Planning a new trip to a faraway land can be intimidating and exciting all at the same time. Most travelers dream of a perfect vacation exploring things they’ve never seen before, so naturally, the question arises: do you need a tour guide for your first time in Japan?
Traveling to any country that poses a language barrier for the first time can be scary. Many people are surprised to learn that hiring a tour guide really isn’t necessary for your first trip to Japan, though. There are many things you can do to make navigating this beautiful country easy and enjoyable, some of which we’re going to discuss in this article. Interestingly, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t – hiring a tour guide could enhance your experience and show you a completely different side to Japan, one not often seen by foreigners.
Let’s get into the pros and cons of hiring a guide, and what you can do to make your trip successful if you decide to do it alone.
Should I hire a tour guide in Japan?
The good news is that hiring a tour guide is not a necessity for any traveler in Japan, whether you’re there for the first time or the fiftieth. Japan is one of the busiest countries you can visit, how could this be the case? As well as being one of the busiest countries in the world, Japan is also one of the most popular, which means that there’s a wealth of information you can use to research your trip before you go. Websites (like ours) offer completely up to date information about the cities and prefectures you want to see while ensuring you get a good idea of when they’re open, and when is the best time to go.
There’s another fantastic benefit that Japan offers to those who like to go at their own pace, sans tour guide – most of the large cities are very foreigner-friendly. Tokyo, for example, has a wealth of resources available to foreign visitors, especially if you have some knowledge of the English language. Most signs are in English as well as Japanese, and most residents seem to speak at least a little English. They’re so used to tourists in Tokyo that residents often look for ways to help visitors unprompted. The major cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Osaka, and others are relatively easy to navigate with just a little bit of research. And with a little deeper research, you’ll find a wealth of information specific to your tastes and interests that will allow you to completely tailor your trip to perfection.
There’s definitely a disclaimer here, though: the ease with which you’ll be able to navigate Tokyo guide-less will completely depend on your experience and confidence as a traveler. Perhaps you’re the kind of tourist who books nothing before you fly, and you like to “wing-it” from the first to the last day of your trip. Alternately, maybe you’re the kind of traveler who likes to book something all-inclusive and explore nothing for two weeks while you lounge on a beach chair (if that’s the case, Japan might not necessarily be the place for you). Or maybe, like me, you fall somewhere in the middle. To navigate a country like Japan without a guide you need to be relatively confident in using transport, online map services, and translation apps. If the thought of relying on these fills you with dread, it’s probably a good idea to consider getting a guide to help you.
The benefits of getting a tour guide in Japan
The first and most obvious benefit of getting a tour guide is to help you navigate the city if you don’t feel confident enough to do it yourself. Though tour guides in Japan can be expensive, they are of very high quality, and a good tour guide will ensure you see the sights on your list in good time, without being rushed. They’ll also be well-versed in the historical and cultural relevance of each site you’re visiting, so you can save yourself from staring at google, or trying to translate any signs in Japanese. For what other reasons might you benefit from a tour guide?
You’re worried about the language barrier
While you might feel relatively confident about navigating the busy city, the tough language barrier might be enough to make you ask for help on some days. This could be especially helpful if you have any dietary requirements and are worried about choosing something you shouldn’t eat – a guide for the day could help you navigate your first 24 hours in relative safety while recommending meals and restaurants that will suit your needs. They might also be able to teach you how to ask for something without any allergy triggers.
You want to see things that are not in the guidebooks
Many people travel to distant places with a hunger for new and authentic experiences. No longer are people content to solely visit the top-three tourist-ridden places before heading home, but instead, they want to see the “real Japan”. While the “real” anywhere is relative and different for every resident, hiring a tour guide might mean that you’re taken to sites and restaurants that just aren’t as well known outside the local community. Of course, with the internet at our fingertips that might be something you’re able to do yourself to an extent, but why not hire somebody who knows the city intimately? They might just be able to show you somewhere great not yet touched by tourists.
This could also apply if you’re interested in the country’s history too. For some, the basic version of history that’s shared in broken English at historical sites is just not quite enough. Tour guides are well educated on the sites they regularly visit. Hiring somebody could mean that you learn the country’s history as taught to the residents themselves, and not just what’s shared with foreigners.
You want to make some new friends – for free!
One of the most popular and excellent features of Japan’s tour guide community is that there are Systematized Goodwill Guide Groups – or volunteer guides! Members of these groups, which are situated across the entire country, volunteer of their time for free to help you have a better trip. Volunteer guides know their city inside and out and will show you around the sites you’d like to see while also sharing some of their favorite spots along the way.
Their website also says that they share the kind of local tips and insights you won’t find in the guidebooks, so these really are great people to get in touch with if you’d like a more “authentic” trip. In almost every district, there are also guides who are specifically interested in something that their district offers, like poetry festivals, or skiing and snowboarding, so if you’re interested in something similar, it’s likely they’re the best people to talk to.
You want to explore some of the smaller towns
As we’ve said, a lot of the larger cities have made great accommodations for tourists, but when you get to the smaller towns you might struggle to communicate if you don’t speak Japanese. Even if you have access to the internet, the signal can be spotty in many rural parts of Japan, and signs with English translations? Non-existent. If you’ve got a specific site that you’d like to see but it’s somewhere out in the rural countryside or a small town, it’s definitely worth getting somebody to guide you.
You’re worried about offending somebody
We’ve discussed on our site before the written and unwritten rules that residents of Japan live by, and for many that can be quite intimidating. If you’re worried about doing something that will cause great offense during your first few days in Japan, hiring a tour guide might go a long way towards easing your stress.
Guides will undoubtedly be more than familiar with what is expected within any region that you’re visiting, so it really can’t hurt to have one show you the ropes when you first arrive. You could simply follow their lead or instead, ask them outright if there’s anything you should know or do while visiting certain places. This could be especially true if you’re hoping to visit temples, religious historical sites, or even an Onsen during your trip, as these sites often have a strict code of conduct that everyone, including foreign visitors, should follow.
You don’t want to miss anything
I can’t tell you the number of times I walked past sites, restaurants or shops I would have LOVED during my first trip to Japan, simply because they were slightly hidden or unassuming. Obviously, you won’t get to see absolutely everything during your trip to Japan, but having a tour guide to show you around could mean that you get to see things you might have missed had you been going solo. You could even tell your guide at the start of the day what you’re hoping to find, and they can point things out along the way.
Where can I hire a tour guide?
There are plenty of private tour guides in every single city, and a simple google search for the one you’re headed to should point you in the right direction. Keep in mind that a paid tour guide will be relatively expensive in Japan, but you do usually get what you pay for. Japanese business culture demands very high quality from employees, so you know that whoever you hire will be friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable.
If you’re not sure you can stretch your budget to a paid guide, free tour guides still offer a fantastic experience. In fact, the fact that these guides are willing to give of their own time for nothing more than the experience, and ability to enhance your trip to their country should tell you that these are people that will go the extra mile for you.
You can head straight to the Systematized Goodwill Guide Groups here – https://tokyosgg.jp/index.html
There’s also a fantastic list of all their offices across Japan here – https://www.japan.travel/en/plan/list-of-volunteer-guides/
What can I do if I’d like to find my own way?
If you’re still decided that having a tour guide might cramp your style, there are plenty of ways you can navigate your way around Japan. Many tourists choose to get mobile WiFi, which is very popular with locals too, particularly in major cities like Tokyo. Some accommodation owners even include them in the cost of the room! Do plenty of research before you arrive, both online and through guidebooks. Lonely Planet Japan can be a great resource, and they update each book release often so you shouldn’t need to worry about out of date information. And remember – ask a local if you get stuck – they’re usually more than happy to help!
Do you have a tour guide you’d particularly recommend? Let us know – leave a comment!