The Yomiuri Shimbun Moves are spreading to have volunteer guides help foreign tourists reach their destinations in Tokyo areas that see many overseas visitors, such as Asakusa and Shinjuku.
The activity is part of an initiative by the Tokyo metropolitan government whereby volunteers are encouraged to actively speak to foreign tourists and help them enjoy their stay in Tokyo without feeling impeded by the language barrier.
By 2020, when the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games will be held, the metropolitan government plans to roll out these activities in other areas that see large numbers of overseas tourists, such as Shibuya and Roppongi.
In mid-February, Yoshiaki Hori, 69, and third-year university student Kana Tsuchiya, 22, were standing on a street near an exit of Tokyo Metro's Asakusa Station in Taito Ward, Tokyo. Volunteers who participate in the activities wear white hats and act in pairs.
The pair soon approached and spoke to a Chinese woman who was scrutinizing a guide board in search of something. When they asked her in English how they could help her, she said she wanted to go to Sensoji temple.
The pair gave her directions, using a map for about three minutes. The woman said, "Arigato" (Thank you) and departed smiling.
The pair showed many tourists the way to their intended destinations, including Indonesian tourists, and a group from Taiwan wanting to go to the Kameari area in Katsushika Ward. This area is famous as a site depicted in a popular manga.
In one hour, they attended to about 20 groups of foreign tourists.
When Hori had trouble operating a pay phone in Germany on a business trip, a local resident helped him.
"I was glad to have been talked to. By eliminating the anxieties of foreign tourists even slightly, I want to help make their trips fully enjoyable," Hori said.
According to the metropolitan government's tourism division, this initiative began near the west exit of Shinjuku Station and in the Ueno area in June 2015, spreading to the east and south exits of Shinjuku Station in July 2016, the Asakusa area in late January this year and the Ginza district from Feb. 17.
The number of registered volunteer guides, initially around 600, has increased to its current level of around 1,200. They offer the service from Friday to Sunday of each week.
Some volunteers speak French or Chinese, but about 70 per cent speak English.
The information required by foreign tourists has diversified. Volunteers are often asked mainly how to reach famous tourism spots, but recently they are increasingly being asked about places where foreign tourists can interact with local residents or experience Japanese culture.
Tsuchiya said: "In addition to famous tourist spots, such as Sensoji temple, other spots, including costume rental shops, have also become popular. The contents of our guidance have diversified."
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About 12 million foreign tourists visited Tokyo in 2015. The metropolitan government has set a goal of increasing that number to 25 million in 2020.
By fiscal 2020, the metropolitan government plans to expand the scope of the volunteer service, called "Machinaka Kanko Annai" in Japanese, to other areas, such as the Shibuya and Roppongi areas. It also aims to set up more Wi-Fi facilities for wireless local area networks.
Junya Kaku, an official of the tourism division's section for improving circumstances conducive to accepting tourists, said: "It is also important that many foreign tourists repeatedly visit Tokyo even after 2020. We'd like to lay the groundwork to ensure that more tourists will want to come again, in co-operation with tourist information centres and others."