Japan Volunteer Guide Service
I first came to know about Japan Volunteer Guide service many years ago when a friend used their service in Nara. I thought it was a wonderful way to have interactions with the locals and see Japan through their eyes; to have them explain the history of places we visit and learn how they live. Of course, the best part was to have someone else do the planning for that day. *LOL*
My first experience with Volunteer Guide service was in 2013 during a family trip to Kansai area. We had a Volunteer Guide in Nara and another in Kyoto. Till today, we’re still in touch with our Kyoto Volunteer Guide, who visited us in Singapore as well.
Over the years, I’ve engaged Volunteer Guides in Nara, Kyoto, Kagoshima, Nagasaki, Nagoya, Takayama, Kanazawa, Matsumoto, Nagano, Kochi, Matsuyama, Hiroshima, Morioka and Aomori. I’ve also introduced this Japan Volunteer Guide services to other friends for their Japan travels.
- What is Japan Volunteer Guide service?
- Who are the Volunteer Guides?
- Where to find Volunteer Guides?
- Is Japan Volunteer Guide service free?
- How to engage Japan Volunteer Guide service?
- Important Things to Note
- My family’s and my experience with Japan Volunteer Guides
What is Japan Volunteer Guide service?
Japan Volunteer Guide service is a service offered by Japanese locals to tourists who want to know more about the place where they live. These Volunteer Guides act as Ambassadors for their town, sharing with tourist what their town offers through sightseeing, activities and food.
Who are the Volunteer Guides?
Most of the Volunteer Guides I’ve encountered fall under these 2 groups:
- University Students / Language Students
- Retirees / Housewives
Some of their reasons for being Volunteer Guides included learning and practicing the language; having opportunities to interact with foreigners; and having something to do after they retire or in their spare time.
Most importantly, these Volunteer Guides are Ambassadors for Japan, the towns they represent and provide tours to. All of them are sincere and enthusiastic about sharing what their towns have to offer with tourists.
Where to find Volunteer Guides?
JNTO (Japan National Tourism Organization) has an extensive list of Volunteer Guide Associations by prefectures, starting from Hokkaido down to Okinawa. The list consists of mainly Systematized Goodwill Guide Groups (SGG) who are registered with JNTO. Information listed include areas where these SGG cover, language available, website (if any), email contact and type of guide/tours available. Be sure to bookmark the list!
Not all Volunteer Guide services are listed on the JNTO site. For locations not listed, you may need to search for individual location tourism website if such Volunteer Guide services are offered. Do note that some location tourism websites list chargeable guide services (not covered in this post).
Is Japan Volunteer Guide service free?
Yes, it depends and no.
Yes, it is free as the Volunteer Guides are not charging for their time to bring you around. Some of the Volunteer Guide Associations have arrangements with local tourist spots for free entry for their Volunteer Guides. No one is earning anything from providing this service.
The guide service is free, but there are other associated cost that the tourists may need to cover.
If there are no arrangements made with local tourist spots, the tourists will have to pay for the Volunteer Guide’s entrance fees. Tourists are also expected to pay for the Volunteer Guide’s transport cost if they travel with the tourists to places of interests. Some associations required the tourists to provide a specific sum as a token to cover the Volunteer Guide’s transport cost between their homes and the meeting location.
If the guiding hours cross mealtime, the tourists are also expected to cover the Volunteer Guide’s meal. The Volunteer Guides who I had lunch with, were mindful about the meal expenditure and would not order too expensive a dish. I’ve noticed they generally keep to a meal budget of JPY1,000 (at post time). Where meals are more expensive (usually because I requested for specific dish), I was pre-advised. If you’re snacking during the guided tour, do treat the Volunteer Guides to drinks, ice cream and snacks as well. The Volunteer Guides are using their personal time to guide you around, and we should show some appreciation.
I’ve noticed that some Volunteer Guide Associations are starting to charge a fee for their services. I’m wondering if it’s because of too many last minute cancellations when the service was offered for free. Somehow, when something is offered free, people tend to take advantage of it and not treat it with respect. Let’s not do that.
How to engage the Japan Volunteer Guide service?
Contact for Volunteer Guide services can be via email or an online form. Most Volunteer Guide services require you to contact them at least 2-3 weeks before the date you require their service for. This is to allow them time to check with their Volunteer Guides for availability. If your visit is during peak season, it is good to reach out to them at least 4 weeks earlier. Don’t engage them too early (like months in advance) as they will not be able to advise availability till closer to your visit date.
Please refer to their respective information/website on the JNTO list and check their information for specific instructions.
The following information is generally required:
Number of people in the party to be guided
- For example, if I’m travelling with my Mum, I would indicate 2 people. If I’m travelling with my family, I would indicate 6 people.
Age, Gender and relationship of the people in the party to be guided
- I believe they require this information for their Volunteer Guides to decide if they can guide the group and considerations for older tourists or children.
Language required for guided tour
- English is the language most commonly offered for these Volunteer Guide services.
- Please check the respective Volunteer Guide Associations for the languages they can provide.
Date and time of visit
- Very important as they need to check which Volunteer Guide is available on that day and time.
- Let them know if you need the Volunteer Guide for half a day or a full day.
Meeting place / Hotel where you’re staying
- This information is important as the Volunteer Guide can then plan the travelling time and route for the day.
Places of interest you want to visit
- Let them know so the Volunteer Guides can plan the route and ensure there is enough time.
Any other important information
- For example, if you have older folks, you may want to let the Volunteer Guide know to have more rest stops. Or if you have food allergies and your request is for a full day tour, the Volunteer Guide can look for places where the food is more suitable.
Acknowledgement/agreement to the Volunteer Guide rules of engagement
- They require tourists to acknowledge the possible cost associated with the guided tour so that there are no surprises to either parties.
- Please check the respective Volunteer Guide Association’s rules and policy for details. If unsure, ask and clarify.
Important Things to Note
Volunteer Guides are volunteers
- Please don’t expect them to be professional tour guides.
- They are doing this because they want to share the beauty of their towns and Japan to tourists.
- They are doing this for free, using their own time and without expecting anything much in return from the tourists.
- What many tourists don’t know is though they are volunteers, they have put in a lot of time and effort in learning the history of places, how to present the information to tourists and shadowing other Volunteer Guides to learn from them.
- They are serious about their Volunteer Guide services. They have yearly conventions where Volunteer Guides from all over Japan gather to exchange information and learn from each other.
- If you want professionally conducted tours, please engage and pay for professional tour guides.
Don’t expect Volunteer Guides to keep you entertained and engaged all the time
- See point 1.
- I’ve read online reviews where foreign tourists criticised and complained that the Volunteer Guides didn’t know how to engage them and keep them entertained; that the Volunteer Guides were just regurgitating/reading off pre-prepared information.
- All my Volunteer Guides were very engaging. I believe it was because I engaged them too. Don’t wait for someone to reach out to you. You may be a tourist, but they don’t owe it to you to offer this Volunteer Guide service. Volunteer Guide service is a 2-way street.
- Understand the Japanese culture and you know that it is not their nature to behave with energetic and animated actions or engage strangers on a personally level immediately.
- See Pt 3.
Don’t expect them to be fluent in your language
- Remember that Japanese is their first language.
- The language, they are using for the guided tour, is not their first language. Give some leeway to how it is spoken.
- These Volunteer Guides are doing their best to speak in your language. This is also why they sometimes have to read off their notes when introducing a place.
Treat all Volunteer Guides with respect
- Respect the Volunteer Guides, respect their Japanese culture and respect the way they do things.
- If you want to be treated right, learn to treat others right first.
Not every Volunteer Guide will become friends with you
- Every Volunteer Guide is different, just like us. So my experiences with them will differ from yours with them.
- From my experience, there were Volunteer Guides where it was strictly “business”. No matter how I try, I couldn’t get pass that barrier. Whereas with other Volunteer Guides, there was a “friend vibe”.
My family’s and my experience with Japan Volunteer Guides
My family and I enjoyed our many interactions with Volunteer Guides. I try to arrange for a Volunteer Guide whenever possible when I travel with my family.
I look at the whole experience of using Volunteer Guides as an exchange opportunity. Since using Japan Volunteer Guide services is a way of learning about Japan and its people, I try to reciprocate by sharing information about Singapore. With more information about Singapore, these Volunteer Guides will better understand and engage future Singaporean tourists who use their services. I am also helping to give a good impression of Singapore and Singaporeans.
That is the whole reason we travel, right? To see, learn, share and experience new things. Make the whole experience even more wonderful by being an Ambassador for our own countries in return.
These Japan Volunteer Guides don’t expect much in return from the tourists they guide, except for the tourists to enjoy their towns and a simple “Thank you”. Many times, I have been at the receiving end of their kindness and gifts too.
Where possible, my family try to bring along something from Singapore as a gift for these Volunteer Guides. We try to share a little part of Singapore with the gifts. It doesn’t have to be expensive so long as it comes from the heart.
I’m not aware of any other countries that provides such Volunteer Guide services extensively across the whole country. I sincerely hope Japan continue with this service and I look forward to meeting more Volunteer Guides in my Japan travels.
*Permission granted by Volunteer Guides for use of their images.
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