Get to Know “Last Samurai” Guide Joe Okada

Joe Okada is most definitely a colourful human being: he’s a tour guide, Samurai sword entertainer, unstoppable joke-teller, teacher, and he’s also been the feature of several television shows. We caught up with the self-proclaimed “Last Samurai” to learn about his decorated past, how he got two of his students into the Guinness Book of World Records, and what his last wish in life is (fittingly, jokes are involved).

How did you discover your passion for entertaining with samurai swords and for guiding?

Japan National Tourist Organization’s yearly questionnaire said, “Tourists wish to visit private homes and meet the samurai,” so I created “Homes and Countryside Tour” in 1969, which, over 22 years, had 125,000 guests! In 1977, I started the “Samurai Nippon Show,” which received 130,000 guests over 14 years, but I had to stop both tours because the yen got too high.

From being a Samurai sword entertainer to the eldest licensed English speaking tour guide in Japan, you are an admirable multitalented man, but do you have a favorite hobby?

I may be a Jack of all trades, but I always try to be a master too. Apart from guiding (in 52 years, I have never cancelled a tour!) and teaching, my hobbies are learning and trying my best: my English is based on 2 years of studying at a junior high school right after Japan’s surrender on August 15th, 1945 (which, in effect, ended World War II), and when it came to mastering the art of the samurai sword, I just never gave up, unlike one of my fellow swordsmen who, after cutting his hand, quit. I, on the other hand, practiced overnight for the next day’s show. Another little hobby of mine is alcohol: over the past 50 years, nightly, I have enjoyed 8 glasses of whiskey during a 4-hour period. However, since last month, I have cut it down to 4 glasses over two hours; my stomach started to feel a bit uncomfortable!

In being a guide, what has been the biggest highlight, and what’s the best part of your job?

A highlight of guiding is receiving excellent reviews from the guests, wink wink. However, the biggest highlight of my career happened in 1965 when I took a group of 30 Americans to visit Hong Kong. I was so impressed by the well-made maps in the airport that I decided to phone the company to praise the owner, and, much to my surprise, he was so flattered he ended up inviting me and my 30 guests to have lunch on his junk. The very next day, the group of Americans and I enjoyed an all-day cruise around Hong Kong, and to top the story off, the owner and I are still good friends!

Another highlight was getting hired to be the driver for an American farm owner for 9 months in 1960 as I did a fine job of guiding in Japan. The best part: getting to drive a Lincoln Continental!

You’re such an interesting person, you’ve even been featured on television. Can you share a little more about this fame?

I’ve been on the “David Letterman Show” and the “Regis Philbin Morning Show,” but, in total, I’ve been featured on 70 Japan-based shows, and 23 overseas. In 1977, I made the one and only “Samurai Nippon Show,” and over 14 years 130,000 guests attended it!

Speaking of fame, you’re even connected to two Guinness World Record holders. How so?

Two Americans came to me for instructions on how to cut apples in the air using Samurai swords, and they got so good they won spots in the book of Guinness World Records. The first man won his record in 2004 for cutting 14 apples in the air in 60 seconds, and the second won his record in 2006 for cutting 23 apples in the same amount of time. P.s. the latter’s in my bad books because he still owes me money for my teaching!

What’s the most bizarre experience you’ve ever had on a guided tour?

Ha! So many extreme things have happened on my tours, but I cannot tell you now; you’ll have to wait for the book a Japanese writer is contracted to write about my life after I die.

Since we all know that no job is perfect, would you mind sharing some of the downfalls of being a guide?

For me, there are no downfalls to guiding, but the high yen and recent Tsunami both knocked my sales down by 90%, which was unfortunate.

What does it take to be a good tour guide?

  1. Don’t try to speak perfect English
  2. Don’t act smarter than the guests
  3. Don’t talk too long: sometimes, silence is gold
  4. Don’t get easily upset
  5. Mix history with jokes to break things up a little

Tell us more about your love for jokes. What’s your favorite joke?

I try to tell nice, non-corny jokes, but sometimes they sound “ricy.” Before I die, my last wish is to publish the first and only DVD called “International Jokes by a Samurai Tour Guide!” You’ll have to wait for it to hear my favorite joke…

If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?

To tell you the truth, after moving house 22 times, I’m more than happy to stay in the Kyoto area. I can happily live wherever (though money is a problem!), but my heart is here.

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