How nice to arrive at a foreign port and be greeted by a resident eager to show you the best his or her city has to offer — for free. This is the premise of Goodwill Guides, Japanese volunteers who assist visitors in exchange for the opportunity to practice their language skills.
My husband and I were diehard independent travelers willing to venture on local transportation or drive in remote places with only a guidebook until a friend, who is an Israeli tour guide, pointed to an ancient ruin and explained that this was one of the earliest manmade arches. Our sons were fascinated to learn how an arch is built, the purpose of the keystone and the biblical relationships to the site. Realizing we might have dismissed this treasure as a pile of rubble, we began budgeting for expert escorts, which has greatly enriched our travels.
A professional offers a depth that goes far beyond the highlights in a guidebook or the occasional plaques. In Piazza San Marco, our guide, Luisella, captured the essence of Venice’s importance in world trade as she explained the mercenary reasons for the intricate pink facade of the Doge’s Palace and the bones of St. Mark in the cathedral.
These experts know about traffic patterns, closings and what can realistically be crammed into a day. In Athens, Jordan insisted on an early start. He got us to the Acropolis before it was carpeted in crowds and delivered us to the Greek Parliament only minutes before the changing of the guard.
Another reason to use a professional is to make the most of a brief visit, and nowhere is this more important than in a cruise port. Instead of wandering into town on your own, bargaining with a taxi driver or signing on to one of the ship’s expensive excursions, it’s easy to research a superb guide online and save money by joining other like-minded cruisers.
When we planned a cruise on the Diamond Princess to visit offbeat Japanese ports, we discovered that Systematized Goodwill Guide Groups were active in several of the locales. While there is no charge for these volunteers, we were expected to cover our escorts’ transportation, admission fees and lunch. (All of our guides had badges for free public transportation and fees.) One group requested 1,000 yen (less than $10 per couple) as a contribution to their association.
More than 80 SGG groups are in Japan. Some do not require much advance notice while others have particular requirements, such as contacting them no sooner than 60 days before arrival. With only a few guides available in some ports, arrangements need to be made in advance. The Japanese are sticklers for etiquette, so it’s important to request their services rather than demand them when you write.
After we filled out the appropriate form for the port of Hakodate, our volunteer contacted us with instructions about where to meet him. Ryuichi helped us use public transportation to the observatory tower, a star-shaped fort, and explained how this was one of the first cities to be opened to foreign trade after Commodore Perry’s arrival in 1854. Tours are supposedly limited to three hours, but our guide insisted on escorting us through the red-brick warehouses that are now an irresistible shopping mall.
For Sakaiminato I wrote to the chairman of Yonago Goodwill Guides, who immediately responded and suggested a choice of temples and shrines, gardens, a castle, museum or an umbrella factory. One of the other couples wanted to skip museums, so we picked the Matsue Castle and the factory. The chairman arranged two guides — Naoko, a retired teacher, and Kumiko a full-time mom. He also arranged a comfortable van and we covered the rental.
Our guides did not speak English fluently, but smiles, gestures and phone apps helped immensely — except we were surprised to find that the factory had been replaced with a museum. Nobody complained because the Adachi Museum of Art is the home of what some consider the most beautiful garden in Japan. The resplendent view of the meticulously sculpted landscape — no stone, branch or leaf out of place — turned out to be a highlight of everyone’s trip.
Tips and offers of payment are insulting; however, it is customary to give omiyage, a token gift – such as magnets, key rings or postcards — that are representative of your hometown. Sweets from your region are also welcome. Take great care with the wrapping of the gift, which is considered as important as the contents — and be sure to present it with both hands.
Saying farewell to our guides at the pier was more like the parting of friends, which in a short time they had become. We hope we had left our own mark of goodwill behind, as well.
WHEN YOU GO
For a list of Japanese Goodwill Guide organizations: www.jnto.go.jp/eng/arrange/travel/guide/list_volunteerguides.php
To organize a tour on any cruise ship: www.cruisecritic.com. Click “Roll Call” and then fill in your cruise line, ship and month of departure to find your sailing. Sign on to chat and join tours that others have arranged or organize one yourself.
Japan video courtesy of Emmy-award winning filmmaker Philip Courter