Up the garden path
Ian Fleming, in his 1963 guide to the world’s Thrilling Cities, described Tokyo as a city that had “endless taxis [which] drive like hell,” “ten pimps where, in Paris, there would be one,” and a tourist hotel in Yugawara “whose lately deceased manager had been the President of the International
Unfortunately, contemporary guides to both Tokyo and the country at large are far less entertaining — overwhelmingly worthy but frequently snoringly dull.
The rapid increase in low-cost international travel and tourism that began in the 1970s has helped fuel the modern travel guidebook industry, best exemplified by brands such as Fodor’s, Lonely Planet and Rough Guides. There is little passion involved in the production of these companies guides; while some local colour is encouraged, of far more importance to farflung editors are the instructions for local contributors to adhere to the publisher’s style sheets and formatting rules. Competence with obsolete production software and an advanced understanding of Microsoft Word’s more arcane functions are as much prerequisites as, say, a smattering of the target country’s language or a basic knowledge of its history.
Modern English-language guides to Japan remain problematic, mostly due to simple economic factors. Any guidebook publishing company that claims to offer guides to the world’s major countries, or which aspires to do so, has to include a Japan title in its publishing list, for the sake
of prestige. Yet, compared with guides to popular tourist destinations like Western Europe, India or Thailand, sales are negligible. Fodor’s will not state how many copies of its guide to Japan it sells, while the awardwinning first edition of the Rough Guide to Japan, published in 1999, only sold 30,000 copies in the three years or so before it was updated.
To get round the bean counters’ objections to spending any more money than is absolutely necessary on guides to Japan, corners are frequently cut. In the case of Fodor’s, editorial contributors are expected to install a clunky piece of bespoke software that is hardly intuitive and which makes updating even a simple hotel entry a chore.
Yet by using this software, Fodor’s HQ is able to foist a fair chunk of the book’s production work onto poorly paid freelance contributors rather than its own in-house design staff. The sheer amount of information that needs to be double-checked in every update to a Rough Guide or a Lonely Planet guide involves inordinately long hours spent trawling the Internet and on the telephone — if the job is to be done properly. Per hour, the day shift at Lawson
is more attractive.
To those unfamiliar with the nittygritty of guidebook work, it may well seem like a glamorous job, with unrestricted access to superior restaurants and hotels. In reality, because of Japan’s lack of popularity as a tourist destination, guidebook publishers pay a relative pittance to freelance contributors, often barely enough to pay for travel and lodging as one traipses from town to town updating the previous edition’s entries. Additionally, because many Japanese guidebooks are in fact paid for by contributions from featured hotels or restaurants — unlike the majority of Western guides — dealings with Japanese establishments can be hugely frustrating, due to the assumption t hat some kind of financial transaction is required before an entry can be included.
Because of the arduousness of the task and the almost entire absence of remuneration once basic costs have been accounted for, experienced contributors with in-depth knowledge of the country and language are comparatively rare in guides to Japan. When they do exist, they are often forced by circumstance to adopt lower levels of professionalism in order to complete the tasks assigned by editors in London or New York — who quite often do not even have an interest in the target country.
The most pressing of problems is the accuracy of a guide’s entertainment and lodging listings. Dealing with this notoriously fickle scene is compounded by the length of time that elapses between the conduct of the original research and the publication of the guidebook — twelve to fifteen months is not unheard of. While this is unlikely to be of concern when dealing with the permanency of tourist sites such as the Daibutsu-den in Nara or Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, restaurants and bars tend to disappear far too rapidly for those in charge of production schedules.
By the time an updated guide is published, it is not uncommon to find that many of the listed bars and cafés have vanished.
Furthermore, the lack of funding proffered to contributors, along with time constraints, means that it is all but impossible to personally check each restaurant, hotel or bar listed. These are important sections of travel guides. Yet with the increasing availability of accurate, locally-written restaurant and entertainment guides on the Internet — the best of which are constantly updated, community based and well maintained — these sections are the most under threat from competitors. With the rapid convergence of various digital technologies, it is not difficult to foresee such information, in an advanced industrial nation like Japan, being easily made available directly to travelers’ mobile phones, obviating the need for a bulky guide entirely.
Guidebooks to nations like Laos or East Timor will remain popular due to the difficulty in unearthing comprehensive, practical information about these places from other sources. But in the case of Japan, about which it is easy to find up-to-date listings and recommendations in English, and which has an efficient national tourist organization, all-in-one guidebooks are sure to lose favor with those short-term visitors who don’t intend to go wild in the countryside or explore the more remote parts of the Setonaikai.
Parsimonious publishers offering stingy stipends to their writers and updaters are unlikely to be able to reverse this flow; instead, they should follow some of Fleming’s suggestions, and pack their contributors off to meet a geisha in Gion or eat monkey brain at Momonjiya.