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Tuesday, Sep. 27, 2011
A compact guide to guidebooks on Japan
Despite the Internet revolution and resultant websites and blogs offering information about every conceivable aspect of any country you'd care to name, many people make sure a copy of their favorite guidebook is in their $500 suitcase or $5 backpack before boarding a plane.
When you're surrounded by a language and culture not your own, there is something reassuring about being able to thumb through a book to find that hotel, bar, restaurant, train station, bus stop or sightseeing spot you're desperately looking for.
What are the major English-language guidebooks on Japan?
A trip to your local bookstore reveals a variety of titles. Some of the more well-known publishers with Japan editions include Lonely Planet, Rough Guide and Fodor's.
These publishers also offer separate guidebooks on cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Nara. Other publishers focus on one aspect of the country, like the Michelin Guide to restaurants.
Then, there are firms where guidebook publishing is complementary to their core business. For example, Louis Vuitton publishes guidebooks on some Japanese cities.
Who writes the guidebooks?
Writers are often but not always expatriates who have lived and worked in Japan for a fair amount of time. Most are in their mid-20s to mid-40s.
They may be based in a major city, but will spend six months or more traveling around the country, gathering information, visiting famous sites, compiling lists of hotels, restaurants, etc.
They spend a lot of time fact-checking their original reporting as well as information they come across elsewhere.
So guidebook writers are just-the-facts reporters rather than old-fashioned travel writers?
In today's world, they have to be both. Lonely Planet Japan and Kyoto guidebook author Chris Rowthorn says different chapters require different styles. "The highlights sections at the front of the book should be short and snappy, while the destination sections require a more reserved approach," he says.
John Ashburne, who wrote the Louis Vuitton 2011 City Guide to Kyoto and Nara (and is a contributor to this newspaper), says many guidebook writers are closet novelists, but that guidebook editors, often based abroad, can be very much a part of the just-the-facts school who disdain the use of adjectives, humor and historical allusions.
But the writing, while personalized and opinionated to an extent, tends to follow set guidelines.
Gone are the days of Victorian/Meiji-era travel writing, which were essentially long letters to friends. Visitors today need practical information.
Depending on their readership, Japan guidebooks may have sections with travel tips for families with small children, gays and lesbians, women traveling alone, or those with physical or health, including dietary, restrictions.
How do guidebooks present Japanese culture?
Often in great detail, with great sympathy, and in ways that debunk or analyze closely held stereotypes and assumptions.
For example, Lonely Planet directly challenges assertions about Japanese being unique and all one race.
"It's worth starting any discussion of 'the Japanese' by noting there is no such thing as 'the Japanese.' Rather, there are 127 million individuals in Japan with their own unique characters, interests, and habits."
Guidebooks offer tips on how to bow properly, hold chopsticks or use a public bath. But unlike Japanese-authored guides, which are often silent on cultural differences, overseas guidebooks feel an obligation to speak plainly, with advice like the following.
"Japan is a strictly hierarchical society where men generally take precedence over women, so ladies shouldn't expect doors to be held open or seats vacated," says the Rough Guide to Japan's section on culture and etiquette.
To what extent do guidebook writers rely on official Japanese travel and tourism bureaus or departments outside major cities?
Longer-term expat writers with their own connections are less likely to rely on these official sources than a writer who doesn't know the country.
However, writers often emphasize the importance of localities and businesses being able, and willing, to provide services to English-speaking tourists.
Rowthorn cites the city of Tanabe, Wakayama Prefecture, as a good example.
"The city employs a Japanese-speaking foreign resident. He's worked on English maps of the area, ensured there were English signs, trained local 'minshuku' and 'ryokan' owners how to handle foreign guests, and created a user-friendly English website with an accommodation booking system," he says.
Sally McLaren, who wrote the Kansai chapters for Rough Guide, concurs that local tourism officials in the countryside can be as good, if not better, than those in major cities.
But she evaluates just how foreigner-friendly businesses in both rural areas and major cities are before deciding whether to include them.
"There's no point in sending people to trendy restaurants, or even hotels, where they don't have the willingness or communication skills to deal with non-Japanese customers," McLaren says.
How do Japanese tourism officials and businesses see the guidebooks?
Often with a wary eye. Some of Kyoto's better restaurants were reportedly angry at being included in the Michelin Guide a few years ago, because they didn't want the publicity. And, sometimes, tourism officials take public exception to the way guidebook writers portray their city.
Several years ago, Osaka became upset when several guidebooks in English, Korean and Chinese wrote that the city was full of yakuza. Fearing Asian tourism would be affected, Osaka officials complained to local media they were being unfairly treated.
But one Tokyo-based writer, requesting anonymity, said that's exactly the kind of thing that sells guidebooks.
"Some foreign tourists like the idea of, if not visiting, than at least reading about a place like Osaka that's a bit edgy. And lots of people in other parts of Japan agree Osaka has the image of being a yakuza town," he said.
To reduce "misunderstandings," and since the majority of information about Japan is usually in Japanese, shouldn't guidebook writers be highly fluent in both the language and the culture?
This is the subject of much debate. Writers who don't speak or read Japanese are unlikely to write with as much authority, inside knowledge and confidence as those who do.
On the other hand, guidebooks are designed for those who are not fluent in Japanese. Some publishers also argue that long-term expats overlook things the fresh eyes of a new arrival who lacks their Japanese ability — and thus their perspective on Japan — would notice.
Japan is trying to bring back tourists that fled after March 11. How will future editions of guidebooks deal with what's happened since then?
Guidebook writers are in general agreement that, first and foremost, Japanese officials must deal more honestly and openly with fears about radiation contamination in all parts of Japan, not just the Tohoku region.
McLaren and Rowthorn note there are fears among foreign tourists about radiation-tainted food in particular. "Without a well-enforced national food-testing program, Japan cannot reassure potential tourists," Rowthorn said.
The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to firstname.lastname@example.org