Traveling is no easy task in general, but going to Japan with a group of people who don't know the culture or speak Japanese is a whole other challenge. Were you suddenly designated "tour guide" for your whole extended family's Japan trip? Don't worry, I got you! Read on for some tips and tricks I learned taking people around Japan.
While most of my Japan travel experience has been mainly for my personal reasons, I've also taken my husband (who is not Japanese and does not speak Japanese) several times and his family once. I've learned it the hard way so you don't have to feel like hurling yourself into the crowded mass of people never to be seen again when you need to guide a group of people.
So you've been designated the unofficial official tour guide of the group. Great. I mean, great!
If you're planning with folks who have never been to Japan, there are two types of people:
- People who have no idea what they want to do and want you to do the planning
- People who want to do EVERYTHING.
For people who want to do everything, lie out what they want to do and plot it out on Google Maps and bookmark it so it all shows up. This will show the location of each place and you can get an idea of what places to group together to go to. For the most part I assume you'll be traveling by train, so keep that in mind. For the folks who don't have a clue, either ask them what type of things they want to do (museums, eating good food, parks/nature, temples, etc) or just make them do the things the everything type person wants to do and hope for the best.
1. Once you have a general itinerary, send it to your group. Remember, by naming you tour guide, you hold the power. Be open to suggestions but don't let them make you struggle for an impossible itinerary!
2. If you know it yourself, teach your group the basics of Japanese culture. Escalator basics (Yes, it does vary by region which side you stand on. What do you mean you stand in the middle?), not eating on trains (and other things, this isn't NY), wearing masks, etc. If you don't, don't sweat it. Plenty of blogs or social media accounts dedicate themselves to teaching Japanese manners. Or ask a friend!
3. Make a handy sheet for folks to have on their phone! This is top notch tour guide service, but if you want to, this is a nice thing to do for your group. Make a sheet that tells people what each currency looks like and what it equates to in USD, emergency numbers and what to look out for in the event they need emergency services, and some basic Japanese to get them around town. Also let them know that Japan is located in the Northern Hemisphere aka the same seasons as the U.S.) (I say this from experience, don't ask).
4. On that note, have your group either install a translation app they can use. I didn't realize how English unfriendly Japan was until I had to attempt to translate almost every type of fish on the menu. If you also don't speak Japanese, this may not be a problem, but if you do, it's not going to be fun if you have to tour guide and translate everything they see.
Okay, the planning is done and it's time to go! Don't hit the panic button just yet. Here are my tips and tricks to keep sane once you get there. This is the real challenge.
1. Establish some rules. Sure, this isn't a school field trip. But I’ve also taken a bus of 60 adults on a trip and know that somehow herding adults is harder than kids. By rules, I mean, if they get lost from the group, where they should meet up kind of thing. Cellphones exist (thank god) so if everyone has access to one, great! This is the way to go. But just in case a Plan B is always a good idea.
2. If you have a schedule and a list of places they want to visit, tell your group it's important to stick to the schedule. Factoring in travel time, places in Japan can be farther than they look. If you know your group has someone who randomly likes to stray away from the group, either A) schedule some extra time in your itinerary (but don't tell them): the nice thing to do, B) tell them they need to keep up with the group or else; the maybe not nice but valid thing to do, or C) leave them; the not nice thing to do but it will cross your mind at one point.
3. Make sure they know their hotel/AirBnB/wherever they're staying address. If they have phones, all they have to do is plug it into Google Maps or show it to a taxi cab driver. And have them know where the nearest train station is. Pro tip, convenience stores always a have a map of the area. If they get lost, have them go into one and show the address of where they need to be (assuming it's close by) and they may be able to help.
4. Schedule some alone time for yourself. This is my most important tip in my opinion. Just because your group thinks they need you, doesn't mean they actually do. Assuming you're taking a group of adults (or of age where they can function as one) and not a bunch of children who need guidance, they will be okay without you. Repeat that to yourself (and maybe them) if you/they don't believe it. Have some time each day where you send them off into the wild to fend for themselves, I mean, tour Japan on their own. Japan is (minus the semi-English unfriendly-ness) a great and safe place for tourists. Tell them to only contact you in case of emergencies and to not send you pictures of the menu asking you to translate the whole thing. By doing this you hopefully won't get intrusive thoughts like, "What if I just ran from them right now" and feel the urge to run into the crowd at a train station and lose your group on purpose.
This is a hot take and maybe unpopular opinion. But don't be afraid to ask them to pay for your service (or ask them to pay for your hotel, food, etc whatever you feel comfortable). If it's obvious from the start that your group is expecting a whole lot from you than others in the group and you feel like you're doing something others would pay a travel agency for, I think it's an okay thing to at least ask. Obviously, gauge the group. Maybe don't do this when you're going with your two best friends, but if you look like you should be holding up a flag with a line of people behind you, I think it's fair game. As my screenwriting professor used to tell us, "If you can do it well, never do it for free."
Do you feel prepared to take people to Japan? Or did I just scare you even more? Either way, great! Because I've prepared you for the ultimate tour guide experience. Good luck and have fun!