One of our all-time favorite Japan guides, Duncan Flett, explains why he's besotted with his home city of Kyoto — and why he loves showing visitors around.
What brought you to Japan?
I was born to a Japanese mother and a Scottish father (hence ‘Duncan’) in deepest Hertfordshire. My first visit to Japan was for a few weeks when I was three, but I visited again several times while growing up. A degree in Chinese and Japanese at Leeds University followed. After graduating I spent a few years in Tokyo before settling in Kyoto.
What is a typical day like for you?
I get up around 8am and then start the translation project I’m working on that day. I try to get as much done in as short a time as possible so I can spend the rest of the day with my wife Izumi and our nine-year-old son Kei. Like most Kyotoites, deciding what to eat and where can shape your day!
What's the secret to being an excellent guide?
Boundless curiosity — never stop asking why things are the way they are. It's a bit like learning a language — you never reach your destination, it's all about the journey.
What's your favorite local dish?
I would have to say Kyokaiseki, or Japanese haute cuisine, which you can experience (for a price) in Kyoto's finest restaurants. Right at the other end of the scale, I'm also partial to a bento lunch box from one of the shops in the Nishiki Market, to eat by the riverside or in the Imperial Palace grounds.
What's the best thing about being a guide?
You meet people being their best selves, enjoying a trip with loved ones, who have been propelled into experiencing this fascinating culture together. Kyoto is simply fantastic and, as I’ve said to many a visitor, I feel like I have the easiest job in the world, showing people round this wonderful city.
…And the worst?
There isn’t really anything bad about being a guide, at least not in Kyoto!
What is it about Kyoto that you love so much?
It has everything: 1,200-plus years of history, culture and wisdom; fantastic architecture; amazing food; a great neighborhood-based society where people genuinely care about each other. And it's not static either — the city is constantly reinventing itself while retaining its character. It's home to both Nintendo and the tea ceremony. It's also home for our family and we plan to stay indefinitely.
Which is your favorite spot in Kyoto?
For strolling on a summer night? West bank of the Kamogawa River between Oike and Shijo streets. Cherry blossoms? Gion Shinbashi, the heart of the Geisha District. Zen tranquility? The Daitokuji Temple complex. Japanese garden? The Shugakuin and Katsura Imperial Villas.
What is the most interesting tour you've done over the years?
I like the day tours with families that have young kids. I came to Japan when I was 8 and then again when I was 12 and both trips left a deep impression, so I'm always happy if I get a chance to spend the day in Kyoto with a young family. Kids often ask the best questions.
What is the one thing people shouldn't miss when visiting Japan?
This is easy: Kyoto. I could go on about the sights and the food and the culture, but I think the thing that people take away with them from a trip to Japan is the manner of the people here: the politeness, the society, the respect they have for their living spaces (no litter!), the way people treat each other, the way you are greeted and made to feel welcome as a visitor. You'll get that wherever you go in Japan, from Hokkaido to Okinawa.
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