Japanese locals will take you on customized cultural adventures for free. Why? To practice their English and chat with foreigners.
A retired college professor will steer you to a Tokyo sumo stable to watch the wrestlers train. An administrative assistant will guide you through Kyoto’s sublime gardens to a temple where thousands of crickets sing. A graduate student will take you to an okonomiyaki restaurant in Osaka and help you cook your own savory pancake on the table grill. And all this local expertise is cheerfully dispensed for free.
Why would residents of Japan’s major cities spend the day sharing their culture, cuisine, and secret spots with complete strangers for free? These generous volunteers simply want to meet foreigners and practice their English. This motivation provides the additional benefit of giving travelers opportunities to chat with locals about the history behind these sites and their daily lives.
Tokyo Free Guide’s website reveals their rationale: “To encourage understanding of Japanese culture and people and promote cross-cultural friendship.” Similar services are available in Kyoto, Osaka, and other cities. Each area’s online registration form varies, but the results are the same: customized adventures and a chance to get to know some local residents. Be aware that the number of guides is limited and requests always outnumber available volunteers, so advance planning is essential. Your guide will make contact before your departure and can even help plan your itinerary.
Besides their expertise discovering the hidden corners of these fascinating cities and explaining the nuances of culturally appropriate behavior, the generosity of these guides allows for cross-cultural conversations that a foreigner could rarely share with other “strangers” in Japan.
Groups of up to six guests can be accommodated. Make your request at least two weeks before your visit, but four to six weeks in advance is recommended. The online request form asks for preferences in activity, neighborhood, and food.
The volunteer list shows first names, experience, interests, and languages other than English. Enter your dates and special requests. The agency will match you with a volunteer. You can’t specify a name but you can request someone who speaks Spanish or Italian.
If you’re planning on venturing beyond Tokyo, there’s also a free guide program in Kyoto. Visitors to this exquisite old city most often ask to visit temples and gardens but don’t be shy, make a special request. Ask for a class in making wagashi (traditional sweets) or a visit to the monkey park for the kids.
The websites explain that no fees or tips for guides are expected. But guests are responsible to pay for any costs incurred for transportation, admission tickets, and meals for both you and your guide.