Miki Bartley: A guiding spirit for Japanese tourists

by Kathryn Wortley

Contributing Writer

Having now spent almost her entire adult life in London, Osaka-born tour guide Miki Bartley admits to being less comfortable in her native culture than in her adopted one. The feeling of being different is stronger while working, when she accompanies Japanese tourists and businesspeople around England on tours designed to both entertain and educate.

Bartley, 47, vividly recalls some clients complaining about how rude checkout operators in the U.K. appeared because they are seated when customers are standing, while others said news presenters on British TV seemed impolite because they put their arms across the set’s sofa.

On both occasions, she says she was astonished by their comments and unable to understand the reasoning, which reinforced her notion that she has led two very different lives: one in Japan as a child when she “wasn’t aware of culture” and one as a working adult in the U.K.

Undaunted by what others may think of the U.K., though, Bartley is happy in her home and has no regrets at making her permanent move to London at just 20 years old.

After finishing high school, Bartley spent a short time in the United States before graduating in tourism from a business college, but she saw no future working in Japan’s travel industry.

“I got a tour escort licence in Japan, but it was really easy to get: just a two-week course and an exam, which I can’t imagine anyone could fail because you could bring in your textbook and use it to look up the answers,” she says.

The result of an excessive supply of licensed tour escorts, she says, led to poor working conditions, with tour companies continuously hiring new staff rather than promoting or rewarding current ones. All this led to an unsustainable industry and a larger number of working poor, what Bartley could see would be great obstacles to building a long-term career.

So she set her sights on the U.K., where she thought it would be easier to live without a driver’s licence than the United States.

When she arrived in London in 1991 she spent some time living on savings before finding a job as chief coordinator at a Japanese travel agency. At that time, the industry’s typical eight-day tour of Europe (two nights each in London, Rome and Paris) was booming among Japanese inbound customers, but despite Bartley finding herself busy booking coaches and tour guides, she found it hard to make ends meet.

“With the high cost of rent, if I didn’t do any overtime, I basically couldn’t live so I thought I had to do something,” she explains. “First, I became a transfer assistant, taking people from airports to hotels and so on, and then I decided to go to the next level — to become a tour guide.”

In 1996, after studying for 18 months, Bartley gained the coveted Blue Badge, the U.K.’s top official tourist guiding qualification that allows holders to give tours inside iconic British landmarks including Westminster Abbey, Windsor Castle and the Tower of London. She then became the first Japanese person to be awarded the London Blue Badge scheme’s Best Site Tour Guide and was interviewed in a documentary about becoming a tour guide for British channel ITV.

With these achievements under her belt, Bartley established a business as a freelance tour guide, working with travel operators across England to offer guided tours solely for Japanese inbound visitors. Still one of only a handful of Japanese Blue Badge holders, her business is thriving, with VIP and bespoke tours on offer as well as sightseeing and museum excursions.

Spurred on by her own love of travel and a growing client base, Bartley continues to study for more accreditations to offer tours around specific buildings and take clients out of London to as far as the Lake District or even overseas to Brussels and Iceland.

It’s the positive feedback, Bartley says, as well as the growing number of repeat clients and referrals that gives her a “buzz” to keep on working hard. More importantly, though, she says she is driven by her role as a cultural bridge between the U.K. and Japan and her ability to help people learn about another country.

Certainly her clients are very keen to find out more about daily life in the U.K. while on their trips, with questions covering a range of topics from the cost of living, housing and pensions to food, the seasons and the Royal Family.

“I like Japanese tourists to experience the true U.K. because their image of the country is sometimes a little out of date or based on fictional stories,” she says. “In the same way that some foreigners may go to Japan and expect everyone to wear kimono or have a samurai sword, some Japanese think British people have afternoon tea every day, wear bowler hats and endure miserable weather all the time,” she says. “I love adjusting their images of the U.K.”

Bartley did, however, suffer culture shock of her own when first trying to settle in. She recalls realizing that “British jokes were too strong,” following an experience at an underground station shortly after she arrived in London. When she asked a staff member to break a £5 note, so she could have change for her fare, he ripped it in half.

“I was young and didn’t know what to do. I started to cry and then he panicked,” she says. “It’s a funny memory and if it happened now I would laugh and say something back,” she said.

Bartley’s experiences, though, were largely positive and she quickly grew to love many of the customs of her home of 27 years.

“Japanese people don’t have a culture of saying thank you to strangers, for example, at the checkout in the supermarket. But in the U.K., everyone says thank you. Also, most of the time the English don’t care what people think of them but Japanese really care about that,” she says, adding that when trying to serve others, Japanese people tend to try to avoid getting into trouble rather than do something positive or proactive.

Bartley has also found that not only is her native culture making more appearances in the U.K., but her British friends are even introducing her to some of it. In some London restaurants, she’s discovered new flavors of ramen and yakitori that she had never tasted before. Though she emphasizes that she can’t compare the dishes to the Japanese originals, it’s still a delight to discover her adopted home is now embracing a taste of her former one.


Name: Miki Bartley

Profession: Tour guide

Hometown: Osaka

Age: 47

Key moments in career:

1991 — Arrives in London and finds work as chief travel coordinator at a Japanese travel agency

1996 — Qualifies as a Blue Badge guide and becomes the first Japanese person to be awarded Best Site Tour Guide

2008 — Sets up her own website to target customers directly

2012 — Becomes part of a group that gains improved working conditions for guides, thanks to the increased demand for guides during the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games

Life philosophy: “Life is short, so do everything you want now; it’s better to regret mistakes than to never do what you want to do.”

Strengths: “Positivity. When I decide to do something, I do it without hesitation.”

Weaknesses: “Short-temperedness. I sometimes worry too much when things go wrong.”