In honour of my tenth anniversary of living in Japan, I am starting a series where I answer questions about Japan. I previously asked for questions and got several, and I’ll do them every week, once a week. I’ll be answering them in the order that I received them. So, here is our first question.
K E Garland had this question:
We’ll be visiting Japan in June. One of our trips is to Kyoto. Do you think a guided tour is best or looking around on our own?
Thanks for the question. Despite living in Japan for ten years, I haven’t actually had the opportunity to visit Kyoto. I will visit eventually on subsequent trips back to Japan, but probably not during my last year in Japan. However, the question is a good one, and is applicable to almost anywhere in Japan.
Kyoto is a large city, but from what I’ve heard, Kyoto is a very walkable city with a subway system that isn’t very complex. You could easily get around with a good map (or GPS) and the use of the subway. Kyoto is unusual in Japan because the road network is built in a grid pattern. Most cities aren’t built this way, but when it was planned and built over 1200 years ago, it was modeled after the Chinese city of Changan. The central part of the city is grid-like, but outer parts of the city aren’t. However, it’s easy to get around on your own.
Guided tours can be very useful, as well. They’ll get you to the major tourist spots, you’ll have English information about the sites, and you’re unlikely to miss the famous spots. However, you’d be getting the touristy side of Kyoto, rather than the real Kyoto. Sometimes it’s worth walking through the side streets and discovering little shops and restaurants, old buildings that aren’t on the tour, and a chance to get away from the crowds. Guided tours are likely to be done on a bus, so you won’t get as much of a chance to see things from the street level. However, I’m sure there are walking tours, as well.
Either way, you’ll get to see the major sites. If you’re good with maps, going on your own is fine, and likely cheaper. You can also do a bit more shopping, quite possibly. Taking a tour is easier, and you won’t get lost. You’ll also have the benefit of expert information from the tour guide.
I would like to add that licensed tour guides are walking encyclopedias of Japan. They go through rigorous testing to become qualified, and must pass very difficult tests related to history and tourism, as well as English. Japan takes its tour guides seriously.
I hope this helps you in your decision. I don’t want to make the choice for you, but this should help you choose what’s best for you.
If you have any questions you’d like to see me answer, please go to this post and leave your questions in the comments.