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What's the problem with Tokyo guidebooks?

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Oct 2nd, 2010, 04:31 AM
  #1
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What's the problem with Tokyo guidebooks?

Hi everybody,

I have been wondering about this because I cannot believe that all Tokyo guidebooks get a bad review. I've been wanting to buy one, but whenever a new edition comes out, I immediately read how people who have been there before consider it bad in terms of maps, how to find sights, off-the-beaten path tips, etc.

Any thoughts about this?

Thanks,

Castellanese.
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Oct 2nd, 2010, 12:53 PM
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I suppose a city the size and complexity of Tokyo will be difficult to compress in a guidebook. Things change, places come and go and today's 'in' spot will be passé by the time you come to visit. Also Tokyo is one place where it's difficult to be objective, as its fascination is only revealed to those who are willing to be adventurous and make their own discoveries. Tokyo is certainly bigger than the sum total of its components. It always has the capacity to surprise, shock, challenge and enthuse. Whatever you seek, you are bound to find it there. So a good guidebook, to my view at least, needs to get out of the comfort zone of famous sights, renowned restaurants and tried-and-tested entertanments and become more subjective, idiosyncratic, so it's likely to find as many detractors as fans.
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Oct 2nd, 2010, 02:17 PM
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Maps in guide books are almost always bad, and can very rarely be relied upon. This is because good cartography costs more than most guidebook companies are willing or able to spend.

It's a few years now since I bothered to take a guide book to Tokyo, and I still refer occasionally to the ten-year-old Moon Japan. But the pocket Rough Guide was half-decent when I last took it. But most of my best experiences in Japan, on multiple visits, have come about through the assistance of friends there.

The other observations on Tokyo could be applied to any other city of size. And if a guidebook includes a sight it becomes famous by definition, thus immediately disqualifying it as evidence that the guidebook goes 'out of the comfort zone'. Similarly restaurants listed become 'renowned' and entertainments not previously 'tried and tested' become so. The process of observation, and of reporting that observation to a wide audience, brings about change both in the perception of the destination and actually in the destination itself. Some guidebook writer puts down a bit of hearsay, and the next minute half the world is knocking at the door, often to the bemusement of the establishment in question. Those following the guidebook's recommendation that such and such is 'off the beaten track' enter to find lots of other people holding the same guidebook.

But at least foreign tourism to Japan is still so slight that getting away from other foreigners (if that's part of the definition of what's satisfying) is actually quite easy.

If it's in a guide then by definition it's not 'off the beaten track'. It merely becomes a matter of what proportion of readers allow enough time at a destination to visit lesser-known places when the starry sights have been tackled, or whether they choose to omit a starry sight in favour of something quirky, temporary, seasonal, or lesser-known.

Given the poverty of much guidebook writing and research, apparently fresh recommendations, whether for sights, accommodation, or restaurants, can tend to be arbitrary (although not remotely as arbitrary as those on Trip Advisor and similar). In my opinion getting up at 4am to go to diesel-fume filled Tsukiji to see piles of frozen fish being moved around by forklift is precisely one of these experiences that made its way accidentally into one guidebook looking to be obscure, was copied by all the others, and now leaves many asking 'What am I doing here?' Certainly the people who work in the market wonder the same thing.

The message is that a guidebook is merely a guide, and often not a comprehensive authority, and its contents and pagination reflect the economic necessities of the market size and production costs, and the prejudices of editors who may never have been to the destination and who worry if book contents seem different from those of the competitor series and newspaper articles that form their ideas. There's a tendency to want to tell you what you already believe to be true, as this will make you more likely to buy the guide.

So multiple sources of information should be considered, including smaller, locally-produced guides, materials supplied by JNTO, etc. And when it comes to choosing a guide, once you've established whether you are part of its target market, the first place to turn to is the author's biography. If he/she hasn't spent considerable time in Japan, and doesn't speak Japanese, then there's little chance of accuracy or insight.

I can't put my hands on it at the moment, but I've a locally-written guide somewhere that introduces a number of more obscure Tokyo experiences, including attending kodo sessions (the tradition of appreciating incense, turned into a competitive game involving the blind identification of hundreds of different fragrant woods), attending hydroplane races, sumo training stables, and much more, some of which I've done. Of course, many readers will respond, 'What on earth would I want to spend my time doing things like that for? I want to see Akihabara, Asakusa, Meiji Jingu, Harajuku, Roppongi, Ueno, and the Ginza!'

And that's why guide books are as they are.

Peter N-H
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Oct 4th, 2010, 08:47 AM
  #4
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I used several different guide books and thought the maps in Japan Solo were better than those in any of the other books I consulted.
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Jan 4th, 2011, 07:12 AM
  #5
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Thank you, Alec, Peter & Skja, so much for your input.

After checking and cheking all kinds of Tokyo guidebooks, I've decided to buy Insight's Tokyo Step-by-Step.

I've been checking it once and again ever since I bought it and it seems to be thorough and well-planned.

It divides the city in walks featuring culture, food, shopping & art.

Castellanese.
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