One of the difficulties when travelling overseas is understanding the language of another country. As an English speaker with some high school German and French in my travel toolkit, it’s been relatively easy to get by in some parts of Europe but deciphering the language in Japan was another matter entirely. My travel companion in Tokyo was my sister, who has been both a student and teacher of Japanese for many years and also lived in Japan. It was great for me – I had my own personal tour guide, but the effort of constant concentration was, at times, very tiring for her. So when we came across opportunities for free English-speaking guided tours at two major sites in Tokyo we were happy to take advantage of them.
Although Meiji Jingū, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the Emperor Meiji, is located in one of the busiest areas of central Tokyo its position at the centre of 247 acres of forest guarantees a peaceful visit. As we approached the torii gate at the entrance we noticed two older gentlemen sitting at a desk with a sign offering free tours in English. We soon found out they were members of an English speaking club and taking visitors on tours of the shrine gave them opportunities to practise their language skills.
Our guide was Yoshio san, a retired primary school teacher. “I work part time for a tour company,” he told us, “so I need to have good English.” Yoshio san’s knowledge of the shrine and his enthusiasm for its history was infectious. We were soon engaged in lessons on purification, making offerings and writing prayers on an ema, a small wooden plate purchased at one of the many stalls outside the shrine.
Yoshio san explained the wall of barrels of wine, donated by the wineries of Bourgogne in France; among the aspects of western culture Emperor Meiji adopted was the habit of enjoying a glass of wine with his meal. He pointed out the corner of the main path leading to the shrine. It’s an 88° angle because the number nine is considered to be bad luck. After 30 minutes of fascinating conversation, Yoshio san left us watching while one of many traditional Shinto wedding parties prepared for photographs.
Our second free English tour was at Sensoji Temple in the bustling tourist area of Asakusa. This time we were approached by a group of Uni students who belonged to a University English club. “Would you come on our free tour? We like to practise our English with tourists,” asked the leader of the group, Ryo san. Together we walked along Nakamise, a centuries-old shopping street filled with vendors selling souvenirs and traditional food, through Hozomon, the temple gate and in to the temple complex.
Built in 645AD, Sensoji is Tokyo’s oldest and most popular Buddhist temple. Ryo san and his friends walked with us around the gardens, waited patiently while we took photos and told us about their university studies. Inside the temple we were guided to the main hall where we waited our turn to say a quick prayer to Kannon, the goddess of mercy, to whom the temple is dedicated.
After the friendly students left us, we wandered again through the hall and around the gardens. We came across two young girls, beautifully dressed in traditional kimono. My sister resumed her role of tour guide, approached them and said in Japanese, “You look very beautiful. May we take your photo?” We were taken aback when they answered her question with a question of their own. “Do you speak English?” they asked.
It turned out they were tourists too, visiting from Taiwan and enjoying an afternoon of elegant dress-ups! They had us fooled!