Japan's Must-Read Magazine

A Tale of Two Cities

For first-time visitors and long-term residents alike, a Tokyo guidebook is an essential reference item. There are several options on the market, each one offering a different perspective on the city – the trick is to pick the one that best suits your tastes and needs.

Case in point: two recently published Tokyo guides provide such starkly divergent views of the capital, it’s hard to believe that they’re talking about the same place. On one hand, there is LUXE Tokyo, one of a new series of high-end guides promising the best in shopping, dining and lifestyle. On the other, there is Lonely Planet Best of Tokyo, the latest edition from the popular practical series.

But how do each of these guides measure up against the world’s biggest metropolis?

The city according to LUXE…

Shopping! Shopping! Shopping! Wake up in the cool comfort of the Park Hyatt (you wouldn’t dream of staying anywhere else, would you?) and head off for a spending spree in Aoyama or Ginza. Half of this teeny-tiny guide is devoted to shopping itineraries: visit the latest trendy design stores or have a kimono made to order, then stop for lattes (minimum price ¥600) or cocktails. You might find it’s time for a spa treatment; lots of options here, although it’s a little unnecessary – there’s a spa in the hotel, after all.

Dinnertime: the next main attraction. This is the LUXE guide’s moment to shine: it boasts extensive listings of the city’s most stylish restaurants, a good mix of classic and trendy, ex-pat hang-outs and hip local hide-outs. Because it’s updated every six months, the guide has managed in the past to scoop other trend-spotters like Condé Nast Traveler and Wallpaper (if that means anything to you). Of course, the emphasis is on maximum style, which means no plain-Janes make the cut – however fabulous the food – and only a few Japanese restaurants get a look-in.

How to pass the evening? LUXE decides for you: spend it in the most expensive and exclusive bars and nightclubs. The guide offers no other entertainment ideas, though it does score points for avoiding Roppongi and mentioning artsy joints Super Deluxe and Unit (hardly glamorous, but definitely hip).

If you decide to do a little sightseeing during the day, LUXE narrows down the “other” activities to a few must-sees: Meiji Shrine and Takeshita Dori in Harajuku, some art galleries and the fish market at Tsukiji (how did that make the list?), plus day trips to Hakone and Nikko.

Of course, none of the listings include train station information and the guide doesn’t have a single map – well, you’ll be doing all your traveling by taxi, so what would be the point? In the case of further-flung destinations, “your concierge will arrange everything.” That’s the appeal of the LUXE guide: it’s so streamlined (and obviously targeting a particular audience) that you don’t actually have to make any decisions yourself.

The city according to Lonely Planet…

Museums, markets, and temples… Better get an early start because it’s going to be a long, full day. Start with a neighborhood walking tour and break for lunch in the park. Hit a museum in the afternoon and a show in the evening, before staggering, exhausted into the pubs (too bad LP doesn’t tip travelers off to genki drinks).

Sightseeing takes top priority, if you follow the advice of the highlights section in the front of the book: think Tokyo National Museum, Senso-ji et al. Only two of the spots mentioned – Harajuku and Akihabara – are even remotely contemporary, though hardly novel suggestions. LP emphasizes timeless attractions, with an approach that resembles a cultural anthropology study.

While the daytime options should motivate you to get out and explore the city (or at least guilt-trip you into visiting a museum), the evening ones are uninspiring to say the least. Most dining listings seem to have been chosen for their proximity to popular tourist spots (why else would you be going to a restaurant in Asakusa?) and are alternately random (Sri Lankan in Shinjuku) and obvious (Kisso in Roppongi). The nightlife options are equally all-over-the-place, and all but a few are decidedly un-hip, even cringe-worthy. That said, I’m sure a few locals will quietly thank LP for directing tourists to Gas Panic instead of giving away the cool secret spots. Either way, they won’t be out late. LP will have them up at dawn to queue for sumo tickets.

The guide’s standout feature is its thoroughness: the listings are extensive, practical and succinct, plus you get all the standard LP fare like maps, useful numbers, advice on how to use the toilets and so on. From the cheapest digs to the poshest high rises, ramen to kaiseki, Sake Plaza to the Nature Study Garden… it’s all here.

The only thing you need to do is decide what’s worth doing. The problem is, unless you already know the city, how do you separate the good from the bad? For example, the walking tours section includes a Kabukicho bar crawl (which is cool) and a day trip to Odaiba (which is lame). And be honest: can you trust a guide that mentions Tokyo Tower? Come to think of it, Lonely Planet is not so much a guidebook as a manual for navigating the city.

Bottom Line

LUXE Tokyo: Ideal for jet setters and expense account travelers. Designed to fit discreetly in your Fendi baguette.

Lonely Planet Best of Tokyo: Suited to students and their parents alike. Designed to fit into your canvas side-satchel.

Does either guide capture Tokyo as we know it? Of course not: neither one mentions Don Quixote.

LUXE Tokyo 2nd Edition
Edited by Nicole Fall
Luxe Asia Ltd. 2005
ISBN 988-98015-1-5

LP Best of Tokyo 2nd Edition
Written by Wendy Yanagihara, Photos by Greg Elms
Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd. 2005
ISBN 1-74104-176-7