By Oliver Lynch
Japan is a dream destination for many, with images of crazy neon flooded streets, exquisite food and a pop culture quite unlike any other on Earth. For the uninitiated visitor, Japan can be a tricky one to explore. But, using a local professional guide is a great solution to get the best out of your experiences in this fascinating country. Be it pop-culture or Samurai-history - whatever your interests are, here is why you need the help of a tour guide in Japan.
The Language Barrier
This one is hard to beat – unless you have taken the effort to be fluent in Japanese. Although many locals would give English their best shot at tourist places, it is not a luxury you can rely on. Not speaking the local lingo is sure to limit your authentic experiences in the country. It is advisable to pick up a few basics, such as ‘arigato’ for ‘thank you’ or ‘wakarimasen’ for ‘I don’t understand’. You will find many online resources online to help you get the basics, but also try speaking to locals as they’ll be more than happy to teach you a few words. However, to have a guaranteed good time, it is best to hire a local guide who will ensure you understand and are understood when it matters.
Relying on public transport or planning to hitchhike does not sound like a good plan if you are a first-time visitor – worse with limited knowledge of the language and culture. Also, getting around Japan on your own as a tourist can prove to be quite expensive, especially if you planning to use the famous Shinkansen bullet trains. The services of a private tour guide often lead to the best or discounted prices. The hard to reach parts of the country are usually served by private vehicles. Pre-booked tours will include a minibus and private driver to get around. Guided tour itineraries could also include airport/hotel transfers. If you need to get somewhere on your own to join a tour, your tour guide can always advise you on the best way to get there.
Japan has so many amazing places to see and unique things to do - from robot cafés to islands of cats. Guidebooks can only tell you so much though. Local knowledge will make all the difference – a guide can inform you when the best time to go is and how to get there quickly. With many unusual places to visit, understanding the culture is much more comfortable with an experienced tour guide. You needn’t look too hard for assistance - wherever you go in Japan, you’ll have several options to hire a private guide or join a tour.
People often assume that splashing out on a private guide is a luxury expense, for hiring a Japan tour guide can be expensive. That said, the benefits of having a guide outweigh the costs. Your guide can help with finding the best deals on transport, the best (and usually cheapest) places to eat and can often advise you on how to save money on little things such as where to buy the best souvenirs. Japanese tour guides are famous for their strong sense of ethics; if they think you can visit a place by yourself, and that their services will not add value, they will tell you so themselves!
One aspect of sightseeing is the time it takes to get to and experience each location. Using a tour guide in Japan will mean you get the optimum experience - less time spent waiting for transport connections, less time getting lost in the winding alleyways, and more time spent enjoying the place you’ve come to see.
Some places in Japan are only accessible through a local guide or tour company. Hashima Island, famously used as a location for the James Bond movie ‘Skyfall’, was once a thriving community based around a coal mine. Today, this spooky deserted landscape makes a fascinating visit. Boat cruises around the island are popular, but to actually set foot on Hashima and take a walk around - you will need a private tour guide from Nagasaki. Another place recommended to visit with a local guide is Aokigahara, the suicide forest in the foothills of Mount Fuji. Sure, the site is spooky – but you can totally go on your own. However, it is easy to get lost here in the dense wilderness. Plus, a local can always fill you in on the interesting myths and stories that surround this place.
Fantastic Food Tours
You already know all about sushi and ramen, but there is so much to discover in Japan’s culinary world. Tokyo alone is one of the most cutting-edge cities for global cuisine and exploring the food scene is one of the goals for many travellers. Every region has its own speciality - doing a food tour is a great way to delve into the culture and history of the place. For example, in Fukuoka, you’ll find one of the local dishes ‘motsunabe’ everywhere. It is not to everyone's taste, being a soup of offal, but it is something you will only find in this part of the country. Hokkaido at the northernmost end of the country also has many specialities including the Hokkaido curry soup and unique ice cream flavours.
Explore in Detail
There’s more to Japan than buzzing Tokyo or Kyoto. Go hiking in the hills and mountains around Hokkaido or Mount Fuji. Or hit the amazing ski slopes around Sapporo. Hakone is a beautiful area not far from Tokyo where you can sit beside Ashi lake, watch the sunset across Mount Fuji and experience the rural character of the country. Exploring these regions with a guide means getting to know the local culture in more detail.
As one of the world’s most attraction-packed destinations, there is so much to do in Japan that knowing where to start can be the tricky part. Having someone on the ground with local knowledge can help customise your trip to suit unique interests.
Oliver Lynch is a London based writer who travels as often as possible, usually for some kind of crazy adventure like exploring a jungle or going snowboarding.
Image details and licenses: https://flic.kr/p/bUA4Vy (Ronald Woan, CC BY-NC 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/RC3LbX (Erik Levin, CC BY-NC 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/6ijyyR (Dave H, CC BY-ND 2.0)