So, with all the free information available online, why get a guidebook for Japan travel?!
Well, when it’s your first trip and you are brand new to a country, they can make a GREAT starting point to understanding the basics.
This can include cultural nuances and practicalities of getting around.
Or, if you are old-school and just like books, they are good too. 😉
I am a big fan of Lonely Planet for beginner’s guides to countries in Asia.
They can serve to quickly give you a list of places to eat and places to stay, and they can give you context for the places you’re going with a little bit of history.
And most importantly, they give the practical tips of getting around a country and the best way to get from one place to another, whether that may be by bus, train, or taxi.
There is also one free Lonely Planet pdf you can get when you’re looking for a day trip from Tokyo.
First, the quick list of the best books and pdf’s for your trip to Japan
Then, the quick list of the top places to visit in Japan (with a bonus spot!)
And then finally, more about the books that can help you plan a perfect first trip to Japan, with what each of the travel guides can offer you depending on what you’re looking for!
What are some of the best guidebooks for planning your first trip to Japan?!
There are affiliate links below. You should totally check out these guidebook reviews!
The quick list of the best books for travel in Japan
- Discover Japan (overview of the best places to visit in Japan with pictures)
- Discover Tokyo (overview of Tokyo neighborhoods)
- Lonely Planet Japan (practical travel tips for getting around Japan – 900+ pages and text heavy)
- DK Eyewitness Japan (best places to visit in Japan with pretty pictures)
- Japan by Rail
- Onsen of Japan (best of Japanese hot springs and bath houses)
- Japanese Inns and hot springs (best of Japanese-style ryokan accommodation)
- Japanese phrasebook for travel
- Lonely Planet PDF and e-books (or buy as bundle with book + pdf)
BONUS: Discount code!
If you’re in the US or Canada, get 10% off all Lonely Planet books by buying your guide directly through Lonely Planet here and using the following discount code at checkout:
Use this coupon code any time through the end of 2019!
Top places to visit for a first trip to Japan itinerary
2. Mt Fuji
Climbing Mt Fuji as a 2-day hike
3. Fuji Five Lakes (for Mt Fuji views)
How to spend one day in Fuji Five Lakes area
Being in the Fuji Five Lakes area is all about Mt Fuji views! This is what I did with one day in Kawaguchiko.
Use this Kyoto tourist map to plan out your 5 days in Kyoto!
- Day 1: Top tourist spots with one day bus pass
- Day 2: Fushimi Inari Shrine hike through 1,000 torii gates
- Day 3: Philosopher’s Path walk
- Day 4: Arashiyama and Sagano
- Day 5: Kurama Kibune Ohara with one day pass
Kyoto used to be a capital of Japan, and there are a number of UNESCO world heritage sites in Kyoto.
How to spend one day in Nara
This is a popular day trip from Kyoto, and these are places to visit with one day in Nara.
As another ancient capital of Japan, there are a number of UNESCO world heritage sites in Nara too.
Day trip to Osaka and Himeji from Kyoto
Osaka and Himeji both have grand castles, so you can make it a castle day with both Osaka and Himeji.
Visit Hiroshima’s main attraction
You’ll want to give yourself 2 hours minimum at the Hiroshima peace park that is in remembrance of victims of the world’s most tragic nuclear bombing, although you could easily spend a full day here.
Day trip to Miyajima from Hiroshima
Save this page for the golden route of Japan to refer to these above places later.
As a bit of a distance from mainland Japan (flying is the easiest way to get there), Okinawa isn’t often on a first-time visitor’s itinerary.
This is a group of tropical islands in the far south of Japan.
But if you have a few extra days after a week or 2 of intense travel in Japan, Okinawa can be the perfect way to finish off your trip!
This is how you can spend 3 days in Okinawa with hiking, biking, and snorkeling!
BONUS: Cherry blossom season in Japan
One of the most popular times to visit Japan (aka one of the most crowded times!) is in the spring with cherry blossom season.
Here’s a sample one-day cherry blossom photo walk in Japan and here’s a castle park where you can go for a picnic under cherry blossom trees.
Back to the books!
Why some of the above listed Japan travel guides are the best!
This book is good for discovering not only regions of Japan to visit, but also can serve as a guide to the different cultural experiences that are perfect for your first trip to Japan.
It’s also full of pictures and this can be the perfect starting point when you don’t even know where you start with your Japan trip planning! (Also check when the worst time to visit Japan might be.)
If you’re at the point where you have NO idea where to go in Japan or NO idea what types of activities there are, I would say there’s a good chance you will be happy with this Discover Japan book!
There’s also a Discover Tokyo book too.
ULTIMATE country-wide Japan guidebook
These types of big country books are especially good if you’ll be backpacking around Asia and won’t have a chance to thoroughly research every single location before you get there.
It’ll give you the quick low-down of what you need to know once you’re in a place, and it’ll also quickly give you the details you need to know for moving around.
So then of course that means it can also be helpful if you ARE doing a ton of your planning ahead of time.
This gets into the specifics of each city – what to see, what to do, where to eat, where to stay, and how to get from here to there!
The Discover Japan book has a little bit of that too, but this main Lonely Planet Japan book is a bit more expansive and covers more areas and cities. I would say it’s more detailed with practical tips.
It also has a section dedicated to all the little things to know about Japan that you might not even think to ask about. The small things that can make a big difference when you are traveling around Japan!
The Lonely Planet Japan big book is 900+ pages, while the Discover Japan book is 300 pages.
What’s lacking in the country-wide Lonely Planet big books are pictures.
It’s nearly all text, as I would say the main goal is to actually give you the details you need when you are on-the-go in Japan.
Compare the reviews of these guidebooks:
City guidebooks (Tokyo, Kyoto)
If you already know where you’re traveling in Japan, and you’re sticking to the big cities of Tokyo or Kyoto, there are also city-specific guides.
I would say that if you’re buying the big LP book of Japan, you don’t need to buy the individual city guidebooks, as a lot of the information will overlap.
Although, one reason you might want to buy the city book anyway is that it’ll be much better to carry around a thinner city book than the thick Japan book.
You could use the big book for research purposes at home, and then take with you the smaller book to Japan.
City pocket guidebooks (Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka)
And then the most travel-friendly of the Lonely Planet books (not including e-books!) are the pocket guidebooks.
These are smaller books, and if you’ll be spending a week in Tokyo, Kyoto, or Osaka, you may consider getting the pocket book.
See the reviews of the Tokyo city guidebooks:
See the reviews of the Kyoto city guidebooks:
ULTIMATE Japan guide PDF (e-book)
So the Lonely Planet PDFs are basically the EXACT same as the actual travel book.
The benefit is that you don’t have to carry around the extra weight of books in your suitcase!
And if you’re out and about exploring and you want to know quickly a good place to eat – you can consult your phone and Lonely Planet PDF!
You can buy the PDF individually, and you can also buy both the book and PDF as a bundle.
If you like books, you can once again have the book at home for research purposes, and then leave the actual book at home and have the e-book on your phone.
If you already know where in Japan you’re going, then you can also buy individual chapters of the book too, instead of the whole book.
When the Lonely Planet pdf is huge (the big book has almost 1,000 pages) it can be slow to load on the phone.
So what I have done is – when I get to a destination, I will screenshot the map in the book, the list of restaurants, or other vital information for easier access. This makes it so when I’m roaming the streets I don’t have to spend time scrolling through hundreds of pages to get to the specific section I want. (The search function can help, but it can still take time!)
Best Japan travel guide PDFs:
- Lonely Planet Japan (the big book)
- Discover Japan
- Discover Tokyo
- Tokyo city guide
- Tokyo pocket guide
- Kyoto city guide
- Kyoto and Osaka pocket guide
You really don’t NEED to know any Japanese for a trip to Japan. You will survive even if you don’t know anything.
The big cities and main tourist attractions will have English signs all over.
If you head to some of the smaller towns, there may not be any English, but you will probably manage. 😉
But of course, it can be helpful, and nice, to know some Japanese.
So you might consider getting a book of simple Japanese phrases that you can use when traveling in Japan.
See the reviews for these Japanese phrasebooks:
Also, the Google Translate app can be helpful when you’re in Japan. There’s a feature that you can take a picture of written Japanese and it will translate it for you. This might be especially helpful for reading restaurant menus in particular.
If you REALLY want to learn Japanese and are serious about it, start with the Genki series – these books are also used at the university level to for Japanese language learning. And get started with learning how to write in Japanese properly. (Stroke order matters!)
Nikko travel guide (FREE Lonely Planet PDF)
So that free Lonely Planet PDF!
Nikko is one of the most popular places to visit from Tokyo.
So if you’re spending a few days in Tokyo, there’s a good chance you’ll end up considering a trip to here.
Many people make it a day trip to Nikko from Tokyo, and it’s also possible to extend your stay and find a few more things to do in Nikko.
After all, there’s a 4-day Nikko pass offered for a reason. (You get round-trip transportation from Tokyo covered with that, btw.)
You can get the free Lonely Planet pdf offered by the local railway company – here’s the Nikko guide.
Tokyo sightseeing guide PDF
Another useful free pdf is this Tokyo metro guide.
What makes this pdf useful for planning your trip to Tokyo is that you can see the visual of the subway route right alongside all the top Tokyo attractions.
This can help you make an efficient plan for one day in Tokyo… or more!
Using a book to guide the way!
If you ARE more of a book person, there are plenty of people who walk around town with an actual book to guide the way too! 🙂
HAPPY JAPAN TRAVEL PLANNING!
More quick tips for planning your trip to JapanThere are affiliate links on this page that take you to partner websites.
When the JR pass is worth itIn general, 2 long-distance shinkansen train trips will likely end up making it so the JR pass will be worth it. But here's how to calculate it to be sure. See the current price of a JR pass from an official vendor.
Natural disasters in JapanUnfortunately, Japan can be prone to natural disasters which means risk for travel delays. So be sure to look at travel insurance for natural disasters.
My travel insurance took care of my accommodation and food costs when I was forced to stay extra days in Japan because of a typhoon. There have been a few typhoons that have hit Japan in the past couple of years and they can cause real travel disruptions!
See how much insurance costs for your trip.
Create your Japan itinerary
- 5 days in Kyoto
- Cost of climbing Mt Fuji from Tokyo
- Where to go for famous Mt Fuji views as seen in pictures
- Know before you go to Hiroshima
- One day in Miyajima with famous floating torii views
- 3 days in Okinawa, Japan's tropical islands
- Cherry blossom photo walk
- When is the JR pass worth it for train travel?
- Tokyo to Kyoto train
- Hostels in Japan