People always ask me if they should get a guide in Japan or not, and it’s the one question that I can’t really answer for you! Here’s a quiz to help you figure out whether a Japanese-speaking guide will make your time in Japan a lot more enjoyable, or not.
Do you like to see as much as much as possible, every day?
Yes, I have a long list, and I’ll be disappointed if I can’t do it all
No, I like to stay flexible and don’t mind if I can’t see everything this time
Do you like learning unexpected things about the places you go?
Yes, when I’m traveling, I go into sponge mode
No, I know exactly what I’m interested in, and don’t want to waste time on stuff I’m not
Are you a little anxious about getting where you’re going in an unfamiliar country?
Yes, I’m worried about getting lost and not being able to read the signs or figure out how to use local transportation. I’d rather have someone help me get where I’m going
No, I’m sure I can figure it out, no problem
Do you like to make reservations in advance, if you can?
Yes, I want to be sure I can get into restaurants and events I care about
No, there’s plenty more to see if I can’t do some of the stuff on my wish list
Are you nervous because you don’t speak Japanese?
Yes, I know I’ll have a better time if I’m with someone who speaks the language
No, I manage to communicate with anyone, anywhere, even if we don’t speak the same language
Do you wish you had a friend who lives in Tokyo to show you around?
Yes, its more fun to go around with someone who knows the place and can take me to do stuff they know I’ll enjoy
No, I prefer to discover things for myself
Are you willing to pay more for a great experience?
Yes, it’s worth the extra cost if I can see great things I normally wouldn’t know about or be able to get into
No, I’d rather save my money and spend it on food/only-in-Japan swag/train travel
Okay, late’s tally up your answers! If you answered yes to some of the questions, read on…
Here are some of the pros and cons of having a guide in Japan:
I like to see in as much as possible, every day
Upside of having a guide: You can see a lot more in a day if you’re with someone who knows their way around and can plan each day efficiently with the shortest possible travel time (and fewest wrong turns). A good guide will also show you excellent additional attractions that you’d otherwise miss, and know where the best food is, in every neighborhood. Downside of having a guide: It’s less private than experiencing things by yourself, and you may have less flexibility to take spontaneous detours if time-sensitive reservations need to be honored. If what you really love to do is wander at your own pace and let your interests guide you, you may miss out on some amazing experiences, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find others on your own.
I like learning unexpected things about the places I go
Upside: A good guide will be able to serve up fascinating anecdotes and behind-the-scenes info on what you’re seeing, and answer your inevitable questions about all the “Buh?!” stuff Japan dishes out every single day. Downside: If you’ve got a particular burning interest, you probably know more about it than any guide, and getting sidetracked will just be annoying.
I’m nervous about getting where I’m going in an unfamiliar country
Upside: With a guide, you can relax and let them take care of the details and know you’ll still get where you want to be. Downside: Japan is a great place to get “lost,” and it’s so safe, there’s little danger of getting into real trouble. If you’re the kind of traveler who enjoys the serendipity of stumbling across unexpected delights more than seeing the things on your list, there will be fewer of those as you skip efficiently from attraction to attraction.
I like to have guaranteed reservations in advance
Upside: A Japanese-speaking guide can get you into events and restaurants that are impossible to book if you don’t speak/read Japanese. The truth is, even the attractions/events that sell tickets online can throw up arcane hurdles. For example, many have Japanese-only websites and order forms, and some accept only credit cards that are issued by a Japanese bank. Not to mention the WTF procedures for how and when tickets are delivered DON’T GET ME STARTED. Downside: If your time in Japan is hemmed in by scheduled reservations, you’ll have to honor them even if you don’t feel like it when the time rolls around, and you’ll have less freedom to make interesting detours when they present themselves.
I’m nervous that I won’t be able to do everything I’d like to because I don’t speak Japanese
Upside: Being with a Japanese-speaking guide does open up many experiences that you just can’t have if you don’t speak the language. It’s not only that you can get reservations at places where a native speaker is needed – being with a guide also allows you to ask questions and connect with artisans, restaurant owners, and other people you’d like to know better or find out more about on a deeper level. Downside: It’s more expensive to hire a Japanese-speaking guide than go about on your own, and there are a lot of great experiences that don’t require speaking or reading Japanese to be super enjoyable.
I wish I had a friend who lives in Tokyo to show me around
Upside: In Japan it’s especially true that a lot of great stuff is hidden behind closed doors, and you’ll miss it without local knowledge and a local introduction. Locals also know places/restaurants/events that are better/less crowded than what anybody can find on the internet. Downside: It’s harder to change plans at the last minute when a friend (or a guide) has carefully set them up.
I’m willing to pay more for a great experience
Upside: A good guide will help you see more in less time, be able to suggest alternatives that are better than what you found on the internet, and will know when and where to have the best experience possible, with the fewest crowds. Downside: It ain’t cheap.
How expensive is it? That’ll depend on who you choose. It can be $100 a day or $100 an hour.
If I get a guide, do I have to use them all day, every day? No, if you book some time with a guide at the beginning of your trip, you can ask them to teach you how to use the local transportation, then use your guided time to do the stuff it would be hard for you to do on your own. The rest of the time, you can check off your list at your own pace.
How do I find a good guide? You can check TripAdvisor (be sure to read the reviews) or ask someone you know who liked their Japanese guide.
Is there anyone you recommend? Well, you can’t go wrong with the guide everybody likes better than they like me, but he’s pretty booked, so ask early.
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Jonelle Patrick is the author of five novels set in Japan
The Last Tea Bowl Thief was chosen as an Editor’s Pick for Best Mystery, Thriller & Suspense on Amazon
“A fascinating mix of history and mystery.” —Booklist