I must confess, I am a guidebook junkie. Some people smoke, some people imbibe their daily Starbucks. Me? I line my shelves with the likes of Lonely Planet and her kin.
If you want to get under a country’s skin, however, you’ll need to look beyond the general guidebook market (Frommers, Fodors, Rough Guides, etc) and seek out some specialty resources.
What do I mean by specialty travel guides? Books that focus on one specific topic or area of expertise, whether that be the best traditional inns or detailed introductions to a specific neighborhood or prefecture. Maybe you’re a flower lover – a garden guide would be right up your alley. Looking for the best onsen (hot spring) in which to soak away all your troubles? Yup, there’s a book for that as well.
Granted, these aren’t the kind of tomes you want to lug with you, but they make for excellent pre-trip planning resources and, better yet, conversation-inspiring coffee table books. 🙂
Here are five of my favorite specialty travel guides:
- Old Kyoto by Diane Durston – This book is an excellent introduction to Kyoto’s traditional craftshops and accommodations. As many of these businesses are centuries old, there’s a solid chance that they won’t be closing anytime soon. Old Kyoto was originally published in 1986; twenty years later, when Durston did a thorough update, only one or two of the businesses had folded. So if you want to sneak in a visit to that tofu artisan or comb carver, this book will guide the way.
- Tokyo: Exploring the City of the Shogun by Sumiko Enbutsu – I love the walks described in this slim guide. Historically fascinating but easy to read, I often pick up this book and give it a glance if I know I am heading off to Tokyo soon. It’s only drawback is its size – though lightweight, it’s dimensions resemble that of a college notebook so there’s no sneaking it into a purse or small shoulder bag. Still, author Enbutsu knows her stuff – she used to write the monthly column Then and Now (a history of Tokyo neighborhoods) for the Japan Times travel section.
- Kids’ Trips in Tokyo by Ivy Maeda et al – When I first had my daughter, she was fairly portable and my travel style wasn’t too affected. Now that she’s mobile but lacks the attention span required for museum outings or leisurely lunches, I’ve had to dig a bit deeper into my repertoire of sightseeing suggestions. Thanks to the expat authors behind Kids’ Trips in Tokyo, I always have an activitiy at my fingertips. The authors also list thoughtful hints on stroller access and diaper changing stations, amongst other tips that parents would value.
- Classic Japanese Inns by Margaret Price – Sometimes a special trip deserves a special accommodation. I often opt for affordable business hotels on my quick jaunts around Japan, but I love nothing more than to pamper myself with the occasional visit to a ryokan (traditional inn), complete with relaxing baths and full-course dinners. Thankfully, linguist and travel writer Margaret Price has done all of the legwork for me – she has personally stayed in all of the 35 profiled properties in her book and isn’t afraid to give you her honest opinion. The book is divided geographically and doesn’t skimp on the key info – prices, directions and contact numbers.
- The Art of the Japanese Garden by David and Michiko Young – It’s hard not to drool over the gorgeous garden pictures in this informational book, which makes it an ideal piece for your coffee table. But for garden lovers, it’s also a useful travel guide, covering some two dozen traditional (and a few slightly more modern) gardens. No details are provided on how to visit (hours, fees, etc) but these could easily be cross-referenced with a general travel guide. This book is just to whet the appetite, and in that it thoroughly succeeds.
**Please note that none of these suggestions is to be taken as an endorsement, nor was I given any of these books to promote. These are all materials that I have purchased on my own and are well-thumbed thanks to my own travels!