There’s no getting away from it, Japanese is a complex language to get to grips with. It doesn’t help that 3 different alphabets are used when writing so even if you memorise one of them, there’s still another two to learn. Speaking the language is a bit easier, and a good phrasebook will see you through most day-to-day situations. In the more touristy areas restaurants and bars will have menus in English, and most hotels will have an English-speaking member of staff. As you get further off the beaten track, you might struggle to find anyone who speaks more than a few words of English.
However it is possible to enjoy Japan with very little language skills. This guide will give you some tips of how to survive without speaking more than a few words of Japanese.
Key Japanese Phrases
Please – kudesai
Thank you – arigato
Excuse me – sumimasen
Yes – hai
No – iie
Hello – konnichiwa
Goodbye – sayonara
The Japanese value politeness very highly but also understand that many tourists do not speak much Japanese. Using simple phrases like “please” and “thank you” and bowing your head will show respect even if you are conducting the rest of the conversation through mime.
Eating & Drinking
- When arriving at a restaurant the Japanese hold up their fingers to show how many seats they require, so doing the same won’t look out of place. Making a cross with your fingers is the sign for the bill.
- Japanese restaurants like to have picture menus or window displays of the food, so a meal can be ordered just by pointing at the food you like the look of. Coffee shops have glass counters or are self-service so you can easily see what is on offer.
- Vending machines selling hot and cold drinks can be found almost everywhere (even up mountains or in woods!)
- Vending machines have also found their way in to restaurants. Put some money in the vending machine at the front of the restaurant and pick the food and drink you would like; there will often be pictures on the vending machine buttons or a picture menu on the wall. Looking at the price of each item can also help you to work out what you are ordering. The machine will then give you tokens or tickets for the food you have ordered. Hand these tickets to the waiter inside the restaurant and you food will be brought over when it is ready.
- Convenience stores such as 7-11 or Lawson sell bento boxes and snacks, although the exact ingredients can be a bit of guesswork if you don’t read Japanese. Generally these are good value and higher quality than the lunches you would find in a UK supermarket.
- Staying the night at a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) often includes dinner and breakfast. This is usually a set menu so it’s a great way to get a typical Japanese meal if you aren’t sure what to order.
- Trains and buses will show stop names in English and automated announcements are frequently given in English as well as Japanese.
- At the bigger stations you’ll find English-speaking staff, and ticket machines with English as an option.
- Shinkansen trains usually have a number that refers to a specific time and route. Spotting these numbers on a departure board is much easier than looking for a name or route, especially as these numbers always appear in Roman characters rather than Japanese.
- If you are buying rail tickets in advance (or making reservations with a rail pass), it is easiest to write down the numbers/names and times of the trains and give these to the counter staff.
- There are street maps in stations, bus stops and on the streets themselves. These show your location as well as local landmarks. Japanese streets often don’t have names so this is the easiest way to work out where you are and what direction to head. Big landmarks are usually marked in English.
- Many taxi drivers don’t speak much English; mark your destination on a map and show them or have the address written in Japanese. If you are prepared you can print these in advance but hotel staff will write the address for you if you want to be more spontaneous.
Things to Do
- Big tourist sites will usually have an English leaflet or audio guide – ask at the ticket desk.
- A good guide book will often give an overview of what to see and do in each area, and might be more useful than a poorly translated leaflet.
- Many attractions offer English language tours, but only if booked in advance. Research your destinations before you go to see if this is an option.
- Some Japanese experiences (such as geisha performances in Kyoto) are almost impossible to access if you don’t speak Japanese. Consider hiring a local guide/translator to accompany you for a few hours. They can also help arrange private tours or entrance to places that are normally out of bounds for tourists.
If you do have time to study Japanese before your visit then you will get much more out of your trip, but if you don’t have time then it is not a huge barrier to enjoying the experiences Japan has to offer. We were very concerned that we would struggle to get about without being able to read or speak much Japanese, but we were pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to get by with minimal language skills. Japanese people are very friendly and helpful, and have almost endless reserves of patience for foreigners trying to communicate through mime!