Not a lot of people know that real samurais NO longer exist in Japan — the whole lifestyle and system have long disappeared ever since the late 1800s because the emperor favored a more modern western-style army. (Joe Okada)
Nevertheless, what we can rather find solace in (apart from the existence of museums for appreciating the tradition) is that there are still some people in Japan who try to emulate the swordsmanship of the samurai. So, should you ever land in Kyoto, there is one interesting person that you should absolutely meet… the ‘Last Samurai’: Joe Okada!
The Last Samurai: Joe Okada
» Who is Joe Okada?
Joe Okada, who is dubbed as the ‘Last Samurai’, is the oldest licensed English-speaking tour guide in Japan — he has been in the business for more than 50 years and he is already 86 years old as of this year (2016).
About 4 years ago, he started operating solely in Kyoto with his ‘Cool Kyoto Walking Tour‘, in which he dresses up as a samurai while he takes his guests to numerous interesting local hotspots.
At the end of the tour, he usually showcases his samurai sword-wielding skills which he has mastered for years — the definite highlight of his whole tour! Because of this and more, the city had appointed him in 2011 to serve as one of Kyoto’s Omotenashi (hospitality) Ambassadors.
Now how did he become Japan’s ‘Last Samurai’?
Joe Okada first worked at a fire station when he was 20 years old; however, he had always wanted to become a tour guide. To become one, he knows that he would have to learn English; so, he went to the United States for 8 months — not to study in a school, but to work as a driver and learn English through his daily life.
By 1962, armed with his English skills and touring knowledge, Joe passed a certification exam and became a licensed guide. He first worked with a travel agency but eventually went solo by 1968 and it was during this time that ‘Samurai Joe Okada’ was born.
Apparently, a lot of his customers thought that samurais still existed and they badly wanted to meet one. Samurais have disappeared a long time ago of course; but still, Joe wanted to give his guests at least a glimpse of the tradition that’s why he started practicing samurai swordsmanship. He eventually became very good at cutting apples in midair which led him to start his own samurai show in 1978 — this became very successful for 13 years with over 130,000 guests! In fact, a lot of TV shows abroad have also invited him and one of his most notable appearances was in David Letterman’s 1998 show. In 1991 however, he had to cancel his show but he still continued being a tour guide.
TRIVIA: Apple cutting in midair is one of the Joe Okada specialties when it comes to samurai sword skills, and he has actually trained 2 Americans who made it to the Guinness World Records!!
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Of course, I wouldn’t be talking about Joe Okada here in my blog if I haven’t met him myself. So yes, I had the absolute pleasure of meeting him back when I first visited Japan, and I can honestly say that his tour was one of the most memorable things that I have ever gone through in my travels!
That being said, I definitely recommend that you take Joe Okada’s walking tour in Kyoto and I’m saying this not just because I’m sure you will love his samurai show and his whole tour, but also because I’m sure that you will enjoy spending time with Joe himself.
Besides, he is probably the most entertaining, funny — stress on the funny! — and interesting man that I have ever met!
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» The Cool Kyoto Walking Tour
TIME: Every Saturday from 10AM to 3PM
WALKING LENGTH: Around 4km
TO RESERVE YOUR SPOT: Go to Tinggly.com
PRICE: $79 for 2 people, includes lunch and snacks (FREE for children under 12)
The meeting place for Joe’s walking tour was at the Kyoto City Hall near Kyoto Shiyakusho-mae Station, and it wasn’t that hard to spot him in the crowd because he was wearing samurai clothing (that looked like a kimono) while holding his long sword. This didn’t seem obvious at first since it was wrapped in thick fabric, but a glimpse of the handle (tsuka) was a quick giveaway of what it was.
As I walked closer to him, I made a mental note about how domineering he looked… but the moment that he took notice of me, Joe flashed a big and warm smile towards my way which quickly washed away my initial estimation!
We exchanged greetings and confirmed my booking for his tour, and it was at this point that I made a second mental note about how he spoke English very well — a rather rare trait among the Japanese people (more so for the older people).
Once everyone was accounted for, Joe started to talk more about who he was, about his life during the war, and about Kyoto in general. He would also start to quip clever jokes here and there — sure, some were cheesy, but never too cheesy that it left all of us in smiles. From then on, I already had a really good feeling about Joe’s tour!
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Our first stop that day was to an art exhibition in Teramachi Street called Yokaan. Joe told us that the displays here change from time to time, and what was being shown during our visit were byōbu or Japanese folding screens with decorative paintings that are typically used to separate sections inside rooms.
Since one of the byōbu had an illustration of a sakura (cherry blossom) tree, Joe even started to share facts and trivia about it.
THIS will be a recurring theme when you’re with Joe because he wouldn’t hold back in sharing interesting information that is unique not only to Kyoto but to Japan as a whole! And since he’s like a fountain of information, a lot of us in the tour wouldn’t hold back either in asking questions.
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Our next stop was to a shop full of sake (this means alcohol, but the term also refers to Japanese rice wine) called Tomiya Shoten.
It was here that we were all able to try a shot of sake while Joe joyfully quips that it’s never too early to drink liquor!
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Joe took us next to a crafts store called Hanzuyoshimi which was owned by a lovely couple. This was the perfect place for buying gifts and souvenirs; and yes, it was clear that these Kyoto shops’ owners have become or are good friends with Joe!
Without missing a beat, Joe also led us to a nearby store that was selling traditional Japanese footwear called geta which are customarily used to keep one’s kimono from touching the ground. There were different varieties to it but the most interesting one was the one-tooth clog called tengu geta (pictured below). This pair was around 20cm high and Joe told us that they are mostly used for training in sports like mountain climbing, cycling, and martial arts in order to build up agility, balance and strength.
There was also an adjacent shop that were selling konpeitō or Japanese sugar candy which were apparently handmade by artisans (its preparation can take up to 7 to 13 days!)
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Zohiko was the next establishment we visited in Kyoto and they were selling specialty tools and artistic lacquer goods. All of the items in this place, though pricey, were handmade with designs that were simple yet exquisite and detailed!
This was followed by a visit to Kobaien, a Japanese shodo (calligraphy) store and Joe took his time to demonstrate to us how locals would use the special brushes and ink here to write in Japanese characters. He even gave some of us the opportunity to learn our Japanese names and write it with the brush. Of course, I gladly volunteered!
I found out that my name is “Airin” (アイリーン) in Japanese, and after I copied the way Joe wrote it on the paper, he gave me the score of B+.
Fair enough. ;)
Since it was almost noon, we made a stop at Suehiro, a Kyoto sushi shop that gave us oinari-san or inarizushi to try. This was a type of sushi that has rice wrapped around a tofu pouch and thereafter deep-fried — and they tasted so good!
We also stopped by a local bakery shop to munch on some bread.
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» Samurai Show
Finally, it was time for Joe’s famed Samurai Show!
I would have loved to describe ALL the things that Joe has done, but I think it’s best that I let the photo and video below do the talking. For a short say though, with his sword skills, it’s hard to think that Joe is already more than 90 years old!
NOTE: Joe gladly takes on apprentices and he has already trained 2 Americans who made it to the Guinness World Records!
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All throughout his performance as well, he would ask for volunteers from time to time and and I gladly joined the part where he sliced apples in midair (his best-known skill!)
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» Finale of the Tour
Afterward, we continued the rest of our tour to Kyoto Gyoen National Park where we made a stop in a Japanese garden and tea house called Sushuitei. (There was a 100 yen entrance fee to this place, but it was already included in the tour).
This was such a tranquil and scenic area, and I’m sure that if I were living in Kyoto, I would be visiting this place regularly especially if I want some quiet time alone.
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What followed after this was a brief stop to the Kyoto Imperial Palace where Joe talked more about Kyoto’s history, festivals, samurais, geisha, and more.
During our walk, Joe spotted bird watchers in the corner of the park and this became an opportunity for us to mingle even more with the locals as they share with us their prized bird-watching photos.
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As our tour draws to a close, we headed off to the Demachi Shopping Arcade where we got to try local street food and sushi!
While we stood there, I found myself suddenly overwhelmed by a wave of nostalgia — NOT because I have been there before, but because the place had the kind of facade that was typical in the Japanese shows and anime that I have been watching ever since I was young… It absolutely made me happy to have finally seen and experienced this off-the-beaten-path destination such as this!
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Before bidding goodbye, Joe told me to join my hands together (as if in prayer) when I asked to have a photo with him. He said that this signifies peace, and along with it is his wish that we would both meet again in the future — something that I hope for!
NOTE: The stops can differ from tour to tour depending on the season and depending on Joe’s whim.
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» Kyoto Travel Guide
How to get to and around Kyoto?
From the airport. Kyoto does not have its own airport. The nearest airport you can fly into is Kansai International Airport in Osaka, and from there, take a one-day JR West Kansai Area Pass and take the Haruka Limited Express — this is available to foreigners only and costs 2,000 yen or $19~ (which is cheaper than what locals would pay). Otherwise, you can ride the limousine buses which cost 2,500 yen or $24~ for one way.
By train. If you’re rather coming from Tokyo, the best way to arrive at Kyoto’s JR Kyoto station is by taking the Shinkansen (bullet trains)! You can opt to pick the Nozomi trains that cost 13,520 yen or $130~ or pick the Hikari or Kodama trains that not only make fewer stops but are also generally cheaper (however this is only available for Japan Rail Pass holders — an economical train pass plan that covers most of Japan’s trains and buses).
From within Kyoto. You could flag down a taxi, ride the bus, use the subway, rent a bike or go on foot. When it comes to passes, choose either the Kyoto Sightseeing Card which has 1-day and 2-day passes of unlimited subway and bus travel available, or the Traffica Kyoto Card or ICOCA IC Card which are both stored-value cards applicable as well for subways and buses. Nonetheless, Japanese transportation can get very confusing, so I suggest that you use travel apps like Google Maps for mapping your route. It has helped me a lot of times while I was in Japan!
Helpful Japanese phrases?
It’s no news that NOT a lot of Japanese people speak English; so it helps to know and practice some basic phrases beforehand. Otherwise, feel free to whip out your translator apps at any time in case you’re in a tough bind — I’ve done this several times and it’s a huge help.
- Hello: Konnichiwa (Kohn-nee-chee-wah)
- Thank you (less formal): Arigatō gozaimas (Ah-REE-gah-tohh goh-zahy-mahs)
- Thank you (informal): Dōmo (DOHH-moh)
- Yes: Hai (Hahy)
- No: Iie (E-eh)
- Goodbye (long term): Sayōnara (Sah-yohh-nah-rah)
- Goodbye (informal): Ja ne (Jahh neh)
- Excuse me: Sumimasen (Soo-mee-mah-SEN)
- I’m sorry: Gomen nasai (Goh-men-nah-sahy)
- Is there someone here who speaks English?: Dareka eigo ga hanasemasu ka? (Dah-reh-kah ey-goh gah hah-nah-seh-mahs kah?)
- Help!: Tasukete! (Tah-skeh-teh!)
- Cheers!: Kanpai!.(Kan-pie!)
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However, take note that a travel insurance’s affordability typically means lesser coverage; so please always ensure that you read the fine print in order to decipher which travel insurance company is the right fit for you and your trip!
Looking for more travel tips for Japan?
Check out my other detailed Japan travel guides!
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If you want to glimpse a side of Kyoto that’s normally not seen by most, this tour is definitely your best bet!
Besides, as an esteemed guide, Joe Okada surely knows the city inside out — add his interesting profession, samurai show, and amusing personality then you’ve got a done deal secured.
To date, Joe doesn’t only provide group tours because if you want to keep him to yourself, you can also hire him for a private tour at 50,000 yen ($490~) per day which already includes his sword demonstration. If you are up for splurging more, you can also book him for a geisha banquet at 150,000 yen ($1,470~).
The contact email of Joe Okada is [email protected]
So what are you waiting for…?
Many thanks to Tinggly for providing me this complimentary tour with Joe! Still and as always, all views that are expressed here represent only those made by myself and NOT of any other entity in their favor.