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Getting on the right track

by Sara Harris

JAPAN BY RAIL, by Ramsey Zarifeh. Trailblazer Publications, 2002, 416 pp., $18.95/2 yen,900(paper)

“Perfect timing,” I thought when I picked up this guide book, barely two weeks before a trip I was planning out of Tokyo. I flipped to the index to look for my destination: Mashiko, a pottery town close enough for a day trip from Tokyo. Nothing. The only listings for its prefecture, Tochigi, were Nikko and Utsunomiya, at a scant two paragraphs each. I looked some more. No Ibaraki. Nothing in Chiba outside of the airport. In fact, only one of the last five places I’d visited outside of Tokyo was in there.

If there’s one thing that reading “Japan By Rail” brings home, it’s how much of Japan is off the beaten track — JR track, that is. While those familiar with Japan will find too much of what they know missing, for the book’s intended audience — the first-time traveler with a Japan Rail Pass in her pocket — it is a find.

The volume is well-researched and full of compelling historical details, recent events and trivia. Zarifeh searches out train lines with old steam engines, tram lines and other sites of transportation lore. In addition to basic climatic, historical and cultural information, there is also a special chapter on Japan’s rail history.

For the purposes of the book, the country is divided into seven regions. Osaka and Tokyo make appearances as “gateway” cities, over a scant 24 pages. The introduction of Japan’s two largest cities is wide-ranging, including, again, train-lover novelties such as the transportation museum and Arakawa Line in Tokyo.

But too often the book lacks sufficient detail, pointing you to where you want to go, rather than getting you there. I would defy a first-time visitor to find Shinjuku Gyoen with the directions included: “Take the east exit from Shinjuku station, and walk south-east for about 10 minutes.” Similarly mystifying are the directions for Tokyo’s transportation museum, which instruct tourists to take the Electric Town exit of Akihabara station and look for the sign.

Outside of these two major cities, route guides list major stops, local festivals, facilities and tourist highlights, and possible side trips or alternative scenic routes. City guides follow, with maps, tips on getting around, and where to stay and eat. There is less information on nightlife than some will hope. Typically, there are suggestions for a range of budgets, from youth hostel to luxury resort.

And, thankfully, travelers don’t have to make their choices blind. The author frequently annotates entries with personal evaluations and impressions. He also points out unusual attractions like the “hidden Japan” of Tsuwano, in Shimane Prefecture, or old Tokaido post towns like Narai, near Matsumoto.

Those consulting this guide are given just enough information to make their way around, and consistently informed of the essentials: times, entrance fees, where the information office is and whether the staff speak English, where to get access to the Internet, where to withdraw money, whether a station has lockers, and if so, where, and which side of the train has the best views. Sometimes, though, it seems as though the directions in the book point you only as far as the best place to get more information. And it would be more helpful to have place names in kanji included with route and city descriptions.

“Japan by Rail” will help get you on the right track — but it probably won’t be in your bag when you hit the streets.