Frommer's Tokyo and Frommer's Japan

Frommer's doesn't have a Kyoto-only version so I cut out the Kyoto piece for something light and small to carry around while in Kyoto and the surrounding areas. I used Frommer's Tokyo while in Tokyo. Frommer's Tokyo is the general Japan piece from Frommer's Japan as well as the Tokyo portion of that book. I didn't notice anything in Frommer's Tokyo that wasn't also in Frommer's Japan.

The question always asked by those going to Japan is, "Which guidebook of Japan is the best?" My answer is that none of them are great. At times I felt like no guide book would have been better than this one. Some of the best things we did (Seibu Lions' game, Odaiba, Shogetsu, Seibuyuenchi, Arashiyama and Sagano, etc.) were not even mentioned in Frommer's. Several of their recommendations were horrible. Prices were wrong even with the most recent edition. Directions were frequently unclear.

Frommer's star system is very inaccurate. For instance, Jishu Shrine is given 2 stars while Fushimi-Inari Shrine is given only 1 star. I have a hard time believing anyone would rate Jishu higher than Fushimi-Inari. I enjoyed Fushimi-Inari more than Frommer's 3 star shrines like Kiyomizu and Kinkakuji which are so packed with tourists that they are difficult to really enjoy that much. Plus, Fushimi Inari Taisha is free while the others will set a family of four back about $10 to $15. If nothing else, Fushimi-Inari should have a "Value" recommendation next to it. Another strange thing about the Frommer's review of Fushimi-Inari is that it says the orange / vermilion torii gates are red.

The Budget Inn, where we stayed based on Frommer's recommendation, got 2 stars and a "Find" recommendation. If I were the author of Frommer's (and I really should be commissioned to write one of these Japan guidebooks as I could be more critical and accurate than the current author(s)) I wouldn't have given it any stars and would have told the reader that "you get what you pay for." Frommer's praises the Budget Inn's "little maps," but we received better local maps at the other two places we stayed; when we asked the Budget Inn for a bus map we were told they didn't have any, and we'd have to go to the bus station to get one.

The biggest disaster of a recommendation that we followed, though, was Universal Studios Japan (USJ) in Osaka. Our kids (8 and 11 years old) were getting tired of sightseeing so we decided (thanks to Frommer's) to forgo a day trip to Nara and splurge on USJ. After all Frommer's gave it their highest number of stars and a "Kids" recommendation. The review was also glowing from beginning to end. Our most expensive day in Japan at USJ also turned into our most miserable one. After forking over more than $200 to get in we found a small, cramped, amusement park that wasn't amusing. "Rides" (labeled "attractions" because most are just listening to things in Japanese rather than actually riding anything) took anywhere from 90 minutes to 3+ hours to get on and then they are all in Japanese so my wife and kids couldn't even understand them. People cut in line or purchased pass booklets for an additional $40+ each to legally cut in line which meant the rest of us were treated as second class citizens and could only experience less than 10 attractions in 12 hours. Our feet were killing us from all the line waiting and only two of them were very good--Dream and Spiderman. If you find yourself stuck at USJ be sure to avoid Backdraft and Back to the Future.

By the way, we went on a weekday and the lines had the capacity to be MUCH longer. I'm guessing that on a weekend you can't ride anything without a 2+ hour wait and some may be over 4 hours of waiting time. What a waste of precious time in Japan.

We did another amusement park outside of Tokyo that was much less expensive and had no lines. Frommer's doesn't even mention it. Seibuyuenchi is the name. The kids loved it and rode everything at least once and most rides two or three times. Some of the rides could have used a fresh coat of paint, the food in the park was awful, and don't expect anyone to be able to speak English (we were the only non-Japanese there that day), but for value it beat USJ by a mile.

I had read parts of Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Fodor's and some other guidebooks before leaving and they didn't seem any better. The biggest problem with the guide book companies is they don't do Japan right. They are all pretty similar in their flawed approach. They should follow the example of the Ultimate Hawaii guidebooks. Although not perfect, they at least have lots of details and are fairly comprehensive and accurate. There is one for each island. Imagine if you were going to America for the first time and you bought a single guidebook that covered all of America in a few hundred pages! That is what you get with the Japan guidebooks. Sure they put out a separate one for Tokyo but it is just the Tokyo piece of their larger book. Details are still scanty. Of the tens of thousands of possible places to eat or sleep only a few are covered and even then so ineffectively that you have a hard time finding the location in many cases. Many, if not most, prefectures are skipped altogether. Imagine a guidebook on America that skipped most of the states. What if you want to see them too?

Frommer's covers Kyoto, perhaps the most visited place in all of the orient, in only about 50 pages. 50 pages! What a joke. Something 10 times longer and several times more accurate and informative is needed.

Frommer's suggests that the way to visit Himeji is on a trip by Shinkansen from Tokyo. Do not follow that advice! Himeji is very cool, but you don't want to spend the time and money required to see it if you are staying in Tokyo. Also, you shouldn't spend the large amounts of money to take a Shinkansen from Kyoto. The regular train ticket from Kyoto to Himeji is also way too expensive. What Frommer's should tell you to do is get the 1-Day JR West Rail Pass for the Kansai Area and for 2,000 Yen you can go to and from Himeji if leaving from Osaka or Kyoto.

mt. mount fuji san I have one final note on Frommer's before I end this review. Go in the opposite direction as that recommended by Frommer's for the Hakone loop unless it is cloudy and the forecast is for clearing in late afternoon. Generally, Mt. Fuji is best seen in morning before becoming obscured by clouds later in the day. Had we followed Frommer's recommended route we would not have been treated to a view of Mt. Fuji from Lake Ashi. Fuji San was completely covered in clouds by the time we got to Owakudani before noon. If we went the Frommer's, counterclockwise way we would not have reached Owakudani until late afternoon. Note that the only two places along the Hakone loop route (sometimes called the Hakone Round Course) that you can see Mount Fuji from are Owakudani and Lake Ashi, and they are both near the end (since you'll probably spend significant time at the Hakone Open Air Museum) of the counterclockwise loop if you are starting at Hakone Yumoto.

In addition, you may feel rushed at the Hakone Open Air Museum (and you'll likely be with the crowds throughout your loop going counterclockwise) if it is on the first part of your loop. Avoid the food at the Hakone Open Air Museum. It was our second most expensive meal while in Japan and at the same time the second worst (next to the food at Seibu Yuenchi).

Enjoy your trip!

Books to read before going to Japan

Exchanging US dollars into yen before or during your trip to Japan

Pictures from Japan

Where to stay in Japan

Professional Japanese Baseball