Review: Clueless in Tokyo

I was first introduced to Betty Reynolds by my local library. When I lived on Okinawa, there wasn’t a whole lot for a young, stay-at-home mother to do with a baby who absolutely positively refused to sleep. While my parenting compatriots were all at home in the humid afternoons basking in the break of their little one’s rest time, I was more often toting my non-napper off to the local base library to find SOME way to pass the endless hours.

On one of our many outings, I stumbled across Betty Reynolds’ children’s book Tokyo Friends. The story wasn’t anything revolutionary –  but the illustrations were captivating. I, having the artistic ability of a flea, am always in awe of people who can draw and here was someone who captured the scenes around me – my life in Japan – with startling vividness.

Reynolds brings that same impressive talent to her latest work, Clueless in Tokyo, which I eagerly dove into upon its arrival from Tuttle Publishing the other week. (I must say, as a gal who loves books in any form, I am relishing these review opportunities. There are some seriously fantastic publications out there.) To be completely accurate, Clueless in Tokyo was originally published in 1997, not too long after Reynolds’ seven year stint in Japan. This new edition, just released in September of 2014, includes even more sketches (ie new sights like the Tokyo Sky Tree).

cluelessWhat do I love about this book? It’s overwhelmingly geared to the visual “learner”. The book is divided into four sections – Traditional Tokyo, Seasonal Tokyo, Tokyo Today and Oddities and Entities. In each section, the sketches are well-defined and full color, and there is plenty of attention to detail. Reynolds touches on both major aspects of Japanese culture in Tokyo (shrines and temples, holidays, sumo, manga and anime) while also sparing space (sometimes full pages) for things like various footwear, gift giving, and portable oden stands. I loved that there were clear descriptions accompanying nearly every drawing and for those who want to improve their language skills, each picture is accompanied by the Japanese name.

What didn’t I like? Personally, I wasn’t fond of the questions that were featured on each page. I often found them hard to read, wrapped as they were around most sketches, and with the attached descriptions, I found the questions themselves a bit superfluous. I also found the last section of the book a bit random. Granted, this part is labeled as Oddities and Entities but the collection of topics covered here didn’t seem to have any type of cohesion. Some of the sketches could have been moved to other sections while the rest could have been left out and I don’t think the book would have suffered.

Still, despite those minor shortcomings, I REALLY like this book. For the picture-oriented traveler to Japan, this should absolutely be in your suitcase. (It’s light enough, so no worries there.) Take it with you to the sushi bar and use the page that describes every type of fish you may eat in full color. Take it with you to the flea market so you can identify your bargains. Take it with you to your ryokan, so you know exactly how to act on that trip to the public bath. This book is not only “pretty”, but useful as well. And boy, does it make me wish I could draw!


I was provided a free copy of Clueless in Tokyo for review purposes. The opinions above, however, are entirely my own.

A word of warning to parents who might have enjoyed Reynolds’ earlier works, as I did. Clueless in Tokyo is NOT for kids. Several of the pages referring to bathing show various states of undress and unless you want to explain to young ones why certain Tokyo vending machines sell used schoolgirl panties, this is one to keep on a higher shelf.

2 thoughts on “Review: Clueless in Tokyo

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    1. I am quite envious of her artistic abilities. I always wished I could do watercolors of the places I have been and what I’ve seen but alas … stick people is about the best I can do with a brush!

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