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Off the Shelf

Travelers' Tales Japan
(Travelers' Tales Guides; 411 pages)

This anthology is the latest in a series of alternative guidebooks in which the practicalities of travel take a back seat to less tangible delights. The personal accounts collected here offer a wide-ranging, idiosyncratic introduction to Japan--and to the considerable joys and frustrations of being a foreigner in that fascinating land. Some passages focus on cultural icons--Mt. Fuji, sushi, sumo, cherry blossoms, baseball--while others delve into more obscure and offbeat topics: the sensual pleasures of a hot sand bath in Kyushu, the treasures to be found in Osaka rubbish piles, the stringy taste of horsemeat sashimi, a messy encounter with a high-tech toilet.

The contributors are as diverse as the topics they cover. Author and Time essayist Pico Iyer applies his keen eye and sensitive heart to a traditional inn in Kyoto. T.R. Reid, who covered Japan for the Washington Post, explores the inner workings of Tokyo's wholesale fish market, the world's largest. Alex Kerr, a writer and art collector, explains why Osaka is not only Japan's ugliest city, but also his favorite. Writer Marianne Dresser ventures into a lesbian bar in Tokyo, and Australian teacher Michael Ward recounts his arrest in the middle of the night for stealing a bicycle from a train station.

While some of the entries were selected for their cultural insights, others are tales of innocence abroad, like humorist Dave Barry's tongue-in-cheek take on Kabuki theater and author Jeff Greenwald's hilarious account of total immersion in a denki furo, or electrically charged bath. A brief appendix to Travelers' Tales Japan offers only the most general advice about how to plan a journey, so the volume cannot take the place of a standard guidebook. But there is more to travel than hotels, restaurants and transportation, and readers of this entertaining anthology will be better equipped to plot a rewarding course through the marvelously bewildering, bewitching cultural landscape of Japan.

--Morris Dye


March 8, 1999

Off The Shelf
Travelers' Tales Japan: an alternative guidebook with offbeat topics

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