Ria spent 3 years teaching English to kids in southwest Japan. She loves helping travelers make the most of their time in the country.
With the Tokyo Olympics fast approaching, many new tourists will be visiting Japan. Whether this is your first visit or your fiftieth, hiring a tour guide is the best way to get around unfamiliar parts of the country.
Though many parts of Tokyo and other major cities have English signs, some don't, especially in up-and-coming neighborhoods and towns. Plus, with the nation's infrastructure pushed to its limits during the 2020 Olympics, it will be helpful to have your own source of assistance.
Licensed Tour Guides Really Know Their Stuff
Tour guides that specialize in a particular area will know the best local spots for shopping and dining, as well as the quickest way to get around on public transportation. This knowledge is especially important in busy cities like Tokyo, which will only become more crowded and hectic in the weeks leading up to the Olympics. Guides will also know about road construction, weather conditions, and other potential problems.
Fully licensed Tour Guide-Interpreters are required to pass a history exam, so they will know Japanese history better than most. A private tour with one of these guides is the best way to get a deeper look at Japanese history and culture.
Finally, licensed tour guides can also serve as a translator. This will help you avoid misunderstandings and disappointments during your tour. While most major tourist attractions have some signage in English, it can be difficult to find English-speaking staff to answer any questions.
There Are Many Different Types of Tours
Bus tours, small group walking tours, and private tours are all common in Japan. English-language bus tours are less common, as English-speaking tourists are still somewhat rare outside of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. The bus tours that do exist will sometimes just drive past famous sites, without allowing you the chance to walk around or take good pictures.
More than likely, you will need to be willing to walk or use public transit to participate in a good English-language tour, or will need to find a tour guide who is willing to drive. Small group walking tours are common around major tourist areas. However, these tours make it difficult to break off and explore a location that really interests you. These tours tend to be shorter, and full-day tours are uncommon unless you are heading to an area that specializes in day trips.
Consider a Private Tour
Though private tours can be expensive, they are well worth it if you want the flexibility to spend more time at stores and attractions that interest you. Tours can often be customizable, but some tour guides require a minimum time length or total booking cost.
The Cost of a Tour Guide in Japan
For private, customized tours, you can expect to pay 4000 yen or more per hour for a group of 2–4 people with a licensed guide. Some guides will charge more for larger groups, or if the tour will be taking place outside of their usual area. While some tour guides advertise lower prices, the actual price per hour can end up being higher when you factor in reimbursements for various costs.
Small group tours can be good for getting around popular tourist destinations on a budget. These can be 2000 yen per hour or less, with discounts for children often available.
Free Small Group Tours
Some locales that are trying to boost their tourism have free small group tours available. These volunteer tour guides are more common in smaller towns and have limited availability. They can be a great resource, though, especially if you are trying to get outside of Tokyo but don't want to risk getting lost.
While tipping is not customary in Japan, many tour guides will accept a tip if you offer one, as they understand that it is a common custom in other countries. You could also offer to pay for your guide's meal if you eat lunch or dinner together. If your tour guide is a volunteer, you should definitely offer them a snack or a souvenir from either your home country or someplace else you have visited in Japan.
Avoid Unlicensed Guides
Japan is a very safe country, but there are a handful of people who don't have your best interests at heart. Though unlicensed tour guides are now technically legal as of 2017, there are sometimes scammers who pose as tour guides. They may lead you to overpriced restaurants while secretly taking a cut of the profits, or have some other scheme to make you spend more money than you planned to.
Other unlicensed guides, including ones found on Airbnb, simply may not know as much as they claim to know or don't speak Japanese well. In a worst-case scenario, they could get you in legal trouble or get you stranded far from your hotel.
When researching private tour guides, make sure to ask them about their license number and avoid ones who can't prove their licensure. Small towns with their own volunteer guide systems are generally safe, though.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Ria Fritz
Liz Westwood from UK on February 02, 2020:
This article gives useful information for anyone planning a trip to Japan. We have occasionally tried out 'free' walking tours in foreign cities. Some can be very good and deserve a good tip at the end.