Private Guide in Japan: How to choose the Right English-speaking Guide
We, at Kanpai, have been collecting and publishing information on how to prepare and enjoy trips in Japan for a long time, and we are aware that there are as many ways to appreciate Japan as there are travelers.
What are the benefits of hiring a tour guide in Japan?
Even with a thorough preparation, one of the best ways to enjoy a travel is to be accompanied by a local Japanese and English-speaking guide.
Many simple reasons are in favor to hiring a guide:
- It helps overcome the language barrier, as many Japanese people don’t speak English (nor any other foreign language), and allows for an unmatched discovery of the country compared to traveling alone;
- Tour guides know how to make you enjoy the visit to the fullest: They know the places to discover (sometimes hidden from tourists), uninteresting or overrated places, and shortcuts to optimize your time of visits and see as much as possible;
- Having a guide makes the visit comfortable, as there is no need to worry about the itinerary;
- Polyglot expatriates or Japanese guides offer an exceptional experience sharing their insiders' knowledge of Japan with you and can act as interpreters with locals on the spot.
With the good guide, it is really possible to save time (and money!).
Select your guide
There are many types and quality levels of guiding services and it is not easy to find the most suitable for your travel plans.
The Licensed Tour Guide
The first natural move might be looking for a Japanese government licensed tour guide.
They are a few thousands, most of them of Japanese citizenship. There are very few foreign guides as the exam is quite hard and the knowledge required is similar to an absurd cramming (for example, examinees can be asked who the ambassador of Japan to Zimbabwe was in 1973). On the other hand, foreign language testing is not as thorough as it should be, especially regarding the speaking exam, according to many testimonies. It came to be sometimes considered an overrated certification and it seems that Japanese government intends to reform it in a near future.
However, the biggest disadvantage might be the guides’ lack of flexibility, as they will most probably want to stick to their set itinerary. Japanese licensed guides usually don’t create custom tour for their clients but they have a set route, with a tight schedule, and they unfold a history class routine speech, which can be boring. Notwithstanding the fact that their English proficiency might not be the best. Their rates are very expensive: up to ¥40 or 50,000 (~US$370.10) for a half a day tour, and it usually doesn’t include their meal or transportation fees!
We have tried such guided tours too, but we felt it was a rather overpriced and unpleasant experience.
The Volunteer Guide
On the opposite end, the volunteer or goodwill guide, is a good fit for low budget trips, and especially sought after by young travelers.
As a consequence, their availability is very limited (often only on the weekends) and private tours are out of the question. As they do not provide a contracted service, it is not possible to secure the tour date or to complain if the service is not of the expected quality or canceled.
Japanese volunteers characteristically guide as dilettantes: Impossible to check if they are really knowledgeable. Most of them are nice students or elderly persons and they tend to use guiding activity to practice a foreign language. So in the end, you might found out you have been the one accompanying!
Note that while the guiding is free, you will still have to pay for the volunteer’s meals, transportation and admission fees.
The Expatriate Freelance Guide
It has increasingly been easy to find expats freelancing as guides on the Internet 📶 over the last years. However, many of them are foreigners who married Japanese citizens and have a hard time finding a fixed or long-term job in Japan, mainly due their lack of suitable Japanese-language proficiency.
The last point is the most problematic: How is it possible to label oneself a professional guide when not being able to read a map, a sign or a restaurant menu properly, discuss with locals on any subject or ask for information in Japanese? Moreover, they, too, often have their own set itinerary and don’t try to personalize the experience.
Beware of hidden fees as well: The displayed rates, often attractive, can double when adding the guide’s meal expenses, transportation and admission fees and if you want a private tour.
Lastly, be aware of the fact that these "freelancing guides" may be working undeclared from the Japanese authorities and without insurance, a reason for them to require a payment in cash only.
Particularities since June 2022
Since June 10, 2022 and the gradual resumption of tourism in Japan, choosing a guide is an even more important matter.
The Japanese government indeed requires that the guide accompanying the travelers be at least a Tenjoin, that is to say "Certified National Tour Conductor". Obviously, 99 % of the volunteers or freelancers don’t have such certification, and additionally certified guides are now required to work in cooperation with a travel agency.
Our Recommendation: Keikaku
We believe that an established and registered travel agency can offer one of the best experiences for guided tour in Japan, including safety and quality. Of course, good guides can be found everywhere, but authorized and registered travel agents are submitted to regulations that guarantee their staff and guides’ professional skills.
Kanpai thus recommends Keikaku, whose team of bilingual guides in Japan organizes private guided tours in the archipelago’s most attractive places:
- Tokyo, the must-see capital, from which access is easy to Kamakura, Nikko and Hakone;
- Kyoto, the traditional city, close to Nara, Osaka, Koya-san or Himeji;
- An airport guidance service, in three of the busiest airports in Japan: Narita, Haneda and Kansai Airport.
Click on the Keikaku logo below to discover their services:
Keikaku is a human-sized travel agency managing a great group of certified guides in Japan, able to cater to any needs, with a friendly customer approach.
High-end but affordable guiding services are provided, with rates varying according to the tour length and / or to the number of participants: from ¥5,000 (~US$37.01) per person. And there are no hidden fees as Keikaku guides’ expenditures (meal, transportation and admission fees) are all included.
Their availability calendar is updated in real time and helps decide the most favorable dates for a tour, with lengths ranging from half a day, and up to three consecutive days, and even evening tours.
It is even possible to contact them to have a guide for the length of your stay in Japan.
What is a guided tour like with Keikaku?
The secret of a good guided tour lies in its preparation.
Each reservation with Keikaku is private and the guide will create your tour according to your needs, before your arrival in Japan. You will exchange with them by e-mail to explain what you want to do and decide on an itinerary and it is even possible to talk with the guide beforehand via Skype or other video apps.
On the day of the tour, the guide will come to pick you up at your accommodation. In addition to the guidance, they can help you to get your JR Pass, order train 🚅 tickets and, of course, tell you many anecdotes about life in Japan.
It is strongly advised to place a reservation on your preferred tour dates as soon as possible, as Keikaku guides are often booked well in advance, especially for peak touristic seasons (April, August, October, etc.) or holidays periods. Fortunately, it is possible to place a reservation up to 12 months in advance, to ensure getting your preferred dates.
Let’s follow the guide!