Exploring Tokyo With a Local - Tokyo Free Guides

Tokyo can seem intimidating for first time visitors. Luckily there are a variety of guide services and experience packages available, including those offered by Odigo. If you're travelling on a tight budget, however, you should consider using the services of the Tokyo Free Guides.

Tokyo Free Guide is a free volunteer service which pairs locals with foreign tourists for a custom-designed tour of Tokyo. They will take you around for 2-4 hours free of charge. And are, "volunteer "Friends," full of energy, heart-warming hospitality, and always with a friendly face." The service is called 'free,' but you do cover the expenses for your guide including: train/bus/subway tickets for their day with you, their meals if you eat together, and their entrance fees if you go to museums or other venues that charge admission. These costs will vary depending on what you are doing, but are very reasonable for the private, custom tour you get.

Visitors to Tokyo who are interested in spending time with a Free Guide can apply on the TFG website. The application form allows you to select possible dates, choose which available languages you would need, and indicate what sort of sights and experiences you are interested in. If a volunteer is free on the day you request, you will be put in touch with them and can plan out an itinerary together through email. Since they are volunteers, many of whom are working or students, you are not guaranteed  guide. If you do not want to take that risk, a paid tour is your best bet. I'd recommend checking out Odigo's list as well, since it has a good mix of different experiences and price points.

Nakamise-dori and Sensoji

We made use of the Tokyo Free Guide service during our first trip to Tokyo. The process of applying was straight forward, but we did not find out until very close to our departure date whether a guide would be available to meet with us. Luckily, one of their guides was available to spend our first day in Tokyo with us. After being matched with her, she contacted us via email and based on our interests, created a full-day tour for us, and arranged to meet with us at our hotel. 

The day of our tour, our lovely guide met us at the hotel the morning we'd agreed upon, and led us to our first destination. She helped explain the Tokyo subway system, how to buy tickets and Suica cards, and how to navigate the stations, which was very helpful to us first-time visitors who had never been to such a large urban center. Our itinerary for the day was:
  • Asakusa (Sensoji and Nakamise-dori)
  • Shibuya (Hachiko, the intersection and conveyor belt sushi)
  • Shinjuku (Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building free observation deck)
  • Harajuku (Takeshita-dori, Meiji Shrine, thrift shopping & 'depato' store visit)
Conveyor belt sushi in Shibuya
We managed to cram a whole lot into our day, and along the way our guide had facts and information about the areas we were in to share with us, as well as lots of local insight into off-the-beaten path areas. She was extremely friendly, and chatted with us about a wide range of topics from the difference in landscapes in Canada and Japan, to literature, and the difference in work habits in Japan and Canada. We really appreciated how much information she had, how organized she was, and how easily she helped us get used to the subway system. 

For less than $30, we had  fantastic time with our volunteer guide, and managed to mark a lot of our 'to-do' list for Tokyo off in one day. If you are new to Tokyo, I'd recommend applying for a Tokyo Free Guide

Lin Baker