Volunteer Guides are readily available to assist visitors across Japan. Whether at the most popular temples and shrines in the tourist havens of Tokyo, Kyoto and Nara – to locally important and interesting spots almost everywhere.
With three new visitors to Japan in our group, a local guide was engaged to show and explain the key elements of historic Asakusa in Tokyo.
This post is about our guiding experience with Megumi. If you are after a detailed cultural history of Asakusa, you might have to look elsewhere!
I arrived at the Kuramae Toyoko Inn following the overnight flight from Sydney to find my travel buddies chilling out in the foyer. With business hotel breakfasts behind us, the appointed meeting time of 10:00am approached. I reassured the anxious travelers that Japanese people are very punctual.
So out we stand in front of the hotel, eying approaching local men: that will be him; no, the guy with the umbrella. Andrew had googled the guide, and assured us that “Meg” was a guy. First surprise for the morning as our guide Megumi sidled up behind us. “Andrew-san?”
We headed for the Asakusa Culture Information Centre just 500 metres up the road. This building is a priority stop for any visitor, with information and ideas for a fleeting few hours or a weeks stay.
After a quick catch-up with some staff and volunteers at the Centre, Megumi led up to the observation deck on this newly built facility. Here we got the observe the outstanding panorama and to get our initial understanding of Asakusa and its history.
Directly across from the centre is the famous Kaminarimon Gate.
In the Nakamise Street shops, Megumi suggested we try a variety of the sweets on offer, while explaining their origins and significance. The red bean sweets were our popular choice and purchase.
It is hard to get through this zone without being taken by the trashy trinkets set out beside exquisite ceramics and handcrafts. And the bustling and jostling crowds! And the innumerable groups of school kids taking selfies!
There was so much to take in. Having a guide provides immersion into this rich space that both Andrew and I had not experienced in previous visits (even if only for a short time).
You get the feeling that Sensouji Temple must be a special place just by standing in front of it. Fair to say that Megumi made sense of the place for us, all its richness, tradition and religious significance.
Can you pick the common element of the three photos? In each, someone is in earnest and honest conversation. We are listening, learning. Appreciating and respecting.
After exploring the precinct around the temple, including the Five Storey Pagoda, Asakusa Shrine, and exquisite but tiny gardens – the commercial lanes of Asakusa beckoned.
For five middle-aged guys, shopping was not seen to be a high priority. Megumi recognised that. As she led us through some of the small lanes of various wares, she did not bother to stop until we reached the real target. Lunch!
The volunteer guide experience is not just about seeing, it can be about doing. With a request to experience some typical Japanese food (and drink), we ended up at a place that I imagine no visitor knows about. Just off Asakusa-dori, on the 12th Floor of what seemed to be an office block, here we are.
With Megumi making the selections in consultation with the restaurant owner, we enjoyed a series of tasting plates that included sashimi, other sea foods, chicken and beef, rice, vegetables and dessert.
Forgot to mention the tasting of beers, then sochu, then sake.
Megumi is a member of both the Shinagawa SGG and Tokyo SGG. The Tokyo SGG Club does tours at fixed times at Ueno Park and Asakusa.
Shinagawa SGG covers a range of locations and activities in and around Tokyo.
Give it a go – you won’t be disappointed.