Keeping Japan’s Traditions Alive With Julia Maeda Of Tokyo Personalised

One Woman's Passion For Showing Travelers The Best Of Japan

UK-born Julia Maeda tells us that it's not enough to come to Japan: you have to experience it as a local to see the best of it. Her private tours aim at achieving exactly this.

Tapping into her experience in marketing and tourism as well as her knowledge of Japan, UK-born long-term Tokyo resident and travel aficionado Julia Maeda set up the adventure tour website Tokyo Personalised in June 2017. As the name suggests, the business is designed to offer tourists customized experiences in Tokyo and beyond, so they feel they are enjoying something truly unique. 

From exploring the hidden alleys of Tokyo’s backstreets, to learning the behind the scenes of sumo, to tasting the best of Japan’s food in various cities and getting an insider’s experience of rural farming in Japan, Maeda’s customized tours cater to tourists’ personal needs and preferences while skillfully showing them the best of Japan that’s yet to be explored.

Savvy Tokyo catches up with Maeda to learn more about the challenges and rewards of running the business and how it is impacting Japan’s tourism. 

Julia Maeda during a traditional Japanese performance tour. 

What inspired you to set up Tokyo Personalised?

I really enjoyed working in the travel industry in a previous role. I helped people discover a Japan that you don’t read about in guidebooks. I’ve also been doing that for quite a long time for friends and family who were visiting. I spent hours putting together itineraries featuring my favorite restaurants and places to go in Tokyo as well as some destinations in Tohoku, where my husband and I used to live. It’s an area of Japan that even many Japanese people don’t know well. Everyone I recommended it to was blown away when they got there and realized that there is much more to Japan than the insanity of Tokyo and temples of Kyoto.

I want [people visiting Japan] to feel like they are traveling with a friend and not as part of a big follow-the-flag tour.

After some time, I began to wonder if I could do that work as a business. I’ve been in Japan for 20 years and have many connections, including with ryokan owners or artisans such as swordsmiths and tea masters who would be of interest to tourists. Tokyo Personalised seemed to be a way to connect all those dots as well as my love of Japan.

How did you find your feet?

By serendipity. Around that time a friend visited from Singapore and brought her friend who was one of Canada’s top luxury travel agents. I guided them around Tokyo for a couple of days and the travel agent said there was no-one doing that kind of personalized tour in Japan and suggested I should do it as a business.

The day after he returned to Canada he sent me a business plan that he had drafted for me. I went to Shimoda, which is one of my happy places, for a few days to think and decided to do the business. He then introduced me to a number of very high-end travel agents in the United States and sent clients to me. Since then, I’ve really felt like everything has been smooth running. I think that sometimes when something’s meant to be, that’s the way it is; you don’t have to push.

What kind of business are you striving for?

For the clients, I want Tokyo Personalised to offer an absolutely seamless service. I want them to see a side of Japan that they wouldn’t normally see with a travel agent, to feel like they are traveling with a friend and not as part of a big follow-the-flag tour.

For example, we might go and see the golden temple in Kyoto, but the tour guide will know that the customer likes coffee and around the corner, there’s an amazing coffee shop known only to locals.

I work with people I want to work with. If a partnership doesn’t go right, I don’t pursue it. If I have to push to make it happen, I let it go. If it comes back it comes back and, if it doesn’t it doesn’t, so I’m taking the path of least resistance. It’s really easy and things are going really well.

[T]he future of tourism in Japan is not in big tours.

How can your business help Japan?

I’m offering visitors to Japan unique and deep experiences while presenting the culture and arts of Japan. I’m recognizing and exposing Japanese experts to the outside world and paying them properly for their time, so they can also have a business and pass it on to the next generation because a lot of cultural businesses are dying.

Most of my clients are making their first trip to Japan so they want to see Tokyo and Kyoto but, after that, I encourage them to go to at least one destination outside of the Golden Routes of Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima. This means they’re putting money in somewhere that normally doesn’t get tourists and those communities are seeing benefits. That may be in the form of more minshuku (private guesthouses) and boutique hotels, which, in turn, attract people.

Maeda during a Yamabushi (Japanese mountain priest) tour.

You’re a bit of a serial entrepreneur. What other projects are you involved in?

Tokyo Personalised offers day trips and experiences but more and more clients were asking if I could organize bookings for hotels, restaurants and even transport, so I decided recently to go into business with two women to run a Japan-wide destination management company.

I also do consulting for Japan’s national parks, to whisper in the ear of the Japanese government that the future of tourism in Japan is not in big tours. I go to sites to see if they are ready to welcome international tourists by looking at the infrastructure, English-language preparedness and so on.

What do you do in your free time?

I’m very protective of my free time. I go to boot camp twice a week with an amazing trainer. I need that to feel like I’m doing some exercise. I try to go for a massage every couple of weeks and see friends at least once a week, even for a coffee and a chat, to download for a bit. All my other free time is spent with my kids who give me energy, as exhausting as they can be. A smile and hug from them will always make my day a lot brighter. We try to get out of Tokyo as a family to see the countryside at least once a month.

The work of a master #ramma #japanesedoors #mastercraftsmen

A post shared by Julia Maeda (@tokyopersonalised) on

What message do you have for other business women in Japan?

The thing that I wish I’d been told earlier is that you can’t have it all. Hollywood and magazines say that if you just work hard enough and are smart enough you can have it all. But I don’t think you can, and it’s OK not to have it all. Life’s about deciding what you really want and being thoughtful of where you give your energy to order to make what you want to happen.

For more information on tours organized by Tokyo Personalised, see the official website here.