Weekend Beat/LIFESTYLE & MORE: Participants enjoy initial old-Tokyo tours despite a few rough spots
BY MOMOKO YOSHIDA, STAFF WRITER
Jiro Sakamoto, a volunteer tour guide in Tokyo's Kagurazaka, led a group of eight people into a narrow cobblestone alley and gave them a brief history of the area in his signature husky voice.
However, on a clear day on Oct. 20, a few things were new to Sakamoto. Unlike his usual street clothes, Sakamoto was wearing a dark blue kimono and zori. Also, after 10 years as a volunteer tour guide for Japanese visitors, this group was his first to include various nationalities, including an American and a French woman.
Following Sakamoto, Rumi Yamaguchi, a government-licensed English tour guide, provided simultaneous interpretation. "The black fences, cobblestones and mikoshi-no-matsu pine trees are the three famous landmarks of the Kagurazaka alleys," she said in English.
The tour was part of the kick-off events for the Kagurazaka Machitobi Festa 2007, the area's annual two-week festival held through Nov. 4. It features about 90 events, from modern arts to traditional Japanese performances, such as rakugo traditional storytelling and Noh performances.
The first Machitobi Festa took place in 1999, organized by local businesses and associations, including the Kagurazaka Machizukuri-no-kai, a group dedicated to making the neighborhood more appealing to tourists.
Sakamoto, 62, a member of the group, is the fourth-generation owner of a local glass store.
This year, the Machizukuri-no-kai collaborated with the International Japanese Cultural Exchange and Experience (IJCEE) to organize the experimental bilingual tours.
About 50 people participated in the Oct. 20 tours, which visited the neighborhood in several groups, led by Machizukuri-no-kai volunteer guides and government-licensed English guides. Tourists included students from China, Korea and Malaysia.
Kagurazaka in Shinjuku Ward is an attractive destination for tourists because it retains the atmosphere of the Edo Period (1603-1867). Kagurazaka is also home to many France-related institutes including the L'Institut franco-japonais de Tokyo, French bistros and French expatriates.
During the two-hour tour, Sakamoto pointed out famous ryotei (expensive traditional Japanese restaurants), an office that dispatches geisha, a long-established ryokan, temples and shrines.
Though the translation was sometimes bumpy and the pace of the tour less than smooth, Sakamoto was agreeable and Yamaguchi vibrant. Laughter broke out frequently. Everybody appeared to have a good time, chatting after spontaneous introductions.
The tours' biggest attractions were hands-on activities--the Japanese tea ceremony and tosenkyo, a traditional fan-tossing game.
During the tea ceremony, participants drank powdered green tea following an age-old ritual and savored Japanese sweets.
In tosenkyo, players toss a fan at a target and score points depending on the fan's relationship to the target.
"It's easy to go to Roppongi, but I thought it would be nice to see the older part of Tokyo, too," Wuerthner said. "And I liked it very much."
IJCEE was formed in May by graduates of Tokyo Planner Juku, a project launched in 2004 by the Tokyo metropolitan government to train people to lead community efforts to attract tourists.
Last year, the project developed special tourism courses at the Tokyo Metropolitan University. The university hopes to offer regular undergraduate and graduate tourism courses in the future.
Ruriko Kigawa, a representative of IJCEE, said it is a volunteer organization made up of about 20 main members. All share an enthusiasm for providing non-Japanese with opportunities to get in touch with the "real" Japanese culture. Most of the members, including Kigawa, work for the group in their free time.
The Kagurazaka bilingual tours were the group's first project involving non-Japanese. Kigawa and Sakamoto were both students of the initial classes at Tokyo Planner Juku. She approached Sakamoto, suggesting they work together.
Kigawa also invited Catherine Oden, director of the French Tourism Office in Tokyo, as a tour adviser.
Oden, who has lived in Japan for 11 years and is fluent in Japanese, is a three-year Kagurazaka resident.
After the first tours, Oden said: "Though I live in Kagurazaka, I discovered some new places. The guide pointed out details I might never have noticed."
However, she added that the tours could have been improved if the pace were a bit slower, allowing the foreign participants time to better observe the surroundings. She added non-Japanese often have a "special flair for finding things that may be overlooked by Japanese hosts."
Working for French tourism offices in New York, Singapore and Tokyo for more than 20 years, Oden is often asked to give lectures by Japanese government officials, who'd like to see Japan emulate France, one of the top travel destinations in the world.
Oden says the first step is to increase opportunities for foreign tourists to learn about Japan and its culture. How they are treated here will make a difference in their home countries, she said. "I believe foreigners who love Japan are also good promoters."
After the tours, Sakamoto's impression was to the point--"difficult."
"Except for the language barrier, the most difficult part of guiding foreigners is that we aren't sure what they want or what they are interested in. Even though they are all from outside Japan, they are all not the same and don't necessarily share the same interests," he said.
"We are still in the experimental stage," Sakamoto said. "But we think it's possible to use this as a stepping stone to attracting more foreign tourists to Kagurazaka."
Tour organizers had only three weeks to prepare--to plan the routes, activities and send out press releases. Kigawa spent a lot of time visiting concierges at major hotels in Tokyo to ask them to place flyers in their lobbies.
"The tour guides and interpreters should have hammered out more of the details beforehand," Kigawa said. "We see some things that need to be fixed next time. But anyway, we were happy to hear the participants enjoyed the tours and we'll do better next time."
At the same time, the group plans to retrain tour guides. Targeting government-licensed guides and others, the group will host a series of public seminars on traditional Japanese culture and inbound tourism, starting in January.
The lecturers include freelance journalist Elizabeth Kiritani, a Boston native who lives in Yanaka, one of Tokyo's shitamachi (downtown) neighborhoods, and Yuichiro Ando. A specialist in modern Japanese history, Ando has written books on the Edo Period.
To provide a good tour, guides should educate themselves first, Kigawa said.
"Most tourists who come to Tokyo are more interested in the old Edo aspect of the city than the modern urban landscape. Indeed, sometimes, they know more about the Edo culture than us Japanese. A superficial tour won't work for them.
"I think a lot of Japanese people have forgotten the spirit of the old Edo culture. While our group is trying to teach visitors Japanese culture, there are also so many things we can learn from them, too."(IHT/Asahi: November 3,2007)