Book reviews, Comments, Culture, In Focus

Experiencing soul

Whatever your motivation for foreign travel, reliable guidance is useful and there are countless websites that will use up valuable hours of your time only to deliver a litany of pre-packaged and market-oriented drivel fed by advertisements and links that take you mindlessly over the same ground.


Sean Sheehan


There is still a place for a comfortingly old-fashioned travel guide that can be held in the hand, free of annoying links and blogs paid for by undeclared interests, to be read without being glued to a screen.

Practical information of the how-to-get-there, what-to-see and where-to-stay-and-eat kind is presented more compactly and honestly in a Rough Guide or Lonely Planet guide than most websites

There are places you would like to visit, though, that are unrelated to sights proclaimed to be iconic – the “you must see” / “top ten” approach that invites ticking them off a bucket list.

A destination may have a subcutaneous appeal, tapping into a part of your imagination or sense of curiosity. Paris, it seems, still holds out the promise of some je-ne-sais- quoi quality; Berlin’s fractured past draws in the historically minded; London and New York have a reputational value that is irresistible to many.

Foreign travel of this kind, more experiential than empirical, is catered for in a relatively new Soul Of series of travel guides.

Taking for granted that you know how to get your wheelie off a carousel, the guides dispense with most of the nuts and bolts of travel and focus instead on “30 exceptional experiences” that open windows into the spirit/culture/soul of a particular city.

“The soul of Tokyo” begins with a quotation about Japan tasting like a grain of rice – ‘You have to bite into it gently. And get to its heart’ – and while this may not sound very appetising it does tap into the culture’s signature elusiveness, a cliché captured in the title of a movie set in Tokyo, “Lost in translation”.

Apropos of which, there is an icon accompanying those ‘experiences’ where English is not spoken. Other icons indicate the price involved, their degree of cultural authenticity and whether they are especially suited for couples.

The Tokyo experiences that make up the guide are well chosen and neatly evoked, as in a small cocktail bar where a yuzo is sliced with ‘religious devotion’, a tomato ‘disrobed’ and gin and sake meted out ‘with the precision of a mad scientist’.

Many of the entries are food- and drink-related but there is space for other activities, like an onsen where you wrap yourself in a yukata and stroll amidst maple trees before stripping off and sinking into hot baths, first inside and then outside.

There are currently 11 cities covered with a “Soul of” guide (but, as yet, no Soul of Seoul) and their unconventional take on what constitutes a travel guide earns them a place in your luggage.

“The soul of Tokyo”, by Fany and Amandine Péchiodat, is published by Jonglez Publishing.

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