I was planning for my month in Japan - mainly in Tokyo but I knew I'd be doing some traveling so I bought a JR pass for 21 days. I went to every bookstore I could find and spent hours looking through the various guides - frommers, lonely planet, rough guide, insight guides, national geographic, and more.
Oh, how I wish those bookstores had stocked this book! I ended up buying a few of those books, but when I got to Japan, I found this in a bookstore and bought it immediately - for about 3 times the cost as what you'd pay in the States. The other guidebooks were retired and now this is the book I use. It helps me figure out where I should go to enjoy my time in Japan, given that I am travelling by rail. It gives hotel, attraction, and meal information, plus great itineraries and a sense of the best places to go on the rail lines. Just because there's a stop doesn't mean it worth going to, in terms of your precious travel days. This book helps you figure out where to go and why.
Another in a rather extensive list of rail-oriented books from UK's Trailblazer Guides series, this one centers around Japan, and budget travelers who use the Japan Rail Pass. While fairly complete, it has some obvious structural drawbacks that require supplementing with a more extensive guide. I'd give it 4 stars, with 1 star knocked off for the following deficits.
* It's pretty much exclusively centered on Japan Rail lines. Considering that Japan is criss-crossed with the so-called "private lines" (Japan Rail was once a government railroad), this leads to some obvious gaps in coverage.
* Very little food & dining information. Tokyo, for example, gets only a few paragraphs.
* NO kanji (Chinese characters) or kana (Japanese syllabary) versions of destination signs. This is perhaps its biggest sin, since English-language platform signs and maps are the exception rather than the rule outside of the Tokyo metropolitan area. Unless you can already read kana or kanji, you WILL be confused trying to work out the signs.
I ordered this book because I was going to spend a month in Osaka, and having purchased a JR Rail pass I wanted to visit cities like Kyoto, Tokyo, and Nara. This book helped me get to Nara, which isn't on the main shinkansen line, but aside from that I didn't get much use out of it--in fact, it got me lost once.
The main drawback to this guide is that it is limited only to JR lines. In big cities like Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo, the main way to get around is not through JR, but through either bus systems (Kyoto) or smaller subway and train companies (this is especially true for Osaka). So once you get to a city through JR, the book stops being helpful. How did I get lost? In Kyoto, I followed the advice of the book to take a JR Bus to somewhere near the Golden Pavilion. The book told me to wait at JR Bus stop No. 3, but didn't give me any name or number information. I was uneasy taking the first bus that came--everything was in Japanese so I didn't know if it was the right one--but I decided to trust the guidebook and get on. I had Rough Guide to Japan with me as well, and I started following the streets we passed on its map--the bus seemed to go the right way, but suddenly all the street names lost their English subtitles, and I realized that I wasn't going to the Golden Pavilion after all. I had to stop the bus driver and fumble in bad Japanese to tell him I was on the wrong bus. After returning to Osaka, I found out that Kyoto has these new "sightseeing" city buses that would have taken me straight there, for only $2. The book goes out of its way to recommend anything JR--if only it had mentioned the more convenient city buses.
As others have mentioned, this book is helpful with planning an itinerary of cities to visit it Japan, for those with a JR Pass and limited time. This is especially true for cities that require train transfers--it'll tell you which lines you need to get to. However, any other information, including food, attractions, etc. is extremely limited. For example, in a city like Kyoto, there are a wealth of amazing temples, yet the only one the book mentions is the Golden Pavilion. You'll certainly need a 'traditional' guidebook to supplement this rail guide, to let you know what to see and do, especially in cities like Kyoto and Tokyo.
I had three guidebooks for Japan-- Rough Guide, Gateway to Japan, and this one. While Rough Guide and Gateway I used interchangeably, I hardly ever touched this rail guide.
This book is terrible. I lived in Japan for more than a decade and I was planning a short excursion so I bought this book. It was not helpful at all. It covers the greatest hits of Japan but has very little detail about most places. It seems to assume that you'd want to just ride the train all the time without ever getting off. Most of the suggested trips are incredibly unrealistic about the amount of time it would take to visit the listed places, almost to the point of ridiculousness. I do not recommend this book at all! Any other guide book and a rail map would be much better.
If you are planning on traveling in Japan, skip "Japan by Rail" and get "Gateway to Japan" published by Kodansha. It is the best!
This book is a total let-down.
It offers extremely limited information on all places worth seeing. The JR lines may be given but are not including the new Kyushu Shinkansen line and many new or discontinued stations.
Also, as other folks pointed out, the private railways are not mentioned. A superb trainplanner in conjunction with Rough Guide or Lonley Planet would be Jorudan. Jorudan in an online travel planner for Japanese public transport and airlines. They have an excellent guide with up to date initiary data for all your trips in Japan. If you are not a US national, you may want to avoid onley Planet aswell, as it is verry clearly aimed at and written by US nationals.