Private Guide in Japan: How to choose the Right English-speaking Guide
We, at Kanpai, have been collecting and publishing helpful information on how to prepare and enjoy trips to Japan for a long time, and we are aware that there are as many different ways to appreciate Japan as there are types of travelers.
What are the benefits of hiring a tour guide in Japan?
Even with thorough preparation, one of the best ways to enjoy a trip is to be accompanied by a local Japanese and English-speaking guide.
Many simple reasons are in favor of hiring a guide:
- To overcome the language barrier. As many Japanese struggle to speak English (nor any other foreign language), and allows for an unrivaled perspective of the country compared to traveling alone;
- Tour guides facilitate to make your visits enjoyable 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 logistics or the itinerary;
- Polyglot expats or Japanese guides offer an exceptional experience sharing their sharp insight of Japan with you and can act as interpreters while interacting with locals on the spot.
With a good guide, it really is possible to save time, stress, and money!
Select your guide
When it comes to guiding services, because the varying types and levels run the gamut, it is complicated to separate the wheat from the chaff.
The Licensed Tour Guide
The first natural move might be to look for a Japanese government licensed tour guide.
There are a few thousand, 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 (as a ridiculous example, examinees can be asked who the Japanese ambassador to Zimbabwe was in 1973). On the other hand, foreign language usage is not as thorough as it should be, especially regarding the speaking part, according to many testimonies. It came to be sometimes considered an overrated certification and it seems that Japanese government intends to reform it in the 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 tours 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$341.10) 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 rather overpriced for an overall, unpleasant experience.
The Volunteer Guide
On the opposite spectrum, 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 even abruptly canceled.
Oftentimes, these Japanese volunteers characteristically guide as a layman: Impossible to be sure if they are indeed citing accurate facts or not. 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 find yourself to be the one accompanying them for their benefit!
Note that while the guidance is free of cost, 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 to 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 or if you want a private tour.
Particularities between June and September 2022
Since June 10, 2022 and the steady influx of tourism back in Japan, choosing a guide is an even more important matter.
The Japanese government indeed required 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. This requirement has been lifted on September 7, but it shows how important it is to check a guide's credentials for a travel in Japan.
Our Recommendation: Keikaku
We believe that an established and registered travel agency can offer one of the best experiences for guided tours in the archipelago, 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 collectively.
Kanpai thus recommends Keikaku, whose team of bilingual guides in Japan organizes private guided tours in the most attractive destinations:
- 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 centered 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$34.11) 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 arrange a guide for the entire 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 Whatsapp, 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!