Japan can be a difficult place to get around if you don’t speak Japanese. If you stick to the big cities, you’ll have no problems as information in English is available, but for anyone who wants to get off the beaten track a bit, you just might want a guide who can communicate in English, show you around town to some of the sights and take you to a regional restaurant known for it’s local specialty.
Professional guides can cost over US$200 per day, but if you are willing to use volunteer guides, you can get by quite cheaply and you may even have a more local, cultural experience.
The one thing about using volunteer guides is that most of the guides volunteer because they want to practice their language, and guiding, skills. As a result, you may find that some of the guides do not speak very fluent English or that they cannot answer your questions in much depth. But Japanese people are very sincere and very proud of their culture, so they will always try their best, and often go above and beyond what is expected to make sure they give you good service.
Volunteer guides do not make money from their guiding. They get paid by the experience and their chance to improve their linguistic and guiding skills. You are not expected to tip them but you should pay their expenses for food or entrance fees to the places they take you. If you want to tip, Japanese people would feel more comfortable receiving a small gift, perhaps something from your country, than receiving money. If you feel you must give a monetary gift, always put it inside an envelope. To receive cash in public, or front of other people is always embarrassing for Japanese people. An envelope always leaves the possibility that the contents could be just a letter of gratitude.
For a list of contacts for “Goodwill Guides” in various areas throughout Japan, see the JNTO websitehttp://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/arrange/essential/guideservice.html
If you cannot find a guide for the place you are headed to, you can always ask at the information desk of any train station.
Amy Chavez is a columnist for The Japan Times. Visit her website at http://www.moooobar.com