Traveling to any foreign country can be daunting. “Where should you go?” “What should you do?” “And how the heck are you going to do it?” — the list of questions you’re likely going to Google is long. Add Japan to the equation — where the sights and culture are dazzlingly varied but any information about them is hidden behind one hefty language barrier — and it’s basically like gearing up for your own private episode of Naked and Afraid. In fact, in our recent GaijinPot Travel survey, many of you mentioned that “insufficient foreign language services,” and all of the problems and missed opportunities that arise with that, was a major factor affecting the quality of your experience in Japan.
Huber: Transforming the tourism game
Huber is an ambitious startup that’s about to change all of that with its Tomodachi Guide, an online local-and-tourist matching service with more than a whiff of an AirBnB game-changer about it. By connecting Japanese locals eager to guide foreigners around their hometown with incoming visitors seeking an authentic experience, Huber has found a way to profoundly improve travelers’ experience to Japan. At the same time, they’re enabling local people to directly benefit from the rising number of tourists, not only by way of extra income but by also allowing them to promote what’s good in their own ‘hood.
A network of local guides
The tomodachi, or “friend” in Japanese, are the service’s most unique asset. Anybody, anywhere in Japan can sign up to be a guide, as long as they fill out their verified profile on the site. Tomodachi should be able to speak a foreign language other than Japanese, which they’ll state on their profile.
Since every tour requires two people to lead it (so that visitors are never left standing around waiting if the guide needs to get tickets or talk to someone), locals can apply to be either a main or a support guide. It’s up to the main guide to create a customized tour and offer it to a visitor at a fair price — guest reviews that appear on a tomodachi’s profile help you know that everything is legit.
Right now, there are around 600 guides across Japan providing customized local experiences, making friends from all over the world and earning some extra cash while they’re at it.
“Since I became a Tomodachi Guide, I’ve got to know people from all over the world. Actually, there were two girls from Holland and France that I guided around Tokyo. This summer I went on a round trip of Europe and we met up there. They brought me to many spots which I could never have seen if I were by myself. I think this is the biggest benefit; making friends.”
— Kaito, a current Tomodachi
Those looking for a tailor-made tour follow a similar process: creating a personal profile where they can list their travel interests, food preferences, any previous countries they’ve been to, private hobbies and anything else they’d want their Tomodachi to know. This is also where you can see how they’ve been reviewed by a guide — just like AirBnB, both sides bear responsibility for experiencing good service.
Once visitors have filled in their profile, they can begin sketching out their journey. First, you answer a series of questions based on what kind of tour you’re looking for and hit submit. Your answers will be sent out to several local guides best suited to provide the kind of tour you’re after. The guides will then draft a plan for a tour they can offer and send it back to you. Then you choose the plan you like the look of best and — it’s a match!
Tour guests can start chatting with their chosen guide about the proposed plan, getting more in depth with what they’d like to see and do. The free Huber.chat app is a great way to communicate on the go from your phone and makes it easy for guests and guides to meet up once they’re in Japan.
This way, every tour is unique and tailor-made to the visitor’s wishes. Once both sides have agreed on a plan, the guide will send a “trip offer” with the itinerary and price. That’s when you pay (the consultation part is free!) and complete the reservation. Everyone can keep track of all the details via their online account.
Whatever floats your sushi boat
The customized system means that no tour is the same. Guides are asked to document their tours as an example of what they can offer in a series of diary-style “Tomologs,” which guests can browse for ideas. From Hokkaido hiking and snow festivals to a movie location tour in Kamakura to cycling under the cherry blossom in Kyoto, pretty much anything is possible.
“Since the guide and visitor are able to discuss what they want for the tour beforehand, it means that every route is completely personalized. You’re able to travel according to your own interests and circumstances, and modify plans right up until, and even on, the day of the tour — it’s very flexible,” says Huber’s chief marketing officer, Sho Sato.
Transforming the Japan travel experience
With 2020 around the corner, Huber’s Tomodachi Guide is exactly the kind of travel service Japan needs. Reading current reviews from site users, the guides’ genuine enthusiasm for showing their tour guests a good time is encouraging, and it just goes to show how much local Japanese people are eager to broaden their own perspective as well as promote their own culture.
Importantly, Tomodachi are not limited to the standard tourist areas — they’re flying the flag for Japan’s lesser-known towns and villages, many of which are suffering under the burden of urban migration.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for a whole range of people to participate. Especially in smaller towns, guides can get local businesses involved to help promote what they have to offer,” says Sato.
Those behind Huber see it as part of a wider social movement, one that connects the whole of Japan to the outside world and looks to a more internationalized future for its people.
“With more and more visitors coming to Japan, I believe that the Tomodachi Guide service can help contribute to creating a society that recognizes diversity across all borders, not only between foreigners and Japanese people, but also among Japanese themselves,” Sato adds.
The government has a long way to go if it wants to achieve its targets of 40 million tourists annually by the Olympics. They should be looking to innovative companies like Huber to lead the way.
Win a discounted tour of Tokyo with one of Huber’s Tomodachi Guides
Traveling to Tokyo? Huber are offering discounted customizable tours of Tokyo with one of their local Tomodachi Guides! Huber will cover the cost of the guide for the day, so all you have to do is pitch in your own expenses for the tour. For a chance to win, send us an email at email@example.com with the subject line: “Huber Free Tour”. Winners will be chosen on a first come, first served basis and notified by email.