The mere mention of a guided tour tends to provoke widely different reactions. Some people enjoy being led from sight to sight in an air conditioned bus, while others yearn for a full-throttle, “take a bite of the culture” type of experience. Whichever you prefer, the following plans are sure to inspire your own urban explorations.
Visitors who fancy a trek around town with their own personal Japanese guide have a whole host of options. Tokyo Tourism Volunteers, run by the TMG, offers guided walks to a range of destinations, from nature paths to tearooms. There is no charge — simply pay the entrance fees and transportation costs for yourself and the guide. Tours depart weekdays at 1pm from the TMG Building in Shinjuku. It is advised that you register at least three days in advance via the website or in person. Guides speak English and several other languages. See http://tinyurl.com/tokyotour for details.
Tokyo Free Guide is another option for guided walking tours — not just around the city, but around leafy, temple-strewn Kamakura as well. There are no predetermined routes or times; all you need to do is send an email via the website and the NPO will arrange a guide to suit your needs. It is recommended that you apply a few weeks in advance. Again, you are only responsible for transportation and entrance fees for yourself and the guide. Staff speak English and a few other languages. See http://tinyurl.com/tokyofree for details.
Mr Oka’s Tours offers guided walks for small groups on a flexible basis. Oka is a retired professional guide and self-professed master storyteller who prides himself on informative excursions to the less-trodden “nooks and crannies” of Tokyo. “He wants you to uncover the history and excitement underlying the sometimes quiet, sometimes rambunctious urban-scape as you walk through it with him,” says the website. Tours must be arranged via telephone (03-42251-7673) from 7-10 p.m., or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. See http://tinyurl.com/mroka for details.
The open-top Sky Bus Tokyo may not make you feel like you’re in London, but it’s a pleasant way to tool around the city in good weather. Buses depart daily on the hour between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. from the Mitsubishi building, near the Marunouchi south exit of Tokyo station. The tour passes through Ginza, then swings by the Diet Building and Imperial Palace. You can purchase same-day tickets (1,200 yen for adults, 600 yen for kids) at the Sky Bus counter inside the building, or call in advance to reserve (03-3215-0008). See www.skybus.jp/English for details.
For a more comprehensive sightseeing experience, try Tokyo City Tours, which offers hotel pick-up, English guides and other tourist-friendly features. Various itineraries are available, including night tours, waterfront excursions and trips to historic spots around the city. All offer a glimpse of Tokyo’s major sights while still being easy to digest. See http://tinyurl.com/tokyocity for details.
To get a workout while you tour around Tokyo, hop on a bike and hit the road. The ambitiously named Tokyo Great Cycling Tour offers two routes, both of which last about six hours. The first departs from the Marunouchi Hotel near Tokyo station on Saturdays and takes riders to Odaiba and back. The second leaves every Sunday from the Hibiya exit of JR Shimbashi station. Tickets are 10,000 yen including bike rental, insurance and a lunchbox. Call 03-4590-2995 or see www.tokyocycling.jp for more details.
If you prefer a bike tour that stops for beer breaks, tag along with Don’s Half-Fast Flash-Mob Urban Weekend Bicycle Rides. Organized by Don Morton, the 30-60-km rides begin in central Tokyo and travel to such picturesque destinations as Odaiba and a waterfront park near Haneda Airport; occasional overnight excursions to Nikko or Oshima island are also on offer. Note that cyclists should be able to keep up a good pace and should know how to fix a flat. “Newcomers to Tokyo will see more of the city on one of our all-day rides than most people born here ever do,” says Morton. The group also holds a get-together on the first Wednesday of every month at The Pink Cow bar in Shibuya (www.thepinkcow.com). Email email@example.com for more info.
Watching the city drift by you as breezes caress your face is an extremely enjoyable way to experience Tokyo. Among the several boat rides down the Sumida River, the most tourist-friendly (and cheapest) is offered by the Tokyo Cruise Ship Company. A variety of routes are available, most of them disembarking from Hamarikyu or Hinode pier and cruising to Asakusa, Odaiba or Shinagawa. The ride is about 40 minutes and costs 720 yen one-way (360 yen for kids). Boats depart all day starting from 10am, and tickets can be bought at booths near the embarkation points. See www.suijobus.co.jp for times and prices.
If you fancy something a bit more luxurious, splurge on the Lady Crystal luxury yacht cruise. You’ll leave Tennozu Isle and cruise past Odaiba while enjoying a variety of food and drinks. Prices are steep — 14,000 yen for the dinner cruise from 6:30-9 p.m. — but the eats are said to be superb. A cheaper way would be to do the shorter late-night cruise, available Tuesday-Saturday from 9:30-10:30 p.m., which is all-you-can-drink for the hour and costs 4,000 yen. Book by calling 03-3450-4300. See www.crystal-yc.co.jp/english for details.
Yakatabune, those traditional wooden boats festooned with paper lanterns, are a quaint way to cruise the waters in the evening. A good off-price option is the all-you-can-drink, all-you-can-eat monjayaki and okonomiyaki cruise from Tsukishima Yakatabune. Normally 5,000 yen, the cruise is just 3,900 yen for groups of two or more through the end of the month. The tour lasts just over two hours and departs daily from Shin-Kiba, at various times. Book by calling 03-3533-6699, or online at www.4900yen.com (Japanese).
For a birds-eye perspective on the city, book a flight on Excel Air’s Helicopter Cruising service. The 15-20 minute flights depart from Urayasu heliport and take in such Tokyo landmarks as the Imperial Palace, Rainbow Bridge and Shinjuku skyscraper district. A variety of plans are available, including day, twilight and night cruises, and prices start at just 4,200 yen for children, 8,500 yen for adults. Cruises in Yokohama are also available. Reservations are required; to book your spot, call 047-380-5555 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. See www.excel-air.com for more info.
The Akihabara Tour operated by travel agency JTB consists of a half-day walk around the famed otaku haven. Groups depart at 1:40 p.m. from Hamamatsucho Bus Terminal, or hotel pick-up can be arranged. The itinerary includes an anime/manga shop, Tsukumo Robot Kingdom, electronics stores and the Tokyo Anime Center (top right); participants will also be treated to a drink at a maid cafe. The cost is 4,500 yen (3,500 yen kids). Book by calling 03-3435-6081 or through http://tinyurl.com/akibatour.
The Geisha Tour lets you hang with Japan’s traditional female entertainers, who sing and dance as you enjoy kaiseki cuisine in an old-style restaurant in the Mukojima area — home to more teahouses than anywhere else in the city. The tour is only available only on certain dates (check website) and leaves from the Hamamatsucho Bus Terminal at 5:40pm; hotel pick-up can also be arranged. Call 03-3435-6081 to reserve tickets (12,000 yen including dinner). See www.hatobus.com/en/course/16.html for details.
The Samurai Sword Action Tour includes lessons in Japanese swordplay led by fight choreographer Tetsuro Shimaguchi, who worked on Quentin Tarantino’s "Kill Bill." After the training, participants will have a chance to get dressed up in kimono and hakama (wide-legged samurai pants) and try some sword fighting. The 12,000 yen adventure takes place Tuesdays from 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and Sundays from 1 p.m.-3:30 p.m. Book by calling 03-5322-8988 or online at http://tinyurl.com/samuraitour.
The Sumo Tour takes you to an actual sumo stable to see how professional wrestlers live and train. The bus picks you up from a hotel at 7:30 a.m. and brings you back by 10 a.m., so you can spend the rest of your day practicing your arm-throws or eating "chanko nabe." Tickets are 8,000 yen (6,000 yen for kids). Call 03-6909-0601 or see http://tinyurl.com/sumotour for details and to book your dohyo debut.
The Ninja Tour operated by Hato Bus takes visitors across Rainbow Bridge to a ninja-themed restaurant in Odaiba for a live show. Tours depart on the second and fourth Sundays of the month and cost 9,800 yen (9,000 yen for kids) with dinner, or 5,000 yen (4,500 yen) without. Call 03-3435-6081 to book. See www.hatobus.com/en/course/08.html for details.
Japanimation fans will want to check out the Studio Ghibli-Pokemon Tour. A guide leads sightseers through the storied Ghibli Museum in Kichijoji, exploring the labyrinthine halls and seeing several short films. The second leg involves a trip to a shop near Tokyo station selling all manner of Pokemon goods. The six-hour excursion costs 9,000 yen (6,500 yen for kids) and includes all transportation and entrance fees. Exact times can be customized for groups of two or more. Call 03-6909-0601 or book online at http://tinyurl.com/japanime.
The Cherry Blossom Tour is available during sakura season in March or April and features a minivan ride with a personal guide. Participants are in for a day full of spring delights as they’re escorted to the city’s renowned cherry blossom hotspots, including Chidorigafuchi, Ueno Park and Zojouji shrine. The tour costs 12,000 yen for adults, and hotel pick-up is available from 9 a.m. Call 03-6909-0601 or book online at http://tinyurl.com/sakuratour.
The Karate Tour is geared for those who want to go to the mat for a memorable Tokyo experience. Participants will learn about the history of karate at a local martial arts center and then receive training and practice. The tour is offered Tuesdays and Fridays from 5:30-8:30 p.m. for 8,800 yen (7,500 yen for kids), and hotel pick-up is possible. Call 03-6909-0601 or see http://tinyurl.com/karatetour for details.
Urban Safari Tours are tailor-made, specialized tours focusing on (for instance) fashion or architecture. These insider excursions uncover the city’s hidden pleasures and latest trends, and are a perfect option for anyone doing cultural research about Japan or looking to open a business locally. Tours cost 10,000 yen/hour plus a 10,000 yen booking fee and can be arranged online at www.bespoketokyo.jp.
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today