I was in Tokyo the first week of December, and someone mentioned to me to use www.tokyofreeguide.org. I had actually thought of this idea years back where REAL local people would give guided tours to travelers, and so it was to my pleasant surprise that this existed for Tokyo. I now wish more cities/countries would do something similar.
I had requested a guide for 3 days while I was in Tokyo. I did it about a month before my trip. After about 10 days, I got an email saying I was assigned a guide. Then about a week later, I got an email from my guide, Saki asking me what I wanted to do and see in Tokyo. If you do this, I highly suggest you book a month ahead of time. While I requested 3 days of a tour guide, Saki later told me it was only for 1 day, which was fine. I could fend for myself for 2 days.
You can read the rules on the web site, but basically you just have to pay for your guide’s meal and entrance fees and transportation fees while they are showing you around. I had no problem with that. It was a small price to pay for a “free” private guided tour.
Now while it wasn’t mandatory, we did bring her some Godiva chocolate that we got from duty free in Abu Dhabi. I had an old friend who used to bring Godiva to her Japanese coworkers. Granted there is a Godiva in Tokyo, but really, it’s the gesture that counts right? I mean, someone is spending a day to show you around in exchange for a lunch and transit passes; you can bring them a gift!
What to do
Saki and I exchanged emails back and forth after that. She asked if I wanted to see new or old Tokyo – I told her “old.” I then requested we eat ramen for lunch, and she asked if I wanted pork based or yuzu based. I wasn’t sure what yuzu was, so I just told her pork based. Then she asked me if I wanted to visit a traditional Japanese garden or the Imperial Eastern garden. I chose the traditional one.
Your guide should be able to meet you in the lobby of your hotel, which Saki did. And of course she was 5 minutes early (she was already in the lobby of the Park Hyatt when we came down.) We didn’t specify which lobby, but she was sitting on a chair by the concierge desks if you’ve ever been to the Park Hyatt Tokyo. I was expecting her to be on the ground level, so it may be best to let them know exactly where if your hotel is a bit confusing.
Saki is in her mid-20’s and apparently works for a tour company and today was her day off. I asked her why she would do this for free, and I forgot what she said, but she mentioned that with the tour company, she has to drive around and so it’s hard to find parking and get places. She enjoys the walking tours. So really, she probably does it for the same reasons why you and I would do it – 1. out of the goodness of our heart, 2. to practice her English perhaps, and 3. to meet new people. She mentioned she had been to the US on a study-abroad like program, and her English was very good. We had very few communication issues and Google Translate helped with that.
Saki gave us a pretty detailed itinerary of what we’d be doing. The itinerary is below if you want to follow it.
10:30 meeting10:30-10:50 walk to the meiji shrine10:50-11:50 Meiji shrine11:50-12:40 ramen for lunch12:40-13:00 Takeshita street13:00-13:30 waiking omotesando streetwhich plan do you like?1,hamarikyu onshi parktipical Japanese Garden where we can enjoy green tea and traditional cake.↓back to the hotel2, inperial eastern garden↓Tokyo station↓back to the hotel3,Shibuyashibuya crossing roadhachi-dog↓Daikanyama _asakura tei, traditional house with beautiful garden↓back to the hotel
Our tour ended at around 5pm or so. We got done with the Japanese garden and walked to Tokyo station. We would have ridden the subway back to the Park Hyatt, but we wanted to do dinner at a restaurant nearby, so we parted ways with our guide. We did NOT tip her; mainly because a) we had given her chocolates already and b) it’s just not customary to tip in Japan. I had tipped our other tour guides in other countries, but I didn’t do it in Tokyo because I didn’t want to offend her or something. It’s your call.
Let me say that my iPhone said we walked 10 miles that day, so you had better wear some good hiking shoes!
The odd thing is that after the tour, I was expecting a followup email from TokyoFreeGuide to rate the guide and experience (like what you’d expect here in the US,) but we never got that. I guess they just assume all of the tours were awesome, so no need for feedback.
If you are in Tokyo and want a free tour guide for a day, I do highly recommend using Tokyo Free Guide!