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‘A historian, babysitter, sat-nav’: everything I learned as a tour guide in Kyoto

In this extract from How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart, author Florentyna Leow reflects on her time as a tour guide in Japan

01 Mar 2023

I was a tour guide, which meant to my customers I was also a historian, lecturer, personal shopper, interpreter, babysitter, waitress, friend, walking encyclopaedia, personal sat-nav, emergency medic, restaurant critic, negotiator of favours, therapist, peacemaker, secretary, entertainer, and on longer tours with people thrice my age, surrogate granddaughter.

I was 23, and it was only my second ‘real’ entry-level job. This put me in a peculiar position. Guiding is a service job, but my older, wealthier customers deferred to me as an expert on a country and culture that wasn’t even mine. I felt like I hadn’t earned the right to this job. I knew more than they did, but less than they thought I did, and it took a while to get used to lecturing groups of senior citizens. A two-day tour cost upwards of $800 per person; it has only become more expensive since. Most of that went towards exorbitant hotel rates and business overheads. I earned less than half that figure per tour. I routinely carried several hundred dollars in cash to pay for tickets and taxis. I tried not to think too deeply about how I was providing a service I couldn’t afford.

“I tried not to think too deeply about how I was providing a service I couldn’t afford”

We refer to the measure of our work as ‘job performance,’ which strikes me as darkly appropriate. Originating from the Anglo-French performer and the Old French parfornir, to perform is to fulfil what is required, to accomplish a task. In the theatrical sense, it is also to act, to represent, to put on a show. I think of modern work as being true in both senses. It is rarely enough to do the work itself: we also perform versions of ourselves within the bounds of acceptability for our employers, our customers, anyone bearing witness.

Leading tours was, I discovered, all about performance. It’s no coincidence we’re sometimes known as tour conductors, directing an orchestra with an ever-changing cast of players and a hundred possible hiccups along the way. I was the face of this drama, the only person the customer would meet, but like any film or musical there was a vast crew of people behind the scenes. The lead-up to a tour involves a dizzying web of logistics: securing hotel rooms, emails, faxes, phone calls, booking taxis, scheduling guides, checking for insurance and pre-existing medical conditions, printing and posting tour materials, booking experiences, more emails, more faxes, more phone calls.

“I constructed a funnier, wittier version of myself”

I felt like a magician at times, sailing on the hard work of the backstage team, presenting the sights of this city as though they were cards up my sleeve. Preparation, practice, sleight of hand. Even delight was scripted: it was practically written into our tour manuals. We’d check to see if a customer’s birthday would be happening on tour, and if it was, we’d order cake or plan something special. On some level, the customers knew it was part of our job to engineer joy, but they seemed touched nonetheless. Everyone loves a surprise birthday cake.

When I began, I was no storyteller. I’m an introvert. I prefer listening. Tours demanded otherwise, so I constructed a funnier, wittier version of myself. I practised easily digestible answers to the inevitable ‘Why Japan?’; I wore huge flowers in my hair and bright orange jackets to stand out in the crowds; I faked a confidence I didn’t feel. A friend defines guiding as ‘edu-tainment,’ a hideous yet apt portmanteau for what our job entails. Ostensibly, I was imparting knowledge, but I was also performing a narrative of Kyoto – and by extension Japan – that had been constructed through this itinerary, a curated list of experiences and sights that acted as a shorthand for this city.

As guides, we were partly responsible for shaping how our customers perceived Japan. Many were interested in specific aspects of Japanese culture, like gardens or traditional crafts. Some came for authenticity – itself a perilously nebulous concept – and to see a side of Japan inaccessible without an insider. I wasn’t Japanese, which probably disappointed more than a few customers, but I made up for it with anecdotes from my past life in Tokyo.

“I’d bring out these stories one after another, a constant stream of anecdotes that dried up the moment I went home and crawled into bed”

Some people, I learned, prefer not to be disabused of their image of Japan; not everyone wants to know it has as many problems as their own countries. If they wanted to hear about my experience of working at a Japanese company, I’d tell them about learning how to bow – the trick is to bow from the hip, not from your neck – but not how corporate training was a form of hazing designed to break you.

I cribbed stories from my colleagues, taking notes on their delivery. The Japanese creation myth is a delicate one to relate, involving a pair of gods who were siblings and married. I’ve never been able to narrate it like my Italian colleague does, perfectly deadpan with just the right amount of eyebrow-waggling that had customers doubling over in laughter. Instead, I received raised eyebrows and awkward silences. But you move on: I’d bring out these stories one after another, a constant stream of anecdotes that dried up the moment I went home and crawled into bed.

Back then, I didn’t consciously think of this work as performance; on the contrary, I was earnest about wanting to please, and took pride in providing the sort of service expected of me. It felt like a minor achievement when I managed to remember everyone’s names within the first ten minutes. Every tour was the same, but at the same time no tour was. Each would throw up its own small catastrophes, and I would feel an acute sense of accomplishment after finishing a tour without mishaps: no taxis missed, no customers lost, no heart attacks or heat strokes. But I was often convinced they hadn’t liked me, though I would hear otherwise from my managers.

“It remains one of the only jobs I’ve had where older white men have paid for the privilege of my time and knowledge”

Questions I have been asked: What are these statues and why do they have hats on them? What kind of stone are we standing on? Are geishas prostitutes? Can you explain Zen? How much does a house in this neighbourhood cost? What cardinal direction are we facing now? Why is there a chicken on the roof ? Can Japan have empresses? What was the economy of Japan like in the 1800s? Did samurai take multiple wives? Why is your English so good? Have you dated Japanese men? Where can I buy this chair?

There are no stupid questions, we assured our customers.

I enjoyed guiding. I loved revisiting certain places, like the tearoom and the moss-covered temple. Guiding took me away from emails. I liked observing customers on holiday, and on rare occasions even became friends with them afterwards. I was paid in cash, which helped on a low salary. Most of all, it allowed me to assume the role of someone confident and self-assured. It remains one of the only jobs I’ve had where older white men have paid for the privilege of my time and knowledge, and have consistently deferred to my authority without contradicting me.

Whether I understood this consciously or not, it was invaluable in bolstering my sense of self. It was also an ideal distraction: I could pretend I was somebody when I was nobody, I could lose myself for days at a time focusing on making other people happy, and forget about the crushing anxiety and self-loathing that resurfaced when I returned to my desk job. I often wondered if anyone was fooled.

How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart by Florentyna Leow is out now from The Emma Press