A general Japan guidebook can be great if you’re looking for general information on Japan travel.
But if you’re looking for more specialized, in-depth information, most guidebooks won’t cut it. That’s why we love these specialty Japan guidebooks.
Each book focuses on a specific topic, including:
- Japanese food, with its rich and varied culinary culture
- Traditional crafts & the historic shops of Kyoto
- Onsen (hot springs)
- And Japan’s colorful drinking culture (including sake, shochu & izakayas)
What’s more, these authors are both knowledgeable and passionate about their topics, which makes these books more fun to read than typical guidebooks.
Of course, if you are looking for a more comprehensive guidebook for Japan, make sure to see our post on the best Japan travel guidebooks.
Originally written in 2013, we’ve updated and added to the original article.
Old Kyoto: The Updated guide to Traditional Shops, Restaurants, and Inns
By Diane Durston
Old Kyoto is the authoritative book on traditional Kyoto.
It’s perfect for travelers who are interested in exploring the older side of Japan, living history, Japanese crafts, and traditional Kyoto cuisine.
The author, Diane Durston, has painstakingly documented over a hundred traditional Kyoto establishments, focusing on shops that have been around for at least a hundred years.
Many of the shops she includes have several hundred years of history, having been passed down through the generations to the present day.
They range from tea shops to chopstick makers, restaurants, temple lodgings, sweets shops, ryokans (traditional Japanese-style inns), and even a terribly-endearing traditional-bucket maker.
All are masters in their respective trades, and she brings the old shops to life, through her lighthearted yet insightful profiles of the often reclusive yet charming – and occasionally boisterous – proprietors.
Old Kyoto makes for a fascinating read. It so effectively transports you to this charming and nostalgic world of exquisite craftsmanship and traditional hospitality, that it can certainly be enjoyed whether you have plans to visit Kyoto or not.
For visitors who are truly interested in getting to the heart of the city, Old Kyoto is both extremely informative and user-friendly, and an invaluable resource for an in-depth exploration of the city’s older side.
Obtain from Amazon: Old Kyoto: The Updated guide to Traditional Shops, Restaurants, and Inns
Note: If you’re seeking more Kyoto expertise from Diane Durston, we also recommend her excellent Kyoto: Seven Paths to The Heart of The City.
Food Sake Tokyo (The Terroir Guides)
By Yukari Sakamoto (photographs by Takuya Suzuki)
Food Sake Tokyo is a wonderfully personable and comprehensive guide to eating your way around Tokyo, one of the world’s great culinary cities.
The food in Tokyo (and Japan as a whole) is so good – and so much more varied than most people realize – that in recent years it has started to rival, and often eclipse, more traditionally-famous culinary destinations such as Italy and France.
As Anthony Bourdain put it, “If I had to eat only in one city for the rest of my life, Tokyo would be it.”
Written by the charming and extremely knowledgeable Yukari Sakamoto, Food Sake Tokyo focuses primarily on Tokyo’s culinary scene, but will appeal to anyone with an interest in Japanese food.
The book features establishments of every ilk, from sushi shops to kaiseki restaurants; cheap-and-cheerful noodle shops to those that have utterly perfected the craft; and hole-in-the-wall gems to culinary meccas.
The entire first half of the book is devoted to an overview of the different types of foods and beverages you’ll encounter across Tokyo. While this section of the book is sprinkled with excellent restaurant recommendations, in large part the information here applies to other parts of Japan as well.
In the second half of the book, Tokyo is divided by neighborhood. Within each neighborhood’s section, you’ll find an excellent map followed by listing upon listing of the author’s recommended establishments.
The places featured include:
- Restaurants of every variety
- Tea shops
- Sweets shops
- Knife shops
- And other destinations of interest to food lovers
The author, Yukari Sakamoto, has a unique background that makes her particularly qualified to have written such a book. Aside from having been born in Tokyo and raised in the US, she is an extremely accomplished culinary professional.
Trained as a chef and baker at the French Culinary Institute, she has worked as a sommelier at the elegant Park Hyatt Tokyo, and in the depachika of the prestigious Takashimaya department store; was the first non-Japanese person to pass the rigorous exam to become a shochu advisor; has written professionally about food for years; and also conducts specialty culinary tours in Tokyo along with her husband Shinji, a fishmonger and former buyer at Tsukiji Market.
She approaches the task of crafting a user-friendly yet information-rich food guidebook from this well-rounded perspective.
If you love food and have plans to visit Japan, buy this book! If you’re anything like me, you will end up dog-earing almost every page.
Obtain from Amazon: Food Sake Tokyo
Note: Since restaurants and other establishments open and close often, especially in a dynamic metropolis like Tokyo, the author provides updates to the book on her website.
Rice, Noodle, Fish: Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture
By Matt Goulding (photographs by Michael Magers)
Rice, Noodle, Fish: Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture is perhaps the book we most often give as a gift to Japanese food lovers.
The brainchild of writer and Roads & Kingdoms co-creator Matt Goulding, in collaboration with Japan lover Anthony Bourdain-sensei, Rice Noodle Fish is at its core a love letter to Japan and its incredible culinary culture.
Rice Noodle Fish leads you on a colorful – both in terms of the flavorful language and engrossing photographs – almost painfully crave-worthy journey through Japan.
The book is divided into long, rich, informative and story-filled chapters each featuring a different city or region in Japan, including:
- Fukuoka (aka Hakata)
- Kanazawa & Noto Hanto (the Noto Peninsula)
For more inspiration on amazing places to visit, see our favorite destinations in Japan.
Rice Noodle Fish is part culinary guide, part travel memoir. In addition to its wealth of information and insight, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the book are the countless personal anecdotes author Matt Goulding shares (many of which seem to begin or end with a fateful nama biiru or sake) throughout.
A playfully-designed, attractive hardcover, Rice Noodle Fish is a must-read for culinary travelers, whether or not you are planning a trip to Japan.
Obtain from Amazon: Rice, Noodle, Fish: Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture
Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook
By Mark Robinson with photographs by Masashi Kuma
Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook is not strictly a guidebook. It’s not strictly a cookbook, either. It’s a collection of evocatively-written vignettes – complemented by gorgeous photographs – featuring eight izakayas in Tokyo.
An izakaya is a neighborhood establishment where people go equally for the food and the drink.
It’s often translated into English as Japanese-style pub, tavern or gastropub – they’re lively places where you go to have a drink with friends or coworkers while eating delicious Japanese-style tapas.
In Izakaya, Mark Robinson – a longtime Tokyo resident – takes us deep into the world of eight of his favorite Tokyo izakayas. It’s an eclectic collection featuring establishments that range from the humble to the upmarket, and specializing in a mouth-watering array of izakaya cuisine.
His writing is complemented by the photographs of talented photographer Masashi Kuma (who also photographed the book Kaiseki: The Exquisite Cuisine of Kyoto’s Kikunoi Restaurant). The writing and photos combine to paint a vivid picture of each izakaya’s food, clientele, proprietors and atmosphere.
While not a comprehensive guidebook, Izakaya features some establishments that you’ll want to include in your next trip to Tokyo, and is an invaluable introduction to izakaya culture.
The book is designed less for traveling with, and more for the coffee table or your kitchen.
In addition to the excellent writing and beautiful photographs, Izakaya is full of well-written and easy-to-follow recipes culled from the establishments featured in the book.
So even if you don’t have a trip to Tokyo planned for the near future, you can try out some of these delicious izakaya recipes in your own kitchen!
Obtain from Amazon: Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook
A Guide to Japanese Hot Springs
By Anne Hotta and Yoko Ishiguro
One of my favorite things about exploring Japan is visiting onsen (hot springs) throughout the country.
Japan is full of onsen, and visiting them can be an exquisite experience. Aside from the soothing experience of soaking in the healing mineral waters, most onsen visits also involve staying in a ryokan (Japanese-style inn) and enjoying local specialties.
Anne Hotta and Yoko Ishiguro set out to create a guidebook to help English speakers navigate Japan’s innumerable onsen, and they produced an amazing resource in A Guide to Japanese Hot Springs. Despite some downsides (see below), it remains a great resource for onsen lovers.
Note: This book is designed for true onsen enthusiasts, who won’t be satisfied with visiting just one, two or even three hot springs. Unless you plan on visiting several onsen – or you travel to Japan often – you probably don’t need this book.
As mentioned above, A Guide to Japanese Hot Springs has some drawbacks. It was published in 1986 and hasn’t been updated, so the first thing you’ll notice is that it feels a bit old-fashioned.
It’s also a bit disappointing that it doesn’t include more photos, since one of the highlights of visiting onsen is the natural beauty surrounding them. And despite its wealth of information, it’s not the easiest book to navigate. Until you get used to the way it’s organized, it can be hard to know where to begin or how to find what you’re looking for.
Fortunately, the pros heavily outweigh the cons. Despite being from 1986, the bulk of its information remains true and relevant (things don’t change very quickly in the world of hot springs).
Some details have inevitably changed in the past 30 or so years, but as a guide to Japan’s onsen this book remains an amazing jumping-off point.
Where A Guide to Japanese Hot Springs truly shines is in the actual content. The authors make up for the lack of photos with their vivid descriptions, and they’re clearly passionate about every aspect of the onsen experience.
The book is divided into regions of Japan, with each section containing several onsen the authors recommend (the book features 160 hot springs in all). Each onsen’s description contains both essential information, as well as interesting tidbits that add to the book’s flavor.
Details you’ll find for each onsen include: location; contact details and access (some of this is outdated); the water’s chemical composition, as this varies greatly from hot spring to hot spring; the health benefits of each onsen; information on local festivals; and more.
While English speakers can now find much of this information online, it’s very convenient to have it all compiled in one little book. If you love onsen or dream of an onsen-hopping trip around Japan, this book is for you.
Obtain from Amazon: A Guide to Japanese Hot Springs
Drinking Japan: A Guide to Japan’s Best Drinks and Drinking Establishments
By Chris Bunting
Drinking Japan: A Guide to Japan’s Best Drinks and Drinking Establishments is an ode to Japan’s drinking culture.
The author, Chris Bunting, is passionate about drinking (in a good way), and he took on the arduous task of traveling all over Japan to document Japan’s varied and colorful drinking landscape.
The book starts off with a history of alcohol and drinking in Japan, as well as an overview of the many different types of drinking establishments you’ll come across.
Being able to distinguish between izakayas, “snacks”, “pubs” and “bars” is surprisingly difficult for visitors to Japan, and the differences will surprise you!
The heart of the book is dedicated to individual chapters about each of Japan’s most important beverages:
- Sake (nihonshu in Japanese)
- Shochu, Japan’s most well-known distilled spirit
- Whisky (the author founded the Japanese whisky-focused website Nonjatta)
- Beer, with an emphasis on craft beers
- Wine, an up-and-coming industry in Japan
- And awamori, Okinawa’s distilled alcohol
Each chapter includes everything a traveler needs to know, including a brief history of the drink; varieties that exist; what to look for; and recommended drinking establishments in Tokyo and beyond.
Sake, beer and shochu are ubiquitous in Japan, but this book focuses mainly on specialty sake bars, craft beer bars, whisky bars and the like.
The establishments featured are scattered throughout Japan, though a little more than half of them are in Tokyo and the surrounding area. You’ll also find places to drink in destinations like Kyoto, Hiroshima, Sapporo, Takayama and Okinawa.
Whether you’re a sake novice, craft beer lover, whisky connoisseur – or simply interested in Japanese culture – this is a great resource to pack along for your trip to Japan.
Obtain from Amazon: Drinking Japan: A Guide to Japan’s Best Drinks and Drinking Establishments
We hope these wonderful specialty guidebooks get you more excited about your trip, and help you get more out of your visit to Japan!