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Friday, Jan. 28, 2005
Tokyo's volunteer-guided tours invite tourists to meet the locals
By ERIKO ARITA
Tourist Rosa Quintana joined a pair of volunteer tour guides in Tokyo's bustling Shinjuku district Tuesday on an exploration of a department store basement stuffed with a myriad of gourmet food stalls.
The underground food floor is popular with Tokyo residents but can be bewildering to foreign tourists who attempt to navigate the wide variety of Western and Japanese-style delicatessens alone.
"You have everything here, such as salads and confectionaries," tour guide Hideo Suzuki explained to Quintana in English. The 67-year-old Tokyo resident is one of the two volunteers who offered to lead Tuesday's tour.
After trying a sample of grilled fish and asking her guides about some fried prawns she found at another shop, Quintana went out on a limb and decided to buy one.
"It's very interesting to see the basement shops, as we don't have this kind of food shop at department stores in my country," Quintana said.
The free tour of the department store and the streets of Shinjuku is one of five sightseeing courses for foreigners guided by local residents. The volunteer-based service, run by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, started earlier this month.
Each tour is limited to five participants and can be held in English, Korean, Chinese, German, French, Italian or Spanish. They take about two to three hours.
Each tour focuses on a different attraction, including the trendy Harajuku district that serves as a mecca for Japan's fashion-conscious teens, or the old temples and gardens of Kokubunji, a quiet suburb west of Tokyo. The courses were laid out based on surveys of foreigners carried out by the metro government.
Quintana, a 42-year-old public servant from Puerto Rico, said she liked the tour because she felt more familiar with the city by walking around its streets and stores, and also had a chance to speak with the guides, who are just ordinary citizens.
"It's most important for me to know real people when I visit a foreign country," she said. "The tour was a nice opportunity to meet local residents."
The weekday-only tours are based on requests from foreign tourists and start at City Hall in Shinjuku at 1 p.m.
Participants must pay the transportation and admission costs for any facilities they visit both for themselves and their guides. Depending on the course, this could be free or cost up to 2,860 yen.
Metro officials say the service is special because other local governments only offer brief tours that are restricted to particular sightseeing spots.
Kazuo Hojyo, who works in the planning section of the metro tourism division, said the tours were launched because it was found that many tourists want a chance to speak with local residents. However, it turns out that Tokyo's many polyglots have been wanting to do the same thing.
The five new ones are aimed at highlighting the attractions of the city while giving volunteers who can speak foreign languages more opportunities to do just that, Hojyo said.
In February 2002, just before the kickoff of the World Cup soccer games cohosted by Japan and South Korea, the metro government asked citizens fluent in foreign languages to volunteer their services, the official said.
Although the volunteers worked as guides at information centers set up for the event, and later at international conferences held in Tokyo, not all got a chance to work, Hojyo said.
Suzuki said communicating with foreigners was fun.
"As I have plenty of time, I wanted to do something helpful for visitors from other countries by utilizing my experience," said Suzuki, who worked at a Japanese brokerage in New York and London for eight years.
The metro government's first tour to be guided by volunteers, which began in 2002, explains the ins and outs of City Hall and has proven popular with foreign visitors.
Of the 1,700 volunteers registered as guides with the metro government, 80 are available for the newly organized tours, Hojyo said. The group includes retirees who have experience visiting other countries and college students and housewives.
The volunteer tours are conducted based on applications. Those who want to join a tour must apply at least three days in advance. For more information, see the metro government's Web site at www.tourism.metro.tokyo.jp/