In the past, tourists in Japan faced the difficult choice of getting herded around on a package tour or wandering around without a guide having no idea what they’re looking at half the time. Personally, I’ve always preferred to travel on my own, but when I ended up going somewhere without a Japanese friend, I always felt like I was missing out on a lot of good information and context.
I recently received promotional copies of White Rabbit Press’s Tokyo Realtime Tours of Akihabara and Kabuki-cho, and after listening to them, I have to say that they are an ideal solution for people who want a personally-oriented guide as they travel around Japan. You’re completely free to go wherever you want and spend as much time as you need, but it’s like having your own private tour with an expert guide who can fill you in on everything you ever wanted to know about what you’re seeing.
The tours are very professionally done, with full color maps, and studio-quality audio. In the Akihabara tour, you’re guided around by Patrick Galbraith, a researcher at the prestigious University of Tokyo who has spent years studying and writing about Japan’s otaku subculture. He really takes you deep into Akihabara, and if you follow the tour you’re bound to find tons of places that you wouldn’t on your own.
For example, he takes you into Radio Town, the maze of tiny shops near the station, a place where I rarely see tourists and explains about its history and some of the interesting shops in it. You learn all kinds of things that take you beyond the stereotypical view of otaku and Japan that are presented in so many books and articles about Japan. You also get taken to a maid cafe, a figure shop, and other interesting only-in-Akihabara attractions.I can pretty much guarantee that no matter how much you think you know about Japan and Akihabara you’ll learn a lot of new, interesting stuff from this tour.
There’s also a real-time tour of Kabuki-cho. It takes you around to various sex shops, love hotel areas, and the famous Golden Gai, a warren of tiny bars. Here again, you really get the inside scoop on one of Japan’s most interesting districts, learning about its history, culture, and what makes the people there tick.
I have to say that I slightly preferred the Akihabara tour, but I think it’s because it’s a lot easier to go into the shops. In the Kabuki-cho tour, you’re sometimes left standing outside a sex club or yakuza headquarters listening to an explanation of what goes on inside. Still, it is an excellent guide to the area, and takes you to a lot of interesting places that most people would never find on their own.
You can download the audio file and a map for $12, or pay $18 and get a full-color photobook and fold-out map as well. There is also a special offer where you buy the physical version of both tours together, you pay just $27 for both. Some people might say that’s almost as much as a guidebook, but when you compare them to the cost of a guide or think about how much more you’re going to enjoy your visit than if you had a little two-paragraph write up in a guidebook, I’d say it’s a pretty good investment.
If you’re interested in the tours, visit: http://www.tokyorealtime.com/
In the interests of full-disclosure, I was offered free copies of the tours, but am not taking any money and was free to say whatever I wanted about them.