Japan's cultural barriers may seem immense but Sarah MacDonald finds getting to know the locals in the busy city can be easy.

Getting "under the skin" of a culture is something many travellers aspire to. But when you are only visiting for a short time and don't speak the language, gaining an insight into the lives of locals can seem unattainable.

Happily, it turns out many people in Tokyo are just as curious about you as you are about them.

Tokyo Free Guide is an organisation of English-speaking volunteers who will guide you around any part of Tokyo for free.

On my first TFG encounter my sister and I met Emi, a cheery 20-something student. Emi first took us to the free observation deck on the 45th floor of the Metropolitan Government Building, a great place to get our bearings on this heaving metropolis.


We next indulged in cocktails at the fabulous New York Bar, 52 floors up atop the stylish Park Hyatt Hotel, made famous by the movie Lost in Translation. We then enjoyed dinner at an izakaya (pub) that we would never have found by ourselves.

On my next trip to Tokyo my guide, Junko, a woman in her 40s, helped me discover the fabled Golden Gai area, a small neighbourhood in the backstreets of Shinjuku where more than 300 of the world's tiniest and most character-filled bars are crammed into a few narrow alleyways. Some, but not all, welcome foreigners.

After peeping into some weird and wonderful establishments, we settled on the Albatross Bar, crammed with deer antlers, distorted paintings, red velvet and an extraordinary number of chandeliers that left just enough space over the bar for our drinks.

Later, we wound our way up the Shinjuku alleys to a small yakitori bar where we pulled up stools for cold beer, hot chicken and friendly conversations with the jolly old owner and other punters out enjoying their Friday night.

Any traveller bound for Tokyo can request a TFG volunteer to guide them around any part of the city, from landmarks and temples to local markets. There is no fee although you are expected to cover your guide's expenses (train fares, entrance fees, etc).

How about going a step further and being invited into a private Japanese home for a meal?

A new initiative called Nagomi Visit International matches travellers with welcoming hosts to enjoy a home-cooked lunch or dinner with a Japanese family. For most travellers, this type of cultural and culinary experience will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Yet it is so accessible and costs just 3150¥ (NZ$44) a person.

I was a guest of the Yasuda family, who are big fans of Western rock music and Disneyland, and even have pet snakes.


On a wet night they welcomed me warmly to their home, where we spent a great evening sharing in son Hideki's favourite birthday meal of sukiyaki.

Getting there: Air New Zealand operates five services a week to Tokyo's Narita Airport.

Local guides: The Tokyo Free Guide service is run by volunteers and aims to encourage understanding of Japanese culture and promote cross-cultural friendship.

Family meals: To dine with a Japanese family, go to Nagomi Visit and submit your profile.

The writer flew to Japan courtesy of Air New Zealand.