Tokyo Free Guide is a nonprofit volunteer service that offers volunteer guides who speak your language and live locally in Tokyo, so they can help you experience Japanese culture and local customs. I first learned of the service from reading a Travel Blog online, and after some searching I found only great reviews, so I took the plunge and decided to give it a try!
The website explains the application process which is really very simple. You just fill in an online form explaining about yourself and the priorities for what you want to see, and wait to hear back if you are allocated a guide. You can apply up to 2 months before your trip, but they can’t guarantee that you will get a guide, as the demand often outstrips the number of guides they have. Despite traveling to Tokyo in the Spring, I got lucky and my guide e-mailed me just one day after I applied. She introduced herself (her name was Ryoko) and told me about herself and confirmed with me some of the sites I wanted to visit. We continued to e-mail back and forth, and made arrangements to meet in the lobby of my hotel on the date I had chosen.
The first thing we did was go to the Shibuya Station and Ryoko showed me how to purchase my PASMO card, which is basically a re-chargeable transit card, good for subway, trains, buses and even can be used in some shops and vending machines. I put 2,000 Yen on the card (approx. $20) as I knew I would be using the card for at least a few days and you can always re-load the card if you need to. We then jumped on the Ginza line of the subway, rode that to Ginza where we changed lines for 2 stops where we arrived at the famous Tsukiji Fish Market.
If you go in the early hours of the morning you can get lucky and see the Tuna Auctions at the inner market, but we arrived late morning so Ryoko took me through the many narrow streets of the Outer Fish Market browsing and sampling all the foods, not just fish, that were available.
The Fish Market as it presently is, has been going since 1935 and is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world and also one of the largest wholesale food markets of any kind. Vendors sell fish, seafood, fruits vegetables, cooking utensils etc. FYI, shops will start closing by early afternoon, so plan to visit in the morning.
Ryoko was very encouraging and got me to try many seafoods that I normally would be wary off, such as Eel, clams, cod roe, squid jerky, bento fish flakes, and some other things I hadn’t tried before such as radish marinated in Miso and a seasonal sweet called Yomogi-mochi which is produced by mixing mugwort into glutinous rice and pounding the mixture. The one I tried was filled with azuki beans and sugar and tasted quite sweet despite being an odd texture!
Despite being nervous about some of the things I ate, Ryoko really gave me confidence and to be honest everything I tasted was really good, so I felt quite pleased with myself for pushing my food comfort zone boundaries!
From the Fish Market we walked back towards Ginza passing the Kabuki Theatre, and Ryoko filled me in on a lot of the history of the theatre and how it works. On the surrounding streets are some statues of the Kabuki actors showing the heavy makeup that they wear.
The plan to was to buy some food items and have a picnic lunch next to the Sumida River, so we went into the Mitsukoshi Department Store and visited the food section in the basement where there was a fabulous choice of beautiful (and very perfect looking) foods, and I purchased some items with Ryoko’s help, for us to have for lunch. We then got back on the subway and went to Asakusa.
Once in Asakusa, we went to the Tourist Information Centre where Ryoko got some maps for me and also took me up in the elevator to the roof viewing area which gave a great view of the Sensoji Temple and Nakamise Street and also the Tokyo Skytree, the tallest tower in the world.
We then walked over to the Sumida River, found a bench in a nice spot on the river bank, and ate our lunch while we got to know each other a little better. The food we had purchased was Onigiri (rice ball filled with salmon), Bamboo shoots with rice, and a couple of filled buns, one with green tea filling and one with Cherry Blossom filling. It all tasted great and set us up to continue our tour.
As we walked across to the Sensoji Temple we passed quite a few ladies wearing Kimono. There are shops here where you can pay to dress in a Kimono for the day, and Ryoko explained to me that it is easy to tell the tourist apart from the true Kimono wearer, because the tourist Kimono are all bright colours and loud prints whereas the traditional Japanse women wear more muted colours generally, but still beautiful materials.
Sensoji Temple is the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo and also one of its most significant. The first temple on this site was founded in 645 AD. During WWII the temple was bombed and destroyed but later rebuilt as a symbol of rebirth and peace for the Japanese people. Part of the temple is a 5 story pagoda, but that was covered while being restored during my visit.
After going through the Thunder Gate, the approach to the Temple is lined with shops, and this is called Nakamise-dori (or street). Many tourists, both Japanese and from abroad visit the temple. The shops along the street sell souvenirs such as fans, Kimono, t-shirts and traditional sweets. The shops are part of a living tradition of selling to the Pilgrims who come to visit the Temple.
We spent a good amount of time at the Sensoji Temple, I made a point to cleanse myself with incense, and we also browsed the shops on Nakamise-dori. There were so many interesting things for sale, some cheap and touristy but also beautiful things too. One shop I enjoyed was full of Japanese Washi Paper with the most stunning designs, but I restrained myself to just buying a few notecards.
By now it was mid afternoon, so we took the Ginza subway line just 3 stops to Ueno Park. Ueno is known as the art and cultural heartland of modern Japan, and it’s easy to see why as the Park contains the Zoo as well as numerous Museums. The Kiyomisu Kannondo Temple is one of the oldest buildings in Tokyo and the architecture dates back to 1631. From the hillside at the main temple building it gives you a lovely view of Pine Tree of the Moon, and the 1,000 cherry blossom tree-lined main walkway of Ueno Park. Unfortunately for me, most of the cherry blossoms had past their peak bloom, but there were still some to see.
Further up the Park pathway we turned left and walked through the red Torii (or gates), into the Gojo-tenjin Shrine for a look around.
We then continued on up through the park for a pleasant stroll and as we went Ryoko pointed out some of the many museums surrounding the park including the Tokyo National Museum, the National Science Museum (with a life sized Blue Whale outside it) and the National Museum of Western Art – so much to see and not enough time! By now it was late afternoon and so we caught the JR Yamanote Train Line back to Shibuya which was a good 30 minute train ride and gave Ryoko and I more time to talk. Her English was excellent and I found out this was because she had spent nearly 5 years in London when she was younger, so we had plenty to talk about on that subject! Once back at my hotel I gave Ryoko a gift I had brought with me to give to her in way of thanks as I had read that is can be considered rude to tip in Japan. We said our goodbyes and promised to keep in touch – what a great experience and day it had been!
Date of visit: April 2017.