Ave Atque Vale: Murakami Ayame, Japan’s first female bus tour guide (1910-2009)
Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 2, 2009
MY RELATIVES in the United States were puzzled by my wife’s enthusiasm for taking guided bus tours whenever she visited a new city in that country. Even my parents, who doted on her and believed everything she did was marvelous, seemed to think it wasn’t a very hip thing to do. They never said anything to her about it, of course. They just looked at me with a “what’s this all about?” expression.
Before getting married, my attitude would probably have been the same, but my wife converted me: Japanese bus tours are a worthwhile way to spend one’s time. They’re inexpensive, convenient (they depart from and return to the main JR train station), and manage to hit all of a city’s high spots in one day without making the tourists feel rushed. A reasonable lunch is usually part of the bargain.
Another unanticipated benefit was the tour guides. They are all female, dressed in sharp uniforms, knowledgeable about the city (they probably passed a written test and an actual trial before going to work), and make a real effort to interact pleasantly with the passengers. Every Japanese bus tour I’ve ever been on has also included the tour guide singing her rendition of a local folk song. All the passengers—by no means a motley group of old fogies—quite enjoy it.
In a manner of speaking, female bus tour guides are a Japanese tradition. If it weren’t a tradition known to every one in the country, the Nishinippon Shimbun wouldn’t have recently run the obituary of the first female bus tour guide in Japan, Murakami Ayame (photo). She died in a Beppu, Oita, hospital on 30 March from old age (98). Ms. Murakami was so well liked that an association of her friends plan to hold a special farewell party for her at a Beppu hotel on 26 April.
After being graduated from an Oita high school in 1928, Ms. Murakami was hired as a “young female bus conductor” for a local company. That job evolved into the bus tour guide position. She worked for six years on buses that toured the Beppu hot springs and spa areas, which are famous throughout the country.
She was renowned for approaching the job with a distinctive style and a voice so attractive it was recorded in 1933. She is said to have retained that voice into her 90s.
If you are Japanese-capable and find yourself in a new city here, I encourage you to overcome any reservations you may have about the potential dorkiness and consider taking one of these tours. The one in Osaka is particularly nice—it includes a boat ride on the river, a visit to the Osaka Castle (an imposing structure indeed), a trip to the top of the Hitachi Tower for a bird’s eye view of the city, another ride on a single-car urban train/streetcar along the back streets of an older residential district, and winds up at a famous Shinto shrine.
And while you’re enjoying yourself, say a little thank-you to Murakami Ayame for being a different kind of pioneer.
Afterwords: The name Ayame in Japanese is the word for the flower called the iris in English.
And yes, every bus tour I’ve been on in Japan has been better than the ones my wife and I took in the U.S. (though the latter weren’t bad).
Of course, in Japan I can relax because I don’t have to interpret every word the tour guide is saying!