Wondering whether to hire a tour guide in Tokyo? So are thousands of other travelers to the capital. If you’re anything like us, you’re probably not sure that you can justify opening your wallet for the expense. After all, Tokyo is relatively safe and well signposted, so can’t you make your own way around? The short answer is yes, but tour guides can be hugely advantageous in certain situations. Here, we’ll look at when you might use one, and what your options are (including those that don’t cost a single yen).
When it’s a good idea for a tour guide in Tokyo
If you’re only going to be here for a few days, it’s your first time, or you’re a resident but have folks coming to visit and you can’t get off work, then having a tour guide in Tokyo can be helpful. It’s a good way of making sure that you (or your friends and family) get to see the major sights in the city without feeling lost or overwhelmed. I remember my first day trying to navigate the streets of Tokyo–I spent it going in and out of what seemed like countless different exits and entrances of a Bic Camera store. It felt like I was in a labyrinth (and I didn’t even find the floor with the fancy toilet seats).
Tour guides help you structure your time, cover a lot of ground, and experience awesome local places that you wouldn’t necessarily find on your own (but: see the DIY section below for a caveat on that). They can help you to interact with locals (having someone who can speak Japanese is beyond beneficial), as well as answer questions you have about famous sights and their history.
Should I book a private or group tour?
Group tours tend to be cheaper, and allow you to blend into the background and avoid lots of chatting with the tour guide–but the lack of individual attention can be frustrating if you have questions about the attractions you’re being shown. They can also be quite restrictive in terms of choice and movement; you might find yourself shunted from one sight to the next on a tight schedule. That said, group tours suit some cheapos perfectly, and can provide a fun experience and the chance to make friends with other tourists.
Private tours can generally be tailored to suit your interests and schedule, and give you the chance to gain a more in-depth understanding of the area. There is also more flexibility when it comes to making changes to the itinerary, like a spontaneous stop-off for ramen or a selfie next to a creatively-titled establishment (cough cough, Grope in the Dark* and so on). While some private tours can be pricey, there are a number of affordable options–and a bunch of free ones, too.
Recommended tour guides in Tokyo
Right then, which of the hundreds of tour guides in Tokyo do you go with?
If you’re happy paying for a tour, then booking company Viator is a good place to start. They offer a bunch of different day (and night) tours, centered around temples, chow, photography and more–depending on what you’re into. Prices start around US$40.00. They also do bike tours, if you’re wanting to see the city on wheels.
The folks over at Voyagin have some good deals too, especially if you’re interested in seeing the city by go-kart. Pro tip: They’re also your best bet for scooping discounted tickets to the Robot Restaurant and other attractions.
Other booking companies
You can also find a variety of quality tours, led by expert guides, on Voyagin.
Tokyo sightseeing bus
Another idea is to take a ride on the double-decker, open-roofed Sky Hop Bus, which circles Tokyo’s major tourist attractions (including the Imperial Palace, Ginza and Omotesando) and allows you to hop on and off as you please. There is an amphibian version, aptly called Sky Duck, too.
Free Tokyo tours
If you’re happy with a more casual approach and your schedule is flexible, then you could always try one of the many free walking tours of Tokyo. Mostly organized by goodwill guides, they can be a yen-saving way of getting your tourist on.
DIY: Self-guided tours
If you’ve decided that you’d rather explore Tokyo on your own, you’re not without resources. We’re not about to leave you flapping about with a map under a cherry blossom tree–that would be unsporting. To make things easy for you, we’ve put together a number of itineraries for half-day and whole-day walking tours that take you to spots both well-known and slightly off the beaten track. See for yourself here.
The best thing about taking a DIY approach? You’re likely to stumble across random cool cafes, restaurants, shrines and street art that even local guides wouldn’t think to take you to (that’s the caveat thingy we mentioned earlier).
*It’s a hip-hop apparel store.
This post was originally published in February, 2017. Last updated on September 24, 2018.