To help in your Japan trip planning, and complement your online research, we’ve compiled a short list of the very best Japan travel guidebooks.
Despite the fact that nowadays most travelers rely primarily on apps and the internet for information, guidebooks can still be a great resource. (If you’re looking for more online resources, see our article on the internet’s best Japan travel resources.)
Along with helping you plan and prepare, guidebooks can also come in very handy during your trip. But apart from just being practical, for many people reading up on the destination (especially one as interesting as Japan) is part of the fun of travel. In her article, “What a Great Trip! And I’m Not Even There Yet,” Stephanie Rosenbloom writes, “Taking a vacation won’t necessarily make you happier. But anticipating it will.”
While we certainly hope that visiting Japan will make you happier, there’s definitely something uniquely magical about the anticipation before a big trip — and with this in mind, we’re thrilled to present our favorite Japan guidebooks. For even more reading (and watching) inspiration, also see our Japan Reading List: Recommended Books for your Japan Trip.
Originally written in 2014, this post was updated and republished on August 10, 2020.
Guidebooks come in various shapes and sizes, and we’ve split them into three categories:
- Comprehensive general guidebooks
- City-specific guidebooks
- Specialty (topic-specific) guidebooks
The Best General Japan Travel Guidebooks
When choosing a general guidebook for a trip, it comes down above all to personal preference.
Some travelers prefer more information, while others prefer shorter books that feel less overwhelming. Some people don’t mind text-heavy guidebooks, while for many people being able to flip through glossy photo pages is essential.
If possible, the best way to select a guidebook is to visit a bookstore in person. After leafing through a few options, you should be able to decide which book (or books) best matches your needs, travel style, and personality.
When it comes to general Japan guidebooks there are almost too many options, so to make your choice a bit easier we’ve narrowed it down to the following selection of reliable and excellent options:
- National Geographic Traveler: Japan
- DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Japan
- Moon Japan
- Fodor’s Japan
- The Rough Guide to Japan
- Lonely Planet Japan
The Best Tokyo & Kyoto Guidebooks
The general guidebooks above cover the cities of Tokyo and Kyoto, but the city-specific books below each put their own spin on things.
The selections below tend to be less focused on “sights,” and place more emphasis on food, art, shopping, and design. Enjoy!
- The Monocle Travel Guide, Tokyo
- The Monocle Travel Guide, Kyoto
- Wallpaper* City Guide Tokyo
- Wallpaper* City Guide Kyoto
- Tokyo Pocket Precincts
- Kyoto Pocket Precincts
The Best Specialty Japan Guidebooks
General guidebooks can be great, but if you’re looking for even more specialized, in-depth information, most guidebooks won’t cut it.
That’s why we love the books below. The authors are profoundly knowledgeable and passionate about their topics, which also makes them a bit more fun to read than general guidebooks. (Admittedly, most of these are related to Japanese food and drink, a topic we and our travelers tend to be particularly interested in.)
Food Sake Tokyo
Food Sake Tokyo is a wonderfully personable and comprehensive guide to eating your way around Tokyo, one of the world’s great culinary cities. (As the legendary 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 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 first half of the book is devoted to an overview of the different types of foods and beverages you’ll encounter across Tokyo (in large part this also applies to other parts of Japan). In the second half of the book, Tokyo is divided by neighborhood, with food maps and listing upon listing of the author’s recommended establishments. Since things can change, the author provides updates to the book on her website.
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 accomplished culinary professional, and offers culinary tours in Tokyo including Tsukiji Market. (See our shochu interview with Yukari-san.)
Old Kyoto: A Guide to Traditional Shops, Restaurants, and Inns
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 is both extremely informative and user-friendly, and an invaluable resource for an in-depth exploration of the city’s older side. It makes for a fascinating read, and so effectively transports you to this world of exquisite craftsmanship and traditional hospitality that it can be enjoyed whether you have plans to visit Kyoto or not.
Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook
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 have drinks with friends or coworkers while eating delicious Japanese small plates.
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 specialize in a mouthwatering array of izakaya cuisine. His writing is complemented by the photographs of Masashi Kuma (who also photographed the book Kaiseki: The Exquisite Cuisine of Kyoto’s Kikunoi Restaurant).
The vignettes and photos paint a vivid picture of each izakaya’s food, clientele, proprietors, and atmosphere. The book also includes easy-to-follow recipes culled from the featured establishments, 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!
Drinking Japan: A Guide to Japan’s Best Drinks and Drinking Establishments
Drinking Japan is an ode to the country’s fascinating drinking culture. The author, Chris Bunting, is passionate about drinking (in a good way), and he took on the arduous task of traveling around the country to document Japan’s varied and colorful drinking landscape.
The book begins with a brief history of alcohol and drinking in Japan, and an overview of the many types of drinking establishments you’ll come across. Being able to distinguish between izakayas, “snacks”, “pubs,” and “bars” can be surprisingly difficult, and the differences will surprise you!
The heart of the book features chapters dedicated to Japan’s most important alcoholic beverages including nihonshu (sake); beer, with an emphasis on craft beer; Japanese whisky; wine, an up-and-coming industry in Japan; shochu, Japan’s most popular distilled spirit; and awamori, Okinawa’s distilled alcohol.
Each chapter includes key information about the beverage, and recommended drinking spots. The establishments featured are scattered throughout Japan (in places including Kyoto, Hiroshima, Sapporo, Takayama, and Okinawa) though around half or more are in the Tokyo area.
Whether you’re a sake novice, craft beer lover, whisky connoisseur – or simply interested in Japanese beverage culture – this is a great resource to pack along for your trip.
Rice, Noodle, Fish: Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture
Rice, Noodle, Fish 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 Anthony Bourdain, Rice Noodle Fish is at its core a love letter to Japan and its incredible culinary culture.
Part culinary guide, part travel memoir, the book is divided into rich, story-filled chapters featuring different cities and regions in Japan including Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Fukuoka (aka Hakata), Kanazawa and the Noto Peninsula, and Hokkaido.
RNF leads you on a colorful – both in terms of the flavorful language and engrossing photographs by the talented Michael Magers – almost painfully crave-worthy journey through Japan, and is a must-read for culinary travelers, whether or not you are planning a trip to Japan.
We hope this helps you get excited and find the right Japan travel guidebook for your trip! For further inspiration, if you haven’t already make sure to bookmark our extensive Japan travel reading list.