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Interview with Johnny Hillwalker & Joe Okada
Two of Kyoto's top tour guides for the past 50 years





According to a survey by the Japan National Tourism Organization, prior to WW2 less than 500,000 foreigners visited Japan each year and very few of them were tourists. Most foreigners entering Japan before the war were involved in business and many of them came from nearby colonial hubs like Shanghai or Hong Kong.


In the decades after the war, Japan transformed itself into a global economic powerhouse but few foreigners knew much about the country's culture or beauty. In 2004, when foreign arrivals stood at about 6 million a year, the Japanese government decided to actively promote Japan worldwide as a tourist destination. The campaign was highly successful. In 2010 the number of foreigners visiting Japan exceeded 8.6 million. Unfortunately, the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan has had a huge negative effect on the foreign tourism industry. Luckily, nearly all of Japan's most important tourist areas were ultimately unaffected by the disaster. Slowly, foreign tourists are coming back to see the wonders of Kyoto and beyond...


This month, KVG interviewed two individuals who have been intimately involved in Kyoto tourism for more than 50 years. Johnny Hillwalker (81 years old) and Joe Okada (82 years old) are two of Japan's oldest working tour guides. As colleagues, they have known each other for nearly half a century. Their stories, though very different, offer an interesting insight into what it is like to try to communicate the essence of Japan to foreign visitors.


Johnny Hillwalker
Walk in Kyoto, Talk in English


Johnny's walking tours take you off the beaten track; participants ask a lot of questions and Johnny, often with a touch of humor, answers them all.

''Though I have worked as a tour guide in Kyoto for 50 years, I continue to discover new places of interest.'' Twice a week in the morning just east of the main bus terminal at Kyoto Station you will often see a small group of foreigner gathered around a Japanese man with long white hair. His name is Johnny Hillwalker. The foreigners are tourists about to embark on Johnny's popular local walking tour. He has worked as a licensed tour guide in Kyoto for nearly 50 years. During his slow and easy walk through a number of old traditional neighborhoods that lead up towards Kiyomizu Temple he introduces foreigners to many key aspects of Japanese life and culture.


Why did you decide to become a tour guide?

When I was 17 years old, I contracted tuberculosis. As my father was also ill, my family could not afford to put me in the hospital. As a result, I had to stay home. Of course, going to school was out of the question. I spent the next 10 years mostly convalescing in bed. But I was lucky because I survived while so many others died of the same illness. While I was in bed, there was very little I could do except read. One day, I decided that I would learn English. It was not easy to get English reading materials in those days but that didn't stop me. My friends brought me novels and I was able to borrow all kinds of books from the library of the American Center in Osaka. I read and read and read! It wasn't easy and I didn't understand everything but I just didn't stop.


From 1996 to 2010, Johnny has guided over 28,000 people on his walking tour.

Though it took 10 years, my illness was finally cured and I was free of my bed and able to enter the world again. I was 26 years old by then and wondered what I should do with my life. The first thing I did was to start a rental book business. Business was pretty good in the beginning but I knew it wouldn't last and that I would have to look for another job before long. Then I heard about a test for getting certification to be a licensed tour guide and I decided to give it a try. I wasn't too surprised when I learned that I had failed the test. In those days (and even today), this certification exam was very difficult and only a small percentage of the applicants passed. After that I decided to study English literature through a correspondence program offered by Keio University in Tokyo. A few years later, I tried the tour guide exam again. I didn't think I would pass but luckily I did. That was in 1961. I started to work as a tour guide in April of 1962. Japan hosted the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964 and since many foreigners were expected the tour business grew rapidly in preparation for this important event.


For the first 34 years as a tour guide I worked for JTB, Japan's largest travel agent then and today. As a guide, I was responsible for showing foreign visitors around Kyoto. JTB's strict daily itineraries were planned in advance. Most of the time we moved around the city in taxis. It was almost impossible to change the itinerary which usually focused on famous temples and shrines in the city. However, when I knew there was a festival or special event on a tour, I was always tempted to break the rules. When it was possible, I asked the taxi driver to detour and tried to show my clients another side of Kyoto.


What is special about your walking tour?

I knew that I had to retire from the JTB at the age of 65. When I was in my early 60s, I started to consider what I could do after I retired. Based on my experience working at a big company, I decided I wanted to offer something different to foreign visitors. When I worked for JTB, the itineraries were fixed and nearly only involved major tourist attractions. Basically, I always talked about the same things over and over. So when I developed my own original tours, I decided I would do something that was more intimate and flexible.



I started my walking tours in 1996. My walking tour is not very long. The entire course is only about three kilometers. It begins at Kyoto Station and ends near Kiyomizu Temple. The places visited during my tour are not famous or even covered in major guide books. However on the way we stop at many places including Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and a number of small workshops and businesses where things like folding fans, Buddhist rosaries, tatami mats and tofu are made. There is a lot to see and that is why the tour takes nearly five hours. As the route hasn't changed much over the years I got to know many of the locals quite well. And it is because of these relationships that I am able to enter these small shops and show my clients how many traditional Japanese things are made. I think this is what makes my tour so popular. Foreigners want to experience real Kyoto life up close and in a personal way.


To my surprise, I have discovered a lot since I started my walking tours. Though I had already worked as a tour guide in Kyoto for 34 years, I continued to find new aspects of Kyoto on my walking tours. At JTB, I only seemed to see the surface of the city through its famous temples and shrines. Walking the back streets of Kyoto made me realize how much there was to see and talk about. And I am always learning new things that I can share.


What does it mean for you to work as a ''tour guide''?

Speaking English well does not make one a good tour guide. My English may not be perfect but I have no trouble communicating with the foreigners who join my tour. Of course a basic knowledge of English is essential. What is most important is being able to help foreigners understand Japanese culture and Japanese people. I have participants from all over the world: people of different ages and backgrounds. Some are very interested in Japan, others only superficially. A good tour guide has to be able to provide correct, good information in a limited period of time that will be of interest to most people. This can not be achieved with English fluency or factual knowledge. A professional tour guide is a unique profession that requires a certain level of knowledge combined with the ability to make things interesting and easy to understand. I am constantly improving my lectures.


Johnny's handmade local area map

When we travel overseas, we want to see famous places as well as get to know what local life is really like. My walking tour is perfect for people interested in getting an inside look at Kyoto life. The neighborhoods we walk through are full of living culture of all kinds and this is what I want to share with foreign tourists.


What I consider most important in my work and in my life is to continue. When I started my walking tours, I was already 65 years old and I thought it would be great if I could work another five years. I am amazed that nearly 16 years have passed and I am still at it. Since my tour does not require reservations, I never know until I reach the meeting point how many participants I will have. I always expect that there will be no one waiting for me. But in 16 years this has rarely happened. In fact, I have only missed a month of work due to illness in the entire time. I hope I can share my love of Japan with foreign visitors for many more years.



Johnny Hillwaker (Hajime Hirooka)
Hajime Hirooka was born in 1930 in Osaka. He worked as a professional tour guide for JTB for 34 years. After retiring from JTB in 1996, Johnny started his private walking tours of Kyoto. Since then he has guided over 28,000 people from around the world through the back streets of Kyoto. For more info about his tour.


Message from Joe to Johnny
To my dear friend Johnnie Hillwalker, one of the most decent men I have ever met, You and I, and Shihoko, your charming wife, who is also a licensed tour guide, have been quite closely related in tour business now for nearly 50 years. Your original walking tours are one of the best tour ideas I have ever heard of and I am glad that you are still going strong. I hope we have many years ahead of us to introduce foreigners to the wonders of Kyoto. Let's continue to inspire each other!

The Last & Only Samurai, Joe Okada



Joe Okada
See Kyoto with the ''Last samurai''


Joe's Apple Cutting act; photo courtesy of the Kyoto Shimbun Newspaper Co., Ltd.

''Great service is to try to satisfy every customer's wish no matter what it is!'' Joe Okada calls himself the ''last samurai'' and many people agree that he is exactly that. But he is also a licensed tour guide and a very entertaining one at that. Despite his age, he is amazingly fit and energetic. How did he become the ''last samurai''? Here is his story...


How did you become the ''last samurai''?

When I was 20 years old, I was working at a fire station but my dream was to become a tour guide. I knew if I wanted to be a guide for foreigners that I would have to learn English. To really learn English I decided to go to the United States. I stayed there for 8 months and studied English but not in a school. Instead, I worked as a driver and learned English through daily life. My passion to become a tour guide increased as my English improved.


In 1962, I finally passed the difficult certification exam and became a licensed guide. At that time Japan was welcoming more and more foreign visitors and it was pretty easy to get a job. I worked as a guide through a travel agent for the first five years. It was a very good experience and I really enjoyed my work. But I wanted more. I wanted more freedom and I wanted to provide tours that were really original. I had to challenge myself. So in 1968 I decided to become an independent tour guide. That is when ''Samurai Joe Okada'' was born! My clients often asked me where they could meet a real samurai. Many of them still believed that there were real samurai in Japan! Of course, the real samurai had disappeared a long time ago. But I found that by acting like a samurai I was able to really entertain my clients.


Joe has entertained people all over the world

At that time I had no samurai-related experience of any kind. I decided that if I was to become like a samurai I had to be able to use a sword like the legendary warriors of old Japan. I practiced for a long time. At first I used a baseball bat to hit little stones into the Kamo River. Two months later I was able to slice apples in the air with a real sword. I became really good at cutting apples in mid air.


''Apple Cutting'' was one of the most popular parts of the samurai show I started at Fushimi Momoyama Castle in 1978. It continued for 13 years and over 130,000 people came to see me perform. Since my show was quite successful, I was often invited to perform overseas. I appeared in many TV shows and events around the world including the United States, Brazil, Singapore, Thailand, and Hong Kong. Every overseas performance experience was special and I remember them all. My greatest honors were to appear on Regis Philbin's variety show in 1984 and the David Letterman show in 1998.


In 1991, the yen appreciated rapidly and I had to cancel the show at the castle. That was when I moved out of Kyoto City to Maizuru (on the Japan Sea in northern Kyoto Prefecture).



What do you feel about tourism in Kyoto today?

I feel Kyoto can do more to welcome foreign tourists. I wonder how many foreign tourists are able to really see and experience the Japan of their expectations? I try my best to satisfy my client's hopes and dreams related to Japan. In Kyoto, many people expect to meet real maiko, Buddhist monks, and even samurai. But this is not easy. To have these experiences foreigners need people like me. I think Kyoto City should do more to create special opportunities for foreigners to have these kinds of experiences.


Roughly 30 years ago, the situation for foreign tourists in Kyoto was really horrible. At that time I felt there was no sense of hospitality towards foreign tourists. Today, I feel that foreigners get a much warmer welcome. It makes me really happy to see so many smiling foreign tourists walking around the city. But we can do more!


A feature about Joe in the Kyoto Shimbun newspaper (August 6, 2011)

This year I was appointed by the city to serve as one of Kyoto's Omotenashi Ambassadors. Kyoto Omotenashi Ambassadors work to actively promote Kyoto's tourism industry. I was very honored to be given this title. However, I think all Kyoto citizens should act as Omotenashi Ambassadors. To be a good tour guide I feel the following five points are the most important: 1) Be kind, 2) Be careful, 3) Be cool, 4) Be steady, and 5) Be friendly.


What are your dreams for the future?

I am 82 years old now but there are many things I want to try. I believe curiosity and trying new things has kept me young and fit. For example, one day in 2000, an American guy found me on the internet and contacted me. He wanted me to teach him ''Apple Cutting''. I decided to accept his request because it gave me a chance to teach the samurai sword skills I had worked so hard to master. It was something new! He trained at my house for about a week and learned quickly. Eventually, he was able to achieve a new Guinness World Record for ''Apple Cutting''! It made me so proud that my student had set a world record!


What I am planning now is to start my samurai show again in Kyoto. It has been 20 years since my show ended. The big earthquake and tsunami tragedy that happened in Tohoku in March has greatly reduced the number of foreigners coming to Kyoto. And this has made the possibility of re-starting my show very challenging. But I thrive on challenge. I will not give up! Foreigners still dream of meeting a real samurai and I want to make their dreams come true. Let me be your assistance to make your Kyoto tour memorable and enjoyable experience, so that you would want to come back to Kyoto again!


Joe Okada (Itsuo Okada)
Born in 1929 in Osaka. Worked for the fire department in his early 20s. He became a tour guide in 1962. In 1968, he became independent guide and named himself Samurai Joe Okada. Since then Joe has travelled all over the world performing his samurai show on TV and at special events. He loves to drink and hasn't been ill for more than 50 years. For more information, contact Joe: Tel: 090-3867-3538; samurai_joeokada@yahoo.co.jp ; http://www.samurai-okada.com


Message from Johnny to Joe
Dear Samurai Joe Okada,
This year is the 50th anniversary since I first heard about the outstanding tour guide Joe Okada. And now, as I look around, I wonder where have those all tour guides that we worked with in the past gone? Maybe only you and I are the only ones left! You were always very active and energetic. Sometimes you made trouble but you always fought for something better. In some ways you really inspired me to be a better guide and person. I was impressed to learn that you studied simultaneous interpretation. We have worked in the same field for 50 years and I hope we will both be able to continue for a long time. Good luck!

Take care,
Johnnie Hillwalker