Friday, 23 November 2012

Holding that Flag is No Piece of Cake

You will have inevitably acted as tour guide at some time and probably found it tough. KS talked with Lonely Planet author, Chris Rowthorn, about his latest book – a guide to help guides guide.

Everyone jokes about tour groups in Japan following the guide holding the ubiquitous flag, but being the flag bearer is not as easy as it seems. If you have guided friends, relatives or business associates, you can appreciate the challenge they face with every group — keeping them interested. However, many professional guides for foreign visitors, “who have been guiding a long time for big companies, guide in an old school way,” says Chris Rowthorn, who runs a small travel consultancy in Kyoto that provides guided tours. “A lot of their guiding looks like open-air lecturing.”

Rowthorn, together with his top tour guide, Koko Ijuin, released a book in May titled, Building Guide Skills — Learn from the experts, with the goal of conveying “a philosophy of guiding, rather than specific information” for guides of visitors to Japan.

To obtain their licence, guides must sit detail-focused exams that lack sufficient emphasis on the actual act of guiding. As Rowthorn comments, “The guide education system mirrors the general English education system in Japan. In order to pass the national guide exam, guides must learn a lot of minutiae about Japanese history. Unfortunately, they never learn how to answer the ‘big picture’ questions, how to explain things in an entertaining way, nor— actually—how to guide. What they learn are endless dry facts. Most of the many books written in Japanese on how to guide repeat the mistakes of the system.”

Rowthorn has interviewed dozens of professional Japanese licensed guides, but sadly finds that only one in 20 can satisfactorily answer basic questions in an interesting way. He spent many hours discussing guiding with Ijuin, who also has extensive experience in the hotel industry, and they “developed a philosophy of guiding that puts the comfort and enjoyment of the client before anything else.”

Upon deciding to write their book, Rowthorn explains that they “wanted to focus more on the form of guiding rather than the content. There are plenty of books on the details of every temple and shrine in Japan, but there are almost no books on how to guide foreigners in an interesting way. We tried to cover a lot in addition to phrases and language.”

The book does contain information on how best to explain various aspects of Japan, but it is essentially a detailed manual in Japanese on how to prepare for the tour, interact with visitors of all ages and deal with problems that might arise. Throughout the book, readers are repeatedly encouraged to get hints from the English expressions and explanations, which are brief and succinct, and adapt them to their own style, so they are easy to remember.

The Japanese is written in a casual style using common kanji and expressions, so foreign readers are able to follow the explanations.

“Our goal was to write a very accessible, open book that would be fun to read. More than anything, we wanted to avoid a dense, text-heavy book that people would never really use. And, even if you don’t understand all the Japanese, the book contains lots of English around which lessons can be built. We choose natural, clear and polite English for the book. Most of all, we thought about everything from the perspective of the client.”

The book works as a text or reference for not only guides, but anyone in the service industry and beyond. “We think our book is useful for general students of English, hotel concierges and front desk staff, businesspeople who must entertain foreign guests, homestay hosts, people who have foreign friends, and even foreigners who are interested in explaining Japan to their friends from abroad.

“Basically, we wanted the readers to get some useful expressions for explaining Japan to foreigners. We feel that a good guide should act like an extremely gracious and savvy friend. We never want a guide to sound like a boring schoolteacher.”
by Chris Rowthorn & Koko Ijuin
Sanshusha Publishing
192 pp, paperback
ISBN 978-4-384-05579-5
Text: George Bourdaniotis, Photo: Courtesy Chris Rowthorn. Originally published in Kansai Scene #123, August 2010.

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