5 Essential Phrases for Traveling in Japan

Let’s face it. Traveling to a foreign country can be daunting. First you have to consider your flight and hotel. Then you have to research what you are going to see and do when you get there. You have to coordinate dates with your job and family and any buddies you want to bring along. When you add the fact that you will be going to a country with a completely different language, it can become overwhelming very quickly.

Kiyomizu Dera Temple, Kyoto

Can I travel to Japan without knowing Japanese?

I often hear from travelers that they would like to visit Japan, but they are worried about the language barrier. I’ve lived here for over a year now, and I have to say, it is a challenge. Japanese is especially challenging because of the difference in writing systems. They use kanji, or picture words, to write. Places and things are labeled with these characters, sometimes making it really hard to decipher the meaning.  However, you can still travel in Japan without being able to read a word of Japanese. If you have been considering traveling to Japan, I would highly recommend it. Japan is filled to the brim with beautiful, interesting, and world-renowned places that you just have to see in your life.

Ninenzaka, Kyoto

Is there any English in Japan?

A couple of things make it easier to travel in Japan without being able to read Japanese. First, because the Olympics are coming to Japan in 2020, they have been working really hard to make the country more friendly for foreigners. They have added English translations to a lot of signs and stores, especially in bigger cities like Osaka and Tokyo. Most street signs are labeled with English letters, so it makes it easy to read where you are.

If you’re planning to venture outside of the big cities, though, you will probably come across signs with nothing even remotely familiar to the letters we use in English. Don’t use just this factor to determine your destination, though. Smaller cities that aren’t really focused on tourism may have less English, but they still have a lot to offer. It’s been in these smaller cities that I’ve found some of the prettiest waterfalls and most unique temples I’ve ever seen.

Secondly, English is a part of the public school curriculum. From kindergarten, Japanese students learn basic English skills. I’ve found that most Japanese people under the age of 40 have a pretty decent understanding of English. They are often self-conscious about using their English, but if you are completely lost, they’ll try it to help you out.

Osaka, Japan

The Essential Phrases

With all that said, I’ve found a few phrases that have helped me navigate Japan. These are the basic things that you might find yourself needing to know as you visit this country. I’ve compiled a list of the most necessary, yet simple phrases that will help you on your travels around Japan.

  1. Japanese Greetings

    Ohaiyo Gozaimasu, Konnichiwa, and Konbanwa

    “oh-hi-oh go-zy-mas,” “cone-knee-chi-wa,” and “cone-bahn-wa”

    Greetings are helpful to know. Especially in Japan, where courtesy is of the highest priority, you will hear these greetings often.
    “Ohaiyo Gozaimasu” means “good morning.” People usually use it up until 10 in the morning. If you use it after that, people might think you’ve just been sleeping your morning away.
    You’re probably familiar with “Konnichiwa.” This actually means “good afternoon.” Most people use it after 11 in the morning and before it gets dark.
    “Konbanwa” means “good evening.” It’s generally used after sunset.

  2. Thank You

    Arigatou Gozaimasu

    “a-ree-gah-toe go-zy-mas”

    “Thank you” is a good phrase to know in any language. Rather than saying “domo arigatou” like Mr. Roboto, most people say “arigatou gozaimasu.” This is more polite and more commonly used. It’s good to know because you will meet a lot of extremely helpful people along your travels. You’ll find that if you ask for help, people will often go above and beyond what’s necessary. I once got lost on my way to Kobe and had a man miss his train to take me to my connection. In cases like these, “thank you” is definitely essential.

  3. Yes, No

    Hai, Iie

    “ha-ee” and “ee-eh”

    These two mean “yes” and “no,” respectively. “Hai” is also used to acknowledge that you heard someone say something. These are the formal versions of the worda, but they work really well for getting around. The informal versions are “uhn” and “uhnn,” so you could see how you might misuse those. “Hai” and “iie” are clear, with no confusion concerning what you might be saying.

  4. That’s okay.

    Daijoubu Desu

    “die-joe-boo dehs”

    This phrase saved my life when I moved here. It basically means “that’s okay.” Before I learned it, I would walk into a convenience store or the train station and just have people begin talking to me very passionately about whether I needed a bag or if I wanted my food heated up. When I just said “hai” or “iie” they would often look at me uncertainly and shift awkwardly from one foot to another. It’d be the equivalent of me saying, “Would you like that heated up or kept room temperature?” and you saying, “Yes.”
    I learned that if I say “daijoubu desu” and accompany it with a head nod or shake, they will happily do what I indicated. It also works as a bit of a non-commital response. So, for you, if you have no idea what they are saying, just say the phrase without a nod or shake and they will assume that you mean whatever makes the most sense.

  5. Where is the ______?
    _____ wa doko desu ka?

    “_____ wa doe-koe dehs kah”

    This means “where is the _____?” Two important words to know are “eki” which means train station. You use this a lot when traveling through Japan. And, of course, “toire” for toilet.

I hope you find these phrases helpful! Are there any other phrases that you have found to be when traveling? I would love to learn some of these in another language, or try my best to translate any other phrases you think you’d want to know for getting around Japan.

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