I know. The whole reason you’re on The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had is to figure out how to have fun in Tokyo without someone showing you around. And don’t get me wrong, you absolutely can! (If you haven’t explored the site yet, have a look – it’s time to get excited about all the great stuff to do here!)
But the deeper I dive into the delights of Japan, the more stuff I find that you would love to experience too, but I can’t tell you about them here in good faith, because they’re nearly impossible to do if you don’t speak Japanese.
So, I started searching around for a good guide to recommend. And it was utterly discouraging. What I discovered: it’s really hard to find someone who loves Japan as much as I do.
Then I was introduced to Mac! Not only is he just as crazy about Tokyo as I am, he knows more and better things to do/see/eat, and he’s WAY better than I am at getting people past the velvet ropes to amazing events and scoring tickets to the hottest attractions.
So let me introduce you to the best Tokyo guide I know – Mac, the owner of Maction Planet: bespoke Tokyo (and the rest of Japan) tours and experiences. His knowledge of special events and off-the-beaten-path fun stuff to do exceeds even mine <sob!>, plus he knows all the best places to eat, drink & be merry.
JP: Welcome to The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had, Mac!
MAC: Thank you so much for your kind words Jonelle. Absolute pleasure to be talking to you. Your blog has been an inspiration to me for a long time.
JP: First of all, how long have you been doing this?
MAC: I’ve been guiding through word of mouth for around 10 years now, but I launched www.mactionplanet.com in February 2017.
JP: And what makes you different from other tour guides?
MAC: It is always difficult to answer that! I think generally we are entering an age of specialism. People go on history tours, food tours, architecture tours, whisky tours. I try and combine it all. Why should you miss out on the history and culture of a place just because you want to enjoy some good food? If you are thirsty and want a coffee or beer, I know the three best, nearest places for your specific requests.
JP: You have a lot of experience showing people around Tokyo – what’s the biggest mistake people make when they come to Japan?
MAC: That’s a great question. Tour guides are incentivized to prey on people’s insecurities about missing out. If you read other companies’ literature, they’re always talking about mistakes and how “we can help you avoid them.” So let me be clear here – you will have a great time here whatever you do. Just being in Tokyo is enough to improve your life!
Having said that, the one thing that I see many people do is come here armed with a wealth of restaurant reservations for the evenings. Typically these are for high-end sushi or kaiseki. Often they dine at these establishments, then when I meet them for the second day of touring they tell me that the places were stuffy, they didn’t like the food, or that their children didn’t eat anything.
The best places to eat in Tokyo do not cost $300/head and often do not take reservations. They are truly places with no English language information about them. Once people figure this out, it is often too late, as the cancellation charges for high end places are $100 a head.
JP: What do you suggest people do instead?
MAC: If you are traveling with us, then you will be taken care of. I recently guided a family of four from Houston and, having had such an experience, they were literally in tears when I took them to one of my favourite ramen spots for lunch the next day, on literally the most nondescript street in Tokyo. (I mean it, this street was so grey and beige, there was no reason to be there apart from the ramen.) I would tell visitors here to use their gut (no pun intended) and not to be scared by whether a place has an English menu or not.
JP: It does help to be with someone who knows which nondescript ramen joint is a hidden gem, and who can translate the menu, but I have to agree with you that it’s hard to go wrong if you pick an ordinary neighborhood restaurant that serves the kind of food you’re looking for. When you’re guiding families with children, what kinds of Japanese restaurants bring the biggest smiles to their faces?
MAC: Ramen is always a favourite! I tend to find that kids love the interactivity of foods such as yakiniku, shabu shabu and sukiyaki where you cook the food yourself at the table. For dessert, you cannot go wrong with some of the amazing soft serve found here, which is as big a hit with the parents as the kids.
JP: I’d forgotten what a surprise it was to see soft serve available in all kinds of great and never-before-tasted flavors (some of which, like purple sweet potato, are definitely only-in-Japan experiences)! It’s easy to find something for everyone at an ice cream stand, but how do you balance the destinations wish list in a group larger than one? What are some of your favorite crowd-pleaser experiences, and what makes them so unique?
MAC: First of all, back-of-your-hand knowledge of the city is key. Often people are keen on a particular destination in the city because of something they saw on YouTube, and they’re led to believe that it’s the only one of its kind in the city. When you show them that there are plenty of “that thing” wherever we go, and if we do it in another place, we also get to do this, this and this, that helps.
JP: For example…?
MAC: For crowd-pleaser experiences, that depends on the crowd. But I really believe that it depends on the context and the way you present the place. Often if I am working with a go-between, the go-between will tell me that the guests do not like temples and hate crowds, but actually they end up loving Senso-ji, because it is more about the shopping on Nakamise, and they adore the Hachiko crossing, because if you know which direction to go then within a few minutes you can be in a village-like atmosphere.
Asakusa is a good example. Clearly no one needs to engage a guide if all they want to do is see the Senso-ji temple, but the area also has some amazing food. I love taking guests to a 4th generation monjayaki place run by an amazing 80-year-old woman. The area has great third wave coffee, amazing artisans, great craft beer and whisky bars, plastic food, cat and rabbit cafes… something for everyone within a small geographic area.
If you know the city inside-out, then every district becomes like that.
JP: Your guests must love it when you deliver them to the Thing they asked for, then show them the multitude of even better experiences just around the corner. Which is why I won’t argue with you when you say Tokyo is the world’s greatest metropolis!
And that brings up one of the hidden benefits of having a guide in a place as vast as Tokyo. When I first started giving people advice about what to see here, I made the mistake of telling them what *I* would take them to see on the first day, not realizing that it would take them about three days to cover the same ground by themselves, because they have to figure out how to get from here to there.
I did, however, sometimes save them from wasting their time on things that are often recommended, but not really worth the trek. What would you say are the most overrated Tokyo destinations?
MAC: I genuinely do not think anywhere in Tokyo is overrated. I hate when some website – sadly the kind of websites which purport to give out info about cheap Tokyo – describe Senso-ji and Nakamise-dori as tourist traps. I am pretty convinced that when Senso-ji was founded in the year 645 by the Hinokuma brothers and the chief of their village, that they were not thinking that! Similarly, the Nakamise shopping street owes its origins to decisions made 400 years ago which increased the importance of Senso-ji on a national scale. If you came from a long way to make the pilgrimage to this temple, you would probably want some decent food and souvenirs, and sure enough, people who come from far and wide still want decent food and souvenirs.
JP: I’m 100% with you on Senso-ji’s Nakamise-dori – I often tell people to go there for souvenir shopping because a lot of those businesses have been there for generations, and a lot of the goods are actually still made in the neighborhood.
MAC: Couldn’t agree more – the ukiyo-e shop has been around since 1870!
JP: It’s a nice one, too! I’ve bought woodblock prints there myself. So, I’ve noticed something interesting about your answers – the impression most people have of “tour guides” is that having someone show you around is an expensive way to get to know a city, but you actually seem to be suggesting that people will have a better time at less-expensive eateries and free attractions in Tokyo. Can you talk about that a little?
MAC: I’m sure we are both so over the “Tokyo is the most expensive city in the world” nonsense that we shouldn’t even dignify it with any space in this conversation. People are always trying to figure out “what is the real Tokyo?” but my answer is that it is all Tokyo – the maid cafes and the oiran, the wagashi and the soft serve, and yes, the Jiro Sushi and the kaiten.
The point you have picked up on is that residents are not eating at Jiro Sushi every night, or more likely AT ALL! One of the big disappointments for people is heading to the high end and finding they are surrounded with people from their hometown. The high end hotels are all sending people to Robataya, Inakaya, Ryugin etc. They are not sending them to the local omakase sushi joints, the ramen or the tonkatsu that I am taking my guests to.
JP: How is the “local favorite” experience different from the famous, advertised one? Why would someone want to try their luck with an unknown when they could be sure of what they’d get at a well-known place?
MAC: Very simply, it’s the bubble effect. As places become more popular – especially if it’s due to online foreign-language information – its natural that the very thing that made them worth writing about starts to disappear! There is also the fact that 99% of all articles that purport to list (for example) the 5 best bars in Golden Gai are actually written by someone who visited at most 6 of the 200 bars. I’ve become so familiar with the English-language information about Tokyo that it’s easy to tell that a significant amount of it has been plagiarised. Places become well-known as a result of this, when the initial kick that made them well-known was not necessarily based on merit.
JP: Ha, so true!
JP: So, what makes YOU decide that a place is worthy of showing to your guests?
MAC: I have a firm belief that there is no point engaging a guide if they are going to take you to Sushi Zanmai or Ippudo. Anything you could have found in a guidebook or online is not where we are going. Obviously the food has to be top notch – if we go for ramen we are going to the best ramen shop in that part of town, and I know because I have visited over 1500 ramen shops over the last 13 years.
There needs to be a story. You can have monjayaki anywhere in town, but can you have it at a 4th generation run place in Asakusa, where the current owner is 80 years old, and can tell you it was the favourite restaurant of author Natsume Sōseki (who was featured on the previous run of ¥1000 notes)?
And at the fish market, I love taking people to one of the oldest restaurants there, which refuses to open for breakfast, opening only at 11am…except when I need them to open earlier for a group I am guiding, when they kindly oblige.
I should say at this point that price is not the driving factor when it comes to places I take my guests. Most visitors who engage a guide are probably not scraping the budgeting barrel, but the most important thing to them is the quality of the experience. I have eaten Michelin star yakitori, but without a doubt, my go-to izakaya has the best tsukune in town, serves Premium Malts Kaoru Ale, and the total bill to eat and drink like kings for 120 minutes will come to $30/person max. I have been going there for eight years and have never seen another foreign face… except my guests of course!
JP: So, who are your ideal guests? I’m guessing they’re a lot like my readers: travelers who are more interested in experiencing what nobody else has done, rather than checking in at a place that all their friends would recognize.
MAC: Yes, I think now that we’ve been out of our word-of-mouth era for over two years, and have over 240 reviews on TripAdvisor, the process becomes self-selective – we attract people who truly want to to experience Tokyo without commoditization and compartmentalization.
JP: What do you mean by “commoditization and compartmentalization”?
MAC: Tourism is becoming increasingly commoditized. There are a lot of people advertising plug-and-play experiences. They can be fun, but very artificial. For example, the only tea ceremony we offer is a full 40 minutes, and it takes place in a teahouse that’s based on Tai-an, the National Treasure tea room at the Myoki-an Zen temple in Kyoto that’s believed to have been designed by the infamous Sen-no-Rikyu himself. It’s run by a fourth generation tea mistress, whose address and phone number are not even on the Japanese-only website, and where you will be the only visitors to the city that she may see that month.
And in terms of compartmentalization, people think they should do the whisky tour with the whisky expert, the food tour with the food expert. But what if you did the craft beer tour with someone who was also an expert on the history, culture, music, sport, art, architecture, food and drink as well? Wouldn’t that be better? That is the standard I demand of other guides when I travel, and that is what I aim to deliver to my guests.
JP: How does that translate to places to see, rather than places to eat?
MAC: Excellent question. I actually differ a little from some other guides out there. Many people want “off the beaten track,” so they get taken to tiny temples and quaint areas, but for me it’s more about context. It is important to see Harajuku, Shibuya and Shinjuku, but it is also important to see many other districts in Tokyo. It is local knowledge which makes these districts come alive, otherwise you are heading there for the one site you may have found out about, not knowing that the best shaved ice place in town is just around the corner.
JP: And that’s where your way of seeing Tokyo perfectly compliments mine! On The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had, I try to give people information that goes beyond the off-the-shelf, but they have to do everything themselves, and don’t get the benefit of connections, local knowledge and introductions that you can bring to the party.
MAC: Your blog is fantastic and is exactly in tune with the Maction Planet philosophy. I’ve been a fan for many years. The most important thing for me is to add value – information, experiences and fun. There is nothing more satisfying than receiving an email or reading a review saying that you made the guests’ trip to Tokyo, or seeing people rearrange their trip if you are not available or that they want you to come to Hong Kong and guide them around there too (all those things have actually happened!)
JP: And I was delighted to finally meet you, because there are so many things I wish I could recommend to my readers, but without being able to speak Japanese and/or have a personal introduction and tips about how to navigate an exotic experience, they wouldn’t be able to enjoy it. Now they can hire you, and dramatically expand the list of things that are possible! Thank you for talking with me and my readers.
MAC: The pleasure is all mine, and I hope I get to show some of your readers the World’s Greatest Metropolis when they come to Tokyo!
If you promise not to like Mac better than you like me, I’ll give you his email and make an introduction. He’s not cheap, but he’s the best. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d like to read more about the tours and experiences Mac offers, and envy the fun stuff he’s done with his other guests, head over to https://www.mactionplanet.com.
*Also, just so you know…
I never take freebies or payment of any kind for stuff I recommend on Only In Japan – if I’m telling you I loved something, it’s because I’m a paying customer myself, and genuinely want you to experience the goodness too.
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Jonelle Patrick is the author of five novels set in Japan
The Last Tea Bowl Thiefwas chosen as an Editor’s Pick for Best Mystery, Thriller & Suspense on Amazon
“A fascinating mix of history and mystery.” —Booklist