a to-do list of where to eat, stay, or go in the old town but also weaves in history and local context so you get a well-rounded, highly informed experience of the city while you’re there. Durston knows her stuff, too: she lived in Kyoto for 18 years before moving to Portland, Oregon, and works as a consultant on Japanese and Asian cultures. There are also shorter chapters on etiquette and vocabulary to help you navigate culturally while you’re there. Although it’s more of an assemblage of what to see, versus offering a planned itinerary or narrative tying them all together, it’s remarkably helpful for almost any visitor to Kyoto.
Best for Tokyo: Fodor’s Tokyo
Released in March 2020, this fresh update of Fodor’s classic guide to Tokyo takes visitors on a thorough tour of the buzzing metropolis. The book’s gotten a facelift since the last edition, with a redesigned layout and beautiful photo features that will give you a lot of pre-trip inspiration. There’s great itineraries included to help you plan your trip, no matter the duration, as well as guides to the city’s top neighborhoods, from trendy Shibuya and Shinjuku to upmarket Ginza and the neon lights of Roppongi. It also includes more than 20 detailed maps—still helpful, even in the age of international data plans—as well as passages from local writers that give you an inside look at some of the city’s usually hidden gems. Additionally, it includes a helpful language primer to help you master Japanese language basics and outlines popular side trips to Mt. Fuji and Yokohama.
Best Rail Route Guide: Japan by Rail
Not just your usual map of train routes, Japan by Rail lays out how to best take in the country using its fantastic network of trains (bullet and otherwise). The guidebook features a kilometer-by-kilometer guide to Japan’s most spectacular rail journeys, both well-traveled and off-the-beaten-track, and it includes new routes that have developed in recent years, including the Hokuriku shinkansen route extension from Nagano to Kanazawa. This guide also features railway timetables, so you have them easily accessible at a glance without having to rely on having a data signal or Wi-Fi. Plus, there’s guides to 30 of the country's top towns and cities with suggested itineraries and historical information.
Best Phrasebook: DK Eyewitness Japanese Phrase Book
Although non-Japanese speakers might not have time to become fluent before they head off on their trip, DK Eyewitness’s picture-based phrasebook will help you navigate the country with ease. In a rush? The book’s detailed pictures make it easy to point to what you want to buy, order, or do, while a devoted section to everyday phrases like “Thank you” and “I can’t speak Japanese,” will help you navigate the country a little more easily from the moment you land. Handy sections like a pronunciation guide with tips and tricks, as well as a guide to cross-cultural communication and Japanese etiquette, make great reads for the flight over. If you want to dive in more—or need to look up a specific word quickly—at the end of the book is a mini-dictionary with 2,000 keywords to get you started.
Best for First-Timers: Frommer’s EasyGuide to Tokyo, Kyoto & Western Honshu
Tokyo and Kyoto are the top of the list for most first-time visitors to Japan, and author Beth Reiber—one of Visit Japan’s Ambassadors and a full-time travel writer—has written a guide to the country that’ll take the stress out of planning the trip and put the emphasis back on enjoying it. Although it mostly focuses on those two popular cities, Western Honshu, as well as day trips from Tokyo and Kyoto, are also planned out for those who are curious to go beyond the city borders. While plenty of guidebooks can be heavy and cumbersome to carry, this one’s compact enough to slip into your purse and take with you for reference when you’re out and about.
Best for Experts: The Rough Guide to Japan
If a basic guide to Japan isn’t going to cut it for another one of your return visits, check out The Rough Guide for truly off-the-beaten-path inspiration that’s great for returning visitors or solo travelers. It goes beyond the so-called “Golden Route” that prioritizes Kyoto and Tokyo and instead offers a comprehensive look at regions outside those areas as well, with detailed introductions to Naoshima, Hiroshima, and Nikko, among other areas. There’s also a valuable “Contexts” section for travelers to brush up on Japan’s history, religion, ethnic groups, and culture. Plus, the book purchase comes with a free e-book you can download to your phone or tablet, just in case you want one less physical thing to carry around during your days spent sightseeing.
Best for Foodies: Food Sake Tokyo
Written by Yukari Sakamoto, a Japanese American chef, sommelier, journalist, and restaurant consultant, Food Sake Tokyo is one of the best guides to the capital city’s buzzing culinary scene. It guides visitors through the typical ingredients, dishes, and culture, highlighting not just the traditions of Tokyo’s gastronomy but offering practical advice too, whether you’re shopping for some kitchen knives to take home or you want to know which fish will be freshest in your sushi. The section about how to eat cheaply in this expensive city is particularly useful for budget travelers, and there are also passages that address everything from dining customs to sea vegetables. Bonus for those with a sweet tooth: the book includes a whole section on how to find Tokyo’s best wagashi confections.
Best Cultural Guide: Cool Japan Guide: Fun in the Land of Manga, Lucky Cats, and Ramen
While there are plenty of guidebooks out there that delve into Japanese pop culture—and its famous subcultures—the Cool Japan Guide teaches you about the country's fascinating culture before you arrive. You’ll get an introduction to some parts of the culture you’ll be experiencing, including foodie culture (bento! sushi!), as well as tips on how to navigate the country’s wide shopping scene. Popular subcultures, like cosplayers, and hardcore manga and anime enthusiasts, are also represented alongside traditional art forms. It’s far from a dry read, too: author Abby Benson happens to be a cartoonist, so expect lots of fun illustrations to go along with her recommendations.
Best Etiquette Guide: Etiquette Guide to Japan: Know the Rules that Make the Difference!
Considerate travelers coming from different cultural contexts should definitely pick up an etiquette guide before visiting Japan for the first time. The country has a traditional system of etiquette and communication that can sometimes be a little challenging for tourists to navigate if they’re not aware of the protocols. This book isn’t just about what to do at a tea ceremony, however: etiquette—as it does elsewhere—naturally permeates many aspects of social engagement, right down to texting. This book gives a great introductory look at manners and customs for travelers who want to put their best selves forward when traveling in Japan. Two new chapters in this version address workplace and youth customs.
Best Map: National Geographic Adventure Map Japan
While it can be a little cumbersome to carry or pack, given the size, this map is remarkably useful to hang on the wall or spread out on the table as you plan your trip for a zoomed-out view of your itinerary. It’s also great to keep in the glovebox during a road trip if your phone runs out of battery or there’s no signal. It doesn’t have the gorgeous full-color photos other guides do, but that’s fine—you’ll be taking your own pictures. It also has useful tips for navigating Japanese culture for those who aren’t familiar with it, including how exactly to use one of those toilets. Handily, the spots you’d probably drop a pin for on Google Maps are also marked on the map, including Shinto shrines, hot springs, ski areas, castles, temples, and UNESCO World Heritage Sites.