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Volunteer tour guides help foreign tourists to appreciate true colors of Japan TOKYO FREE GUIDE

TFG President Sanae Kawamoto (right) Executive Board Member Yumi Shinozaki (left)

TFG President Sanae Kawamoto (right)
Executive Board Member Yumi Shinozaki (left)

This month's Close UP features TOKYO FREE GUIDE (TFG), a nonprofit organization offering volunteer tour guide service to foreign tourists visiting Tokyo and surrounding areas. Whether the guests are traveling alone or as a group, the TFG's volunteer guides design tour courses in Tokyo according to the guests' needs so that they will make the best out of their trip while learning and understanding the people and culture of Japan. For this interview, we spoke to Sanae Kawamoto, TFG president, and Yumi Shinozaki, executive board member, about TEG's service and their passion for offering free tourist guide.

Please tell us how TOKYO FREE GUIDE was established.

A. ■Ms. Kawamoto:When you visit foreign countries, you may wish you had someone who may not be a professional guide but at least knows the area well and guide you around it. Or, if you have friends visiting Japan from overseas but you yourself don't have time to go sightseeing with them, it would be nice to arrange for someone else to take your friends out and show them around Tokyo. The TOKYO FREE GUIDE was first organized in 2004 by a founder and friends to meet these two demands from foreign tourists. The group continued to grow and officially became a nonprofit organization in December 2010.

A couple from the United States visits Asakusa With guests from France at Shinjuku Gyoen

A couple from the United States
visits Asakusa

With guests from France
at Shinjuku Gyoen


In which languages are TFG guides available? From which countries are your guests from?

A. ■Ms. Shinozaki:Our tour guide services are available in seven languages, including English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Korean, and Chinese. The majority of our registered volunteer members are English speaking guides. We added more Spanish guides this summer. The total number of registered volunteer guides is about 300 members at this point.

■Ms. Kawamoto:We have served guests from about 70 countries and regions so far. We serve guests who are visiting Japan on a personal trip. Since our website is in English, a large part of our guests are those from English-speaking countries or who understand information in English. The next largest group is Spanish-speaking visitors. To name by countries, our guests are mostly from the United States, Australia, Canada, UK, Spain, and so on. Visitors from Israel are also increasing these days.

What are the most common requests from the guests?

Taking a guest from Myanmar to Kamakura

Taking a guest from Myanmar
to Kamakura

A. ■Ms. Kawamoto:Requests from our guests are largely divided into two types. One is to take them to popular tourist destinations such as Asakusa, Harajuku, Shinjuku, etc. which they may have found in a guidebook but are not confident to self-guide in these areas. The other is from frequent visitors to Tokyo, who have seen those major places and now would like to visit more non-touristy places they don't find in guidebooks.

What were some of the unique requests you were asked by the guests?

A. ■Ms. Shinozaki:I had once a guest from Switzerland who told me during our e-mail exchange prior to the trip that he was a youth psychologist so would like to visit a school in Japan and observe classes. My daughter was then a student at a local public junior high school, so I talked to a person from the school and explained the guest's sincere hope to meet Japanese youth. I was eventually given permission from the school.
■Ms. Kawamoto: In another case, we had a guest who was a firefighter and wanted to visit a fire station in Japan. Our guide directly contacted a fire station in Tokyo and received welcoming permission to bring the guest. To meet these special requests, our volunteer guides would do the necessary negotiations by themselves.

A family from the United States enjoys cherry blossom viewing

A family from the United States enjoys cherry blossom viewing

How do you respond to requests from those who want to experience Japanese culture and lifestyle?

A guest from the United States tries on uchikake

A guest from the United States
tries on uchikake

A. ■Ms. Kawamoto:We often receive requests for a trial of Japanese tea ceremony. Some hotels offer such an opportunity, but some of our guides take their guest to their colleague guide who is a licensed tea ceremony instructor. Others find tea instructors through their friends. The guides sometimes invite the guests to their own house to make tempura together. Our guides work hard to meet as many requests from the guests as possible.
■Ms. Shinozaki:The guests are often taken to family restaurants, 100-yen shops, or local supermarkets, and they truly love visiting such non-touristy places. They are always thankful to us, saying they would not have been able to see such places by themselves.

It seems that the guests from overseas really enjoy meeting local Japanese people.

A. ■Ms. Kawamoto:That's true. It is a universal feeling that if you are in a foreign country, you want to do something unique and speak to some local people. That's exactly what TFG is helping for our guests.
■Ms. Shinozaki:I had a guest who wanted to buy clothes for her grandchildren as souvenirs so I took her to "109" in Shibuya. I helped her with her shopping and enjoyed a lot of conversations as I introduced her to some Japanese youth culture, just like I would do if my overseas friend is visiting me.

A family from the U.S. is happy to try on yukata A guest from the U.S. enjoys her first tea ceremony

A family from the U.S.
is happy to try on yukata

A guest from the U.S.
enjoys her first tea ceremony


How do you make a match between a guest and a guide?

A. ■Ms. Kawamoto:Guests first post their requests on the TFG's website, and our registered guides who are willing to offer help take the requests. Prior to the trip the guest and the guide communicate via e-mails quite often, building a trust with each other, and become friends before they actually meet.
■Ms. Shinozaki:The guides are able to choose which guest they would like to help based on the guest’s age, family makeup, and other background information, so many of them find it easy to become friends with the guests with whom they often have things in common. Of course, there is no guarantee that everything goes as they planned. Even if you’ve prepared a detailed tour plan for a particular guest, you may be told on the day of the tour that he/she has already visited all of the places on the itinerary the day before. Our guides are able to stay flexible in such cases. If you are planning to eat curry with your friend and find out that he/she just had it last night, you might suggest soba to eat instead. That’s what our guides are willing to do.

A couple from Israel

A couple from Israel

It sounds like your guides treat the guests like friends.

Visiting a shrine with a guest from Canada

"Visiting a shrine with a guest
from Canada

A. ■Ms. Kawamoto: Yes, and I think that's because ours is a volunteer-based service. Our guides want to help guests in the same way they would do to their personal friends. And because in most cases the service is given by one guide to one guest, it is easy for them to build a closer relationship. Some of our guides who have successfully built good friendships with their guests are often invited to visit them back in their homelands. Some are traveling around the world visiting their friends to whom they attended in Japan.

What are the benefits of being a volunteer tour guide?

A. ■Ms. Kawamoto: Being a volunteer tour guide, we are given opportunities to meet not only people from different countries around the world but also other Japanese colleagues who are highly motivated and share the same spirit of volunteerism. Through this volunteer work I have also rediscovered many wonderful things about Japan. Our guests would mostly say their first impression of Japan is how clean this country is. We Japanese wouldn't necessarily think so, though.
■Ms. Shinozaki:Overseas guests are always impressed by the quality of service in Japan too. They say they can receive five-star service at any places you would go without paying tips. They are especially amazed by the beautiful gift wrapping that most shops offer. I feel that being a volunteer guide has enriched my life by allowing me to appreciate and value Japan again and to make friends around the world.

What qualities are you seeking in your volunteer guides?

A. ■Ms. Kawamoto:As for language skills, it would be satisfactory if he/she is able to write and respond to e-mails, pick up a guest on his/her own, introduce himself/herself to the guest, and attend to him/her for an entire day in a foreign language. What is most important is whether you are willing to serve your guest so that he/she can enjoy their visit to Japan.
■Ms. Shinozaki:I would say that other preferred characteristics as a guide are friendliness, hospitality, and flexibility. If you have hospitality your language skills would follow.

With guests from Canada

With guests from Canada

Is knowledge of Japanese history and culture required to be a volunteer guide?

A. ■Ms. Shinozaki:We are not a professional tour guide service, so if we encounter something we don't know, we simply ask someone. If we are at a temple or shrine, we would find people who work at the place and have them explain, and we can translate what they say for the guest. Or find the signs and translate the information written on them. Or, we could do research on the Internet after the tour and send the information we have found later to the guest by e-mails.

Lastly, please tell us your next goal for the organization.

With a guest from Spain

With a guest from Spain

A. ■Ms. Kawamoto:It would be ideal if we could respond to every incoming request. Currently we are short in the number of volunteer guides and have not been able to answer to all the requests we receive. Although we have about 300 registered members, those who are currently active and are available to take requests are limited. It is our goal to improve the ratio of active volunteer members. We will also continue to accept new volunteer members, but we are particularly seeking those who are available to work for us as many hours as possible and have a personal goal other than improving their own foreign language skills. Of course, working as a TFG volunteer guide makes a wonderful opportunity to see the world and use a foreign language while being in Japan. However, we offer this service to overseas guests, and not to our own guides who want to practice their languages. Our priority is given to our guests and not our own goals, and we welcome those who understand this and are willing to join us and help our guests enjoy all the wonderful charms and attractions of Japan.