For Japanese pop culture fans flying to Tokyo for the first time, finding your way around is a daunting task. Even for veterans like myself and my chums from university, there are still times when we need a good map.
The landscape of Tokyo changes at a breakneck speed, and a place that was there on your last visit might not be in the same spot when you fly in months later.
To take some of the tension off, purchasing a good guidebook is the place to start. To help readers select the one that works for them, I’ll be reviewing my two favourite books from a number that I have amassed over the years: Lonely Planet’s Tokyo Encounter, and Timeout’s Shortlist Tokyo.
Lonely Planet Publications of Melbourne, Australia publishes many of the most widely purchased travel guidebooks in the world. They specialize in travel books for backpackers and budget travelers.
Time Out is a publishing company based in London, England. Their best known publication is the Time Out weekly magazine, which lists all free activities, food promos, movie schedules, and other special events happening in a particular city. They also publish a line of travel books and city guides.
Size and User-Friendliness
Japan is a country that you cannot explore fully in fifteen days, or the length of a standard tourist visa; I personally advise people that fifteen days will barely cover Tokyo alone. Having said that, I don’t really recommend those huge, telephone-book like guidebooks that attempt to compress the entire country’s sights and activities into a single volume.
I personally prefer purchasing separate smaller books for each city I intend to visit, and then spending a majority — if not my entire holiday, exploring just one metropolis.
When it comes to size, both books are equally compact and efficient. The Lonely Planet book is the size of a Japanese light novel, while the Timeout book is about the size of a small Moleskine notebook. Both come with glossy, easy-to-read-pages with full color photos.
Both books also come with color-coded tabs to differentiate the sections of the book according to points of interest. Both books come out with pull-out city maps, with Lonely Planet’s being more detailed, but Timeout’s being more sturdy since it is printed into the back cover.
Information Organized By Points of Interest
Tokyo is a sprawling metropolis organized into smaller wards (-ku) and cities (-shi), inter-connected and intersected by a number of public and private rail lines. In many guidebooks, including these two, these wards are grouped together based on location or points of interest.
The Lonely Planet book features more location tabs compared to the Timeout book, and starts out in Central Tokyo in the Marunouchi district (with the Imperial Palace and Ginza), and then travels counter-clockwise on the Yamanote line to reach Akihabara, Ikebukuro (Otome Road), Shinjuku, Roppongi, and finally Odaiba (Venus Fort and Palette Town).
The Timeout book likewise starts out in Central Tokyo with Ginza, and works it way clockwise on the Yamanote line towards Harajuku and Aoyama, Shinjuku, and finally Ueno.
Perhaps due to Timeout’s origins as a bar and restaurant guide and their emphasis on watering holes and nightclubs, I prefer the layout for Lonely Planet’s City Encounter. They have a quirkier point of view and have no qualms covering venues for exploring pop culture like hobby shops and specialty bookstores.
Accuracy of Directions
Each restaurant, shop, and museum is listed in both books with detailed street directions. Unfortunately, unless these venues are located on major roads and avenues, they will not be much help in the twisting alleys and back streets of Shinjuku, Harajuku, or Ahikabara.
Lonely Planet attempts to ease the confusion by providing all shop and restaurant names in Japanese kana or syllabary, so you can always show the book to police officers or helpful strangers for directions.
While Timeout does not do this, they do provide a small numbered map detailing the locations of places of interest in relation to each other and to major landmarks.
Picking which guidebook to purchase ultimately depends on your personal preferences. And while I do recommend getting both since the two books cover the city with different perspectives, it is not always possible.
A good way to economize would be to purchase one, and then make up for the discrepancies by getting a similarly sized notebook and taking down notes from the other guidebook. You can also fill it in with information you need personally like print-outs of maps and schedules of shops, museums, and events.
Finally, don’t worry — getting lost is part of the fun! Have a great time in Tokyo, and don’t forget to bring home plenty of souvenirs!