So the Atami Guide Club was a part of our trip that we kind of stumbled upon. Being onsen (thermal hot spring) fans, we wanted to visit a seaside hot spring after our guided tour concluded, and our group tour guide recommended a ryokan onsen in Ajiro, a small fishing village in the Atami area, two hours by train from Tokyo. Since my husband and I would be sans guide and helpful friends for this part of our vacation, we did a little pre-trip research on local attractions, and the Atami Guide Club popped up on a Google search.
We weren’t quite sure what to make of the club at first. Their website at the time wasn’t the sleekest and didn’t indicate affiliations with any tourist organizations. Still, their English-language blog had a relatively recent post, and we had nothing to lose by contacting them. A short e-mail interchange ensued, and we wound up booking a half-day tour of Atami with an English-speaking guide and his assistant for ¥1000.
Yep, ¥1000. Less than $15 for a private tour!
I must confess, the super low price (and lack of affiliates on their website) had me a little concerned. Part of me wondered if it was a yakuza scam to kidnap foolish tourists and sell off their organs. But Japan is a relatively safe country, and we’d chosen the Atami train station, a crowded public area, as our meeting spot, so off we went.
As it turned out, we had nothing to worry about. Our meeting time was 9:30 AM, but we arrived at Atami Station at 9:15 AM to find two seniors in “Atami Guide Club” windbreakers already at the turnstile, holding a sign with our names. That was how we met our guides, Henry-san and Kazu-san.
Both are retired professionals. Henry-san lived several years in Britain and has a daughter that lives in the States. Kazu-san worked for the Japanese Embassy and was once stationed in Europe. They spoke English quite well and were wonderful hosts.
That particular morning a typhoon was moving into the area. So after providing us with Atami brochures and information (if the local Atami Tourist Division doesn’t have a link promoting the Atami Guide Club, they really ought to) and showing off the Atami Station hot spring and geyser, Henry-san proposed using his car for the rest of the tour so we wouldn’t get stuck if it rained.
After days of touring Tokyo by train and foot, we were floored by the offer.
So the four of us hopped into Henry-san’s little Toyota sedan, which took us up and down Atami to see the sights. They included the 2000-year-old camphor tree at Kinomiya Shrine; the Kosawa Hot Spring, which has a little steamer basket that you can use to cook eggs; and the Oh-Yu Geyser, the third largest geyser in the world (though all of us agreed Oh-Yu was nothing compared to Old Faithful).
As we toured about, Henry-san, who was the lead guide, gave explanations of the cultural and historical significance of the sites we visited. As he delivered his mini lectures, he rather reminded me of my dad in that he was a bit pedantic in his explanations. Kazu-san, on the other hand, was more laid back as we chatted about everything from seasonal flowers to grocery stores. It was actually a pretty good combination for a tour team.
By the time we finished admiring the 2000-year-old camphor tree, the wind was starting to pick up. Our guides had intended to take to the seashore, but with rain imminent, they suggested we go instead to Kiunkaku, a villa built by a shipping magnate in 1919. That turned out to be a good move because it started raining once we arrived.
It was also nice because I enjoy old and interesting architecture, and Kiunkaku boasts a gorgeous garden and buildings constructed in classical Japanese as well as blended Oriental-Western styles. A couple rooms reminded me of Hearst Castle, actually.
The grounds also include a music hall and a multipurpose room, which are available for rent. The day we visited, a society of retired principals was holding a convention in the musical hall, but Kazu-san told us she frequently attend concerts at Kiunkaku and most recently went to a Latin music recital there.
As for the multipurpose room, we found a handful of women at work on pressed floral crafts inside. Thanks to Kazu-san, they let us come over to watch them, see their raw materials, and look at their finished crafts. It’s painstaking work from the looks of it, and the results can be quite extraordinary.
We left Kiunkaku at 1 PM, and our tour concluded with them dropping us off at Jonathan’s Family Restaurant so my husband and I could have lunch there. I think they were probably amused that we chose to eat at a chain restaurant when we were in a town known for its seafood, but they simply smiled and told us that they often held their guide club meetings at Jonathan’s.
All in all, our guides were a fun pair. I never did ask them the particulars of their club, but I get the feeling that they’re all volunteers with a desire to turn Atami into a popular tourist destination. They certainly take their job seriously. In addition to English, Atami guide club also offers tours in Korean and Chinese. (Henry-san told us that he once helped guide a group of a dozen Chinese tourists and tried to get a dozen eggs into the Kosawa steamer basket, which typically cooks four at a time.) And though there are 40 members in the club, only a quarter of them make the grade for lead guide. So if you wind up in the economy area, look them up. They’ll take great care of you.