The thing about Joe Okada isn’t the fact that he’s a 87 year-old, sword-wielding, self-proclaimed ‘Last Samurai’. It isn’t his quick feet or quicker wit. It’s more than his local (and international) celebrity status for appearing on numerous TV shows including one with David Letterman. It’s the stern yet forgiving presence he holds. Joe Okada cuts through the crap of a regular tour experience and walks his own unique path.
Our walking tour with Joe Okada began with him approaching a lady as she was parking her bicycle in one of Japan’s many Eco Cycle machines – a small electronic kiosk which parks bikes underground, keeping the streets of Japan clutter-free. He asks if she could show us how the ‘bicycle elevator’ works and she gladly obliges. It was an unusual way of beginning a tour but none of us were complaining.
As the day went on, we quickly learned that Joe’s walking tour was a blend between the cultural and the current. We’d explore an antique store and later, walk through a new supermarket where he points out that a melon can cost up to 55000 Yen (approximately AUD600) and then says, “If you do get given a slice of melon while at the hospital, it’s not a good sign…”
He shows us the stunning styles (and prices) of Kimono gowns and also left us to shop at a 100 Yen store (a local dollar shop). We were given a taste of what he claims is “the best Inari in town” (Inari – fried tofu pockets filled with sushi rice) and later, grabs us a snack one of Japan’s many pastry cafes. He points out the parts of Kyoto one may often overlook and explains the little things we’d never thought to ask.
He’d walk us through a residential street and explain everything from the rising cost of homes to the way the houses were built, the shrines that homeowners had and how much it costs to keep one up. He’d stop at the garage of a man fixing his bike, have a conversation before explaining to that the homeowner hand-built and continues to hand-fix his home and almost everything else he owns. He walks us through a buzzing street and stops to point out “the most expensive home in the 1.5kilometre radius” and then counters it by showing us tiny apartments.
Of course, one of the highlights of the tour is watching him demonstrate his Samurai sword skills, and even if you’re not a fan of everything else, this alone is bound to impress.
The final part of the tour included a stroll through the Imperial Palace grounds and a park close by. At the park, he explains to us that photographers often spend up to five hours trying to capture the best shots of the birds to which a kid touring with us exclaims with complete honesty, “What a waste of time!” I fully agreed but to each, his own.
Joe then takes us to a local market where we fill our bellies with sushi and local sweets before ending the trip. He gathers us for a final goodbye and hope-to-see-you-again. It was then I realised that the thing about Joe Okada goes beyond his role as a tour guide or performer. Joe knew what mattered to us was more than sights Kyoto had to offer – it was the stories they held and he told them well.
He looks me in the eye as we bid each other goodbye and I can tell, even without words, that he’s acknowledging the good in me, so I do the same with him. He extends his arm and wraps me in a tight hug.
The thing about Joe Okada is the fact that he’s more than a wonderful tour guide, a skilled swordsman and jovial joker – it’s the fact that he understand what it means to make you feel at home and that alone makes meeting him, a pleasure.