Japan: Local Experiences with Volunteer Guides

February 5, 2015

Posted in  Asia, Japan, Travel Tips

I recently discovered the best initiative EVER during my recent trip to Japan: Volunteer guides!!

Also known as Goodwill Ambassadors, these are local guides who, out of a desire to meet people from around the world or practice their language skills, volunteer their time to bring travellers around.

Equipped with a pass that grants Goodwill Ambassador free entry to most attractions, no payment is expected apart from what is necessary to cover their transport costs and possibly a meal. In fact, our guides were quite insulted when my father attempted to offer them some money, although they accepted gifts we had brought from Singapore with some hesitation.

It’s quite honestly the best way to meet locals and have an authentic experience whilst on a budget – the only issue I have with the whole thing is, why on earth haven’t I heard of this before!?!?

My dad and I at Miyajima shrine with Victor-san, a Goodwill Ambassador who was a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing.

The Experience
I arranged for guides at three locations, namely Hiroshima, Nara and Mount Koya. It’s hard to say what you can expect as it depends very much on the volunteer you’re matched with, although all volunteer guides do receive some training and are accountable to their clubs to show up (some had to take photographic proof that we’d met up!)

For my case, all three of my guides were lovely people, retirees who were passionate about their hometown and who enjoyed meeting new friends to have a form of cultural exchange. Their language proficiency in English differed, as did their backgrounds, but all three were equally enthusiastic.

I was greeted by handmade “Welcome, Sonia San” signs at station gates, and was frequently impressed by the depth of their knowledge and preparation – one guide had printed an hour-by-hour itinerary and a file of seasonal photos for our reference.

Another guide admitted to not knowing much about Mount Koya, but supplied an audio guide for our use as we wandered around exploring together, chatting about our hobbies (at 70+ years, he was a ping pong coach!). My most memorable guide was certainly Victor-san, a survivor of the Hiroshima bomb.

The warmth of their welcome was more than I could ask for, and I certainly recommend the experience to all. 🙂

At Nara deer park with Hiro-san, a retiree who used to work with a large Japanese bank and was extremely fluent in English and Japanese history. He’s brought several hundreds of visitors around!

Arranging for a Guide
Most clubs will have an email or contact form on their website, and many will ask to be notified at least 2 weeks before your arrival to make the arrangement.

As it is on a voluntary basis and depends on member availability, it is not definite that your request will be successful. Family holiday seasons tend to be the hardest to make such arrangements. I made requests 1 week in advance (quite late) for 6 locations, sending out 10 emails, and was only successful in 3.

To increase chances of  a successful match, I suggest giving notice of 3 weeks to a month, and emailing more than one club in the same area.

The process is slightly different for each club – if they have a website, check it out for specific requirements. However, generally it works like this:

  • Select a club
  • Submit a request via their website or email (you do this for each club individually):
    Include your date and time of arrival, method of arrival (e.g. train/bus), number of pax and preferred itinerary if any.
  • Wait for a response. A club spokesperson will reply to say they have received your request and are broadcasting it out to their members. I received responses between 1 day to 1 week.
  • A club spokesperson will notify you if the request has been successfully matched with a volunteer guide, and will forward you his or her contact together with meeting details.
  • In some cases, I was contacted by the guide and had a chance for introductions prior to arrival. In other cases, I didn’t know who I was meeting until I got there.

List of Volunteer Guide Clubs in Japan

This list of 80+ clubs cover most of Japan, including the Hokkaido, Tohoku and Kanto regions. Many of the clubs state a willingness to venture beyond the main cities, so there’s a high chance you’ll be able to find a guide virtually anywhere in Japan if you give them enough advance notice!

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Regions covered, from the Japan National Tourism Organization website

Examples of Club Descriptions:
As you can see, this gives you an idea of the club’s base, their flexibility in location and itinerary, as well as languages offered and contact (taken from the Japan National Tourism Organization website):

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I hope this tip makes your visit to Japan all the more enriched! It certainly did for me, as well as made me a few new friends 🙂

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