By Kyoka Shirai / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer YOKOHAMA — The Kamakura Daibutsu, or Great Buddha of Kamakura, attracts visitors from all over the world to Kotokuin temple in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture. A local volunteer group uses multiple languages to help them understand what they are seeing when they behold the giant copper statue.
On May 27, the Kanagawa Systematized Goodwill Guide (SGG) Club welcomed a group of 66 people from countries including China, India, Mexico, Thailand and Vietnam, who were receiving training in Japan. The visitors were divided into 10 groups, and two to three members of the volunteer club took each group on a sightseeing tour featuring the Daibutsu.
For a group of Mexicans, one tour guide humorously explained about the Buddhist statue, saying that the Buddha in Kamakura is better-looking than another famous Daibutsu at Todaiji temple in Nara. One of the participants, Carlos Valadez, 27, said, “The guides are kind and fun and their explanations are easy to understand.”
The members also provide tours in Japanese for foreigners who want to work on their Japanese language skills. On the same day, the members gave a group of Vietnamese a tour in Japanese and showed how high-profile the Buddhist statue is by displaying photos of visits by important people from Japan and abroad.
The club has its origins in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, when it became clear that few Japanese knew how to communicate with people from overseas. With the aim of increasing the number of Japanese people who can talk with foreigners without hesitation, the club was formally established in 1989.
Currently, the Kanagawa SGG Club has more than 400 members, ranging in age from their 20s to their 90s, who participate when they have time. Some members have lived overseas and others learn foreign languages as a hobby. The group covers eight languages, including English, French, Thai and Korean. Members make their tours interesting through their own efforts, such as using props or giving quizzes.
Shintaro Sawada, a 56-year-old member who has a good command of four languages and works in sales, is popular for his humorous guiding.
Asked about tips for guiding tourists, Sawada said with a smile: “Think how you can make both yourself and visitors enjoy it. I’ll do whatever I can to make people laugh.”
At the end of the tour, the members and participants usually hold a meeting together. The members listen to the participants to improve their activities. On this day, the participants praised the tour, with one of them expressing a wish to tell people what a wonderful country Japan is after returning home.
The guides and participants ended their tour with sanbon-jime, a traditional Japanese style of clapping. The participants were excited about their first experience with the unique clapping style.
Over 90 groups nationwide
SGG stands for Systematized Goodwill Guide. The Kanagawa SGG Club is one of the largest among more than 90 SGGs across the nation that are registered by the Japan National Tourism Organization. In addition to providing guided tours for individuals and groups at sightseeing spots in Kanagawa Prefecture, the group also introduces Japanese culture through such activities as hands-on programs for zazen seated meditation and playing a shakuhachi bamboo flute.
Foreign visitors to Kanagawa Prefecture are on the rise, with 2.44 million coming to the prefecture in 2017, up by 1.38 million from five years earlier, according to the prefectural government’s International Tourism Division.
Meanwhile, the prefecture still faces some challenges such as arranging an accommodating environment for foreigners, as many visitors from overseas say they cannot read maps that are posted in public places.
The prefecture will host events for the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympics Games. Members of the Kanagawa SGG Club see these events as opportunities to attract many foreign tourists to sightseeing spots in the prefecture. They are hoping to improve the quality of tour guides and elevate their activities to international exchanges that build mutual understanding.Speech