Cute. That’s the word for this book. Upon opening it, I quickly realised I was not a member of the target audience. Not because it’s cute (I like cute stuff), but because I have experience traveling, experience in Japan, and I don’t have rose-coloured glasses when viewing Japan. On top of that, I found it graphically unsophisticated, and the colouring gaudy. That isn’t to say there isn’t a market for it, and that some wouldn’t love this book. I think there is, and some will. It just isn’t likely to be an adult. So, I’ll try to discuss this with that in mind: better to judge something based on what it’s trying to do rather than what it wasn’t.
The book has to be aimed at high school students. I was surprised that in the first chapter, Prepare for Takeoff! one of the first bits of advice was that you need a passport, which will take four to six weeks, then tells you to “get ready to fill it up with some stamps!” The simplicity of the advice, plus the enthusiasm is really not something shared by people who’ve travelled more than a little, in my experience. But, I can imagine a high school student both needing to explicitly be told that, and get excited by the novelty of getting stamps. The next chapter tell about the “cool thing” at JR stations where you can collect station stamps. Throughout the book, there are a lot of “cool” things that really wouldn’t interest a lot of people who’ve spent time here.
This book loves Japan, and that should be clear just from the title: Japan is “cool.” And it is, but the book really shows an absolute love for the country. Any negative qualities are either mild points (“(Hotel) rooms are typically much smaller) or simply not mentioned. So, having the first chapter make sure to let you know to bring a passport seemed fair enough, but when arriving, it mentions you need to go through customs, while not mentioning that you will be fingerprinted. Most countries do not fingerprint, so that is something most people would probably like to know, but it’s not a cool thing and was left out.
The tone of the book is very much in the tone of a giddy, young person (or a giddy old person, though I rarely encounter that type). It makes for a more personal read than the average guide book, and that’s a good thing, but just like in real life, you have to have a personality that matches. In some places it’s a bit too much to take, for example, reading that sleeping on a heated carpet kept her “toasty warm,” or that kotatsu’s are “blissful” on cold nights, was a little much for me. There’s a level of cutesy that I just choose not to have in my day to day life. I’ve worked with people in Japan that are just so happy to be here and love everything, so Denson is not alone in her feelings about Japan, but just like I have no interest in doing puri-kura here, I don’t have a lot in common with her unbridled enthusiasm.
That said, the book is loaded with solid information about Japan, from the fact that the basement of department stores is a great place to get food or that many washrooms have both squatting toilets and Western ones. The book is peppered with basic Japanese vocabulary as well, without being overwhelming. For somebody who has never been to Japan, it is a good introduction, and because it is illustrated, people will have a solid image of what’s being discussed in a way that Lonely Planet doesn’t provide; for example, what onigiri or taiyaki look like.
About the illustration though… I have a lot of tolerance for outside the mainstream illustration, and I’m on the fence here. For simple pictures, it’s clear enough, but anything which requires a little complexity looks very lazy. A chapter featuring Kyoto has a few illustrations of Kiyomizu-dera which I doubt Japanese would recognise without the narrative caption explaining it. And it’s exacerbated by the colouring. The colouring is generally flat, which I like, but there’s no subtlety to it. That picture of Kiyomizudera is a single block of brown. It’s not pretty. In other places, to show lighting, either a simple gradient or a soft Photoshop brush was used, which just makes it look cheap. It sounds harsh, but a lot of people might be put off this book just by the illustration style. If you look at the cover and like it, it probably won’t be a problem for you. For me though, I think if the colour had been done in watercolours or some natural tones, it would have covered over most flaws in the illustration.
So despite having some good information and being a brisk read, for myself, and my friends, I wouldn’t recommend it. For the kid of a friend who’s never been to Japan and really likes anime/J-pop/manga, whatever, yeah, I might. I think a lot of young people would get a digestible introduction to the country. So, this is an okay book, when it finds the right audience.