Tokyo is a difficult city to get a handle on. I’ve personally only spent a matter of weeks there, and I didn’t even scratch the surface of it. It’s a world class destination, and for Westerners in particular, it has a magic aura. Talking to friends at home in Canada, I’ve been told so many times, “I’d love to go to Tokyo.” From that point of view, I can clearly see the general appeal of a book like this. Author Rob Goss has done his research and uses his knowledge of the city to give it a high-quality introduction.
One of the difficulties of a book like this is that many of us have either seen a documentary or travelogue show about Tokyo, or have something like the Lonely Planet guide, and they all tend to cover a lot of the same territory. So, while there is fresh content in this book (the Mikimoto Ginza building didn’t exist last time I was there, the book is up to date as of 2015), for me, there was a certain familiarity with much of it. Goss shows the traditional activities, for example, hanami parties, as well as showing the contemporary phenomena, like cosplay, all standard for a guide to Tokyo. Goss isn’t bringing much personal to it; there is no use of “I” in the book. It’s very professionally written, but it doesn’t have much to set it apart from other media tackling this subject because it is just an assemblage of information. At the same time, those Lonely Planet cultural introduction sections are my favorite parts of that guidebook series, and this is a solid substitute for that and is also in a more attractive package.
The book is a small and square-shaped, hardcover with beautiful glossy paper and clean, professional, contemporary design. It’s image heavy, I’d estimate about 60% graphics (photos and maps), making it easy to understand the text even if you are unfamiliar with the subject. I quickly noticed the quality of the photography; it has a lot of beautiful images, and I was hoping Goss was a photographer. Looking at the credits though, it’s all stock photography, meaning all the images from the book are available on the Internet. Goss has assembled them into a very nice package, but again, this takes away from the uniqueness of the book. One other note about the images: the book has a certain male point of view. If there are people at a crosswalk, the girl in short shorts is front and center. If there is a club pic, the girls are in the center, a guy off to the side. The cute girl to handsome guy ratio is at least five to one, if not more. Tokyo is loaded with cute, fashionable women, but I think many readers would also like to see some of the cutting edge men’s styles too. That said, most of the pictures in the book are of buildings, food, scenery or crowd shots, so it’s not an overwhelming thing. It’s just something I noticed around the “world’s trendiest city” chapter which was literally four pages of attractive women (and some guys taking photos of an attractive woman).
The question is, would I recommend this for someone interested in Tokyo, particularly someone who’s never been there? Yes, I would. The book contains a great introduction to the city, the culture, the neighborhoods within it that really appeal to travelers (Roppongi, Shibuya, Ueno and so on), and also has a final section on the surrounding areas, like Hakone and Yokohama. It is professionally, if impersonally, written, but that seems par for the course in these sorts of books, unfortunately. And it looks great. The production quality is impeccable, which is important in a graphic-heavy book like this, and even if the photography isn’t original, they’ve borrowed from great sources. Pretty much every page looks and feels good. A book like this would whet the appetite of anyone with a curiosity about Tokyo but has never visited, and maybe even some who have.
Japan Reference (JREF) has a lot of people who use the site as an introduction to Japan, and they are exactly the audience who would appreciate a short, contained introduction to the city like this.