When you travel in Japan, you may be considering to visit sightseeing spots by yourself. Thanks to progressing IT technologies, it is getting much easier to travel individually by using a smart phone. However, it is also one of good options that you hire a private guide of 1-2 days at the first part of your itinerary if you are under the situations below;
- It is the first trip to Japan and you have some language barrier
- You are not get used to manage complicated transportation in especially large cities
- You want to look around the sightseeing spots effectively for a shorter time
- You don’t want to join the large group of the tour and prefer to have a more private/customized tour
- You want to enjoy the communication with a local Japanese
Your benefit for hiring a local guide is not only for being introduced transportation systems and sightseeing spots with the detailed explanations, but having a chance to know more real life of Japanese through your guides. This time, I will pick up some tips through my guide experiences in these 5 years as an example of trip in Tokyo.
Tokyo is a much wider city than you expect!
Most of my guests told me that they were surprised how large city Tokyo was. Yes, I think Tokyo is relatively wider city than NY and London, in addition sightseeing spots dot around Tokyo. Therefore, you need to stay here at least 3 days if you want to see whole city, and you have to add few more days if you want to visit suburb areas like Kamakura, Hakone and Nikko. The better way to look around Tokyo is dividing into a few areas and visiting each area day by day. For example,
- DAY1: Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Harajuku and Shibuya Area
- DAY2: Around Imperial Palace, Tokyo Station, Ginza, Tsukiji, Shiodome, Around Tokyo Tower
- DAY3: Ueno, Akihabara, Ryogoku, Yanaka/Yanesen, Asakusa, Tokyo Sky Tree
- DAY4: Odaiba
- DAY5: Other Suburb Cities in Western Part of Tokyo like Kichijoji/Mitaka, Chofu, Mt. Takao
In case you can stay in Tokyo for 1-2 days, you had better concentrate on a few spots where you really want to see along with your interests. Please don’t pack into many places in your itinerary in one day. I guess visiting 3-4 different spots in a day is reasonable, because sightseeing spots are sometimes apart from each other and you need more time to move between spot and spot by public transportation. (For example, Meji Jingu Shrine and Sensoji Temple locates in completely opposite areas and it takes you about 40 minutes by subways) You may think that you want to visit different places as much as possible, but a busy and tight schedule makes you exhausted very much due to jet lag and environmental changes, especially on the 1st and 2nd day in Japan.
Tell your guide about your preference at the first stage of making your itinerary
For instance, my guide work is a type of private tour which I usually build a customized itinerary for each visitor / group. Before building a casual itinerary, I am always trying to draw out their needs and preferences by asking questions over e-mail. One thing which I felt very interested in is that many visitors in the past didn’t tend to have any clear and fixed ideas for sightseeing spots in Tokyo. When I asked them about what they want to see, what they are interested in, what they want to try to eat, their answers were “I want to visit the most touristic places in Tokyo” and “must-visit places for the first time in Tokyo & Japan”, or “I just want to follow your recommendations!”
In case of Japanese tourists in foreign countries, we tend to check sightseeing places carefully by internet and guide books in advance, and have already decided what we want to do there in many cases. However, it seems to me that foreign guests coming to Japan, especially western people, are more casual and have less sticking ideas compare to Japanese or Asian tourists.
I am sometimes wondering how I can make the ideal itinerary for them in case they answered “Must-visit places for the first visit in Tokyo & Japan” or “We just follow your recommendation!” The most typical touristic spots must be Asakusa area including Sensoji Temple, and Meiji Jingu Shrine, Some Japanese gardens such as Shinjuku Gyoen, Hamarikyu and Imperial East Gardens. Iconic towers like Tokyo tower and Tokyo Sky Tree may also “Must-visit places” and markets like Tsukiji as well. But if you are not so interested in traditional places like temples/shrines, Sensoji and /or Meiji Jingu Shrine is not good choices for you. In case you prefer more urban areas like Odaiba & Akihabara, Japanese gardens seem boring places to visit. “Must-visit places” sometimes differ from person to person.
Therefore I recommend you giving your guide about your preference at the first stage of making the itinerary in case you hire a private tour guide during your stay. You don’t need to tell the specific name of sightseeing spots if you cannot come up with, but just tell your guide what you are interested in, what you want to see, and what you try to eat / what you cannot to eat. Most of the guides are very supportive to make your trip enjoyable as much as possible, so they will make an effort to build customized itinerary which is suitable for you according to your provided information.
Food is relatively important information during the tour
As I told you before in this blog, food is one of the most enjoyable things during your trip in Japan. Especially in Tokyo, there are tons of options of restaurants and it is not too difficult to find world cuisines including Japanese food. However, the things don’t go that way in case you have special requirements such as vegetarian meal, halal foods and food allergies. It is not so easy to find restaurants where cope with such special requirements on the spot, even in Tokyo. So, guides need a time to search information beforehand in order to meet your requirement. So, please let your guide about it in advance as much as possible, and he/she can check and arrange for your restaurants and meals according to your requests.
I had a bit bitter experience at lunch during the tour when I guided the family from Israel some years ago. The family consists of 4 people, the parents, their daughter and son. When I asked them about food whether they have something they cannot eat by email at the first stage of our contact, they replied they didn’t have any limitation for food. However, when we entered one of Sushi Restaurants in Tsukiji Outer Market for lunch according to father and son’s special request on the tour day, mother and daughter suddenly confessed me that they are “a kind of” vegetarians, so that they could not eat any fishes, even raw or cooked !! I was a bit in panic and in a cold sweat at that time… and tried to ask the shop clerk for arrangement of any possible dishes without using fishes at a Sushi Restaurant.
We were not in big trouble because the restaurant got used to taking care of foreigners and they prepared for some meals like green salad with tofu and Japanese Omelet (Tamagoyaki) as occasion may demand. However, it imagined it might not be so easy if we entered other Sushi Restaurants. If I knew that they could not eat fishes, I’d never proposed them Sushi Restaurant and I choose other type of restaurant for them. Moreover, it will be more serious problem in case you have something you cannot eat by the reason for your religion and food allergies. Therefore, I strongly ask you to provide the information of your food habit in detailed before the tour!!
How to find your private guide or small group of tours in Tokyo / other areas
Lastly, I will add the information of private guide services and small group tours in Tokyo and other areas below as examples. So, please refer to them and check the websites if you are interested in.
Private tour guides for foreign guests
These are matching websites between private guides and foreign guests. Registered guides on the websites are mainly Japanese with a national licensed tour guide or high language ability without a license, or foreigners who can understand Japanese and have lived in Japan for years. You can check guide’s background and the tours he/she provides on the website. It is a completely private guide, so tour fees tend to be more expensive than that of group tours, but you can arrange your itinerary with flexibility according to your preference. Moreover, you can monopolize a guide in the tour and they will provide professional level of services.
*Tours by Locals: https://www.toursbylocals.com/TBL/WebObjects/ToursByLocals.woa/1/wa/searchHomepageForToursInPlace
Small group tours for foreign guests
These websites provide fixed tours for small group with less than 10 people. Some companies offer not only sightseeing tours but also Japanese culture experience lessons. In case of cultural experiences, an interpreter accompanies with guests in order to communicate between the hosts and guests. You need to share the tours/lessons with other guest members, but the fees are more reasonable compare with a private guide tour and you don’t need to worry about planning an itinerary by yourself.
Volunteer-based private guide for foreign guests
This is a volunteer guide activity aimed at international exchanges with guests from the world. Registered guides are volunteer staffs with language abilities who passed the exams of the association. You can send requests to secure your guide through the website, but you cannot choose your guide and the association will allocate them for you. In addition, you may not be able to secure any guide in case there is a shortage of guides. They don’t ask you guide fees, but you need to cover all of expenses of your guide during the tour. Guides are not professional, so there is a gap of language level from pre-intermediate to advanced among guides. But it is very nice and unique opportunity if your purpose of asking guide is communication with local Japanese.
*Tokyo Free Guide: http://www.tokyofreeguide.org/
I hope you enjoy your trip in Tokyo and other local areas in Japan with your own way!