I'm a snob. I don't pay for tours. I always secretly, or not so secretly, suspect that with a bit of research and legwork I can plan something more... (takes a deep breath) AUTHENTIC than a "tour" will usually provide.
I worked for many years in theme parks. I have seen how the vacationing sausage is made, and I am suspicious of prepackaged goods when it comes to tourism.
I patently fear the moment, while on a tour, that I realize I have paid for a cheesy, off-the-rack experience that not only could I have planned myself, but I certainly wouldn't have. This elicits in me a kind of shame usually reserved for kindergartners picked last at football. I am pleased to report, as you may guess by the star rating, that this was not that.
I took what I considered to be a risk on this tour for the following reasons:
- I like food
- I like drinking
- Intrigued in general by concept of "back alleys"
- Favorite video game protagonist lives here. You know fictionally. In a game. I didn't see him around, anyway.
- Like most Americans I thirst for an AUTHENTIC TRAVEL EXPERIENCE LIKE THE LOCALS while knowing deep down this is impossible to achieve when parachuting into a culture on the other side of the planet for nine days, so I paid someone.
At the time I had no idea who Simon was - Simon will take you on the tour, you see - and Simon is one of the best people to take you on such a tour for the following reasons:
- Speaks fluent English. Because he's English.
- Speaks Japanese much better than me and probably you, if you are looking at this tour, because he has lived there 22 years
- Actually inhabits the area you are paying him to show you
- Seems to really enjoy his job.
- Seems to really enjoy your company. Whether or not he is faking it is irrelevant to you, you have paid him and he is a professional. (He has assured me via email that he was not faking it, which he can never prove, but I respect the move and have decided to believe him. For now.)
Traipsing around Sangen-gaya with Simon felt like meeting a friend you haven't seen in a while, a friend who ran off to become an expat earlier in life who you both vaguely judge, but moreso envy. The formalities of the tour, as described here or on their website, Tokyo Memories, is that Simon will take you to three establishments that you might have a hard time finding on your own for food and drink. It really adds up to quite a bit more than that.
Simon took us down some alleys that I would not have gone down on my own. That is not because they seemed truly dangerous. I lived in Boston, and Washington DC which are, whether you are considering germs, violence, or permanent dissociation from chronic anxiety, frankly a thousand times more dangerous than anywhere in Japan. They just looked TINY and UNPROMISING. I had come to realize how profoundly that Japan is built different, and as a foreigner, with little language skills, you will actually have a hard time eating ANYWHERE.
This again is not because Japan is not generally hospitable. You just WILL NOT KNOW what a restaurant looks like. In America a restaurant looks a certain way. It usually has a huge sign, in your language to boot, a ton of windows, maybe a terrace, probably a parking lot. Maybe a sign you can see from a highway.
No. Not here. Be disabused of this notion now. Good places to eat have a small cloth flag at street level leading to what you will think is a terminally shady alleyway and a stair or elevator that goes seven floors up to an unmarked, or subtly marked, in Japanese, door to your left (don't go right; that's a salon that "melts fat" with electrodes, and straight is just some old lady's house). (I am not exaggerating. I absolutely at one point walked right into an old lady's house. Looking for Udon.) They will often be full. They will often not speak that much English, despite what you have been told, and which is their right, being Japanese and all.
I had done my best to educate myself, yet was unprepared for the scale of difficulty finding walk-in places to eat that were open, had room, and could, or would communicate with me. I was honestly tired and hungry a lot. Could I go back in time, I would, well, I would have started Japanese duolingo before I got on the train from the airport to Osaka, originally, but I would also hire Simon or somebody like him in the BEGINNING of my tour, perhaps several nights in a row in different neighborhoods. It wasn't only fun, it was INFORMATIVE and NECCESSARY to learn to navigate Japanese neighborhoods with any alacrity. Because of my own schedule I put this tour near the end of my trip and thought nine times throughout, "Good Lord, but only if Simon had been there to tell me X previously, I would not have felt faint of glucose so often, nor interrupted that kind old lady who may or may not have sold udon." He's just handy, see.
For me, a tremendous amount of the value was in having a guide familiar with a place and the people, but also familiar with my background, to bridge this gap and show me nooks and crannies I wouldn't find alone. His good company was a bonus. The food and drink, the actual stated offering of the tour - well it was good. I think he did a solid job of choosing variety, which for us was:
-onomonoyaki, at an upstairs local joint equivalent perhaps to a waffle house, except they let you make your own parallel universe waffles and junk food which I found quite fun.
-Some tiny local dive I will NEVER find again which serves what I can only call vintage beverages you can't find most places, as well as deeply, deeply fried foods on sticks. A surly kid with bleached blonde hair cooked it all up in the same fryer behind the smallest bar in the universe flanked by two deeply, deeply "authentic" chainsmoking regulars who consumed their beverages in stoic silence, like a still from Cowboy Bebop, a living Japanese analogue to my deceased Irish grandfather who dutifully drank himself to the grave behind the bar at the Hibernian's Club. This was actually my favorite. Because I know I'd never, never, ever have found it. I only hope our brief stay was not too annoying to the locals, I am grateful for the experience.
- An upscale sake bar with very fine sakes, appetizers and sashimi, a stark and delightful contrast to the previous two, and a warm and welcoming place to relax. Simon can tell you all about the sake grades. I worked in sushi joints growing up and still knew so little by comparison.
Let me be clear: you go for the variety. The new experience. Some of the foods may not appeal to you, but that is frankly the point. Simon was very responsive to emails and will do his best to tailor an experience to your needs, but please be aware:
-Many places he may take you will be SMALL. They may or may not have western seating - if you cannot sit on the floor, you should say.
-Alcohol is a feature - you could certainly enjoy this sober, by request, still a fabulous time, but tasting local beverages is intended as part of the experience.
- Smoking is allowed in many little local places. While I do not enjoy the smell of cigarettes for the most part, if you can deal with it at all, I do recommend doing so. You'll cut out a lot of niche places if you refuse to. For me, the sensation of smoke quickly fell by the wayside in favor of my enjoyment.
- Please remember when you book this tour that Simon and the locals are real people who don't exist solely for the purpose of our tourism. If you express mutual interest in Simon and the surroundings you will have a much better and deeper experience than if you treat this as a Disneyland tour. Later in the evening I felt comfortable, or inebriated enough to ask Simon directly, given the length and conversational nature of the tour, if he'd ever had a client that was just insufferable, and of course he had - someone who appeared to not have really read the description and went home early because they planned poorly around jetlag, which meant he cancelled on local establishments and damaged his own rapport with them. Please don't do that. He is putting himself out a bit with is many years of experience to get you somewhere you couldn't get alone. Also note the volume level and behavior of others in the space and just do well to mimic them as well you can. It WILL be appreciated.
In summary, please hire Simon for every neighborhood you can, especially if you are an English speaker with little or no Japanese experience. Ask questions, learn things, and enjoy experiences you can't find alone. Travel planning is exhausting, and I am now convinced of the value of tours overseas.