HomeArticlesHow Difficult is Travelling Japan without Japanese? | Travel Tips
How Difficult is Travelling Japan without Japanese? | Travel Tips
August 20, 2019
One of the most intimidating and anxiety-inducing aspects of travelling overseas is the sudden inability to communicate with the world around you. It’s probably no surprise then that over the years one of the most popular questions I’ve got is how difficult is it to travel Japan without Japanese? Now in the run-up to the 2020 Olympics many businesses across Japan are Investing all their pocket money in preparing for foreign tourists. But there’s no doubt the language barrier exists here in a homogeneous culture where English speakers can seem few and far between. In this video, we’ll discuss the most common problems that will pop up along the way, from public transport and dining out to some useful communication strategies that will help you break down the language barrier with the locals. But I’ll start with two pieces of reassuring news though: The first is that I put a survey out on Twitter asking people if they found Japan difficult to travel without Japanese. There were 3600 responses with two thirds saying they didn’t find it difficult. Now that’s great; then again Twitter questionnaires should always be taken with a pinch of salt, Especially as I put out a follow-up survey, asking people if they’d rather be a bagel or an Alaskan salmon. Within 47 minutes 739 people responded with 45 percent respondents choosing to be a delicious inanimate object over a living creature rich in Omega-3. And that should have been a clear open-and-shut case – obviously the answer was salmon. The second piece of reassuring news is that I’ve known numerous expats living and working in Japan over the years across various sectors who have lived comfortably in Japan without knowing any Japanese whatsoever and whilst it’s not obviously ideal, it is completely doable. I mean when I came here without knowing much of the language, I was often a little bit anxious in various situations that the the locals might get angry at me when they found out that I lived here without knowing any of the language really. After all, I’d had travel experiences in some countries in the past where the locals had lost their temper or snapped at me for my inability to communicate in their language. Obviously, I’m not gonna name any names. -hilarious fake cough- France. But not once in my time here has anybody got angry at me or lost their cool for my inability to communicate. On the contrary, Japanese people are very understanding and fully aware that Japanese is almost exclusively spoken within Japan, and it is quite difficult, and it takes a lot time to learn. Thus if you do make an effort and show you know some Japanese, you’ll instantly win favour with the locals because you’ll be in the minority of foreign travellers who can speak and use a little bit of Japanese. Better still though English is almost everywhere these days, from restaurant menus and road signs to trendy t-shirts. Mind you, the English might not always be native speaker level of English, but it gets the job done. Take this notebook that I bought the other day for example. It’s covered in trendy, cool English expressions on the front here, like: “relax time”, and “keep calm”, and “pleasing smell”. And yet the thing that gives it away that might not have been proof read or written by a native speaker is the big word at the top where it just says: Dribble. “Dribble” – it’s not typically the sort of thing you’d find on a notebook back home. I don’t know why they thought that would enhance the sales of the… of the notebook, but nonetheless, it’s English, just… just not as we… not as we know it. So having just landed in Japan, typically at Haneda Airport or Narita or Kansai International, You’ll find getting out of the airport and into the city a fairly easy, seamless process. Everything is wonderfully signposted. But soon after arriving at the city problems might arise at one of the smaller stations when you look up at the map to find it is exclusively written in kanji characters. Now perhaps you’d think “No problem, I’ll just use the ticket machine and hit the English button and type in the name of the station. Haha, I’m so brilliant.” But wait! Because, you’re not. For local trains and the underground, rather than typing in the name of the station, you need to know the ticket price of the place you’re going. And to find out the cost of that ticket you need the map that you can’t read. Obviously you can get around this easily by asking a member of staff; as long as you mutter the name of the station or the general direction of where you want to go – no problem. But my favourite option is just to get a Suika card or a passport card, which you top-up with a few thousand yen. I can’t tell you the cost of going anywhere in Japan or Tokyo just because – I use this. So rather than knowing the cost of your ticket price, just keep this filled up with a few thousand yen every day, and you’re all good. Same goes for the JR Rail Pass. That’s half the benefit of getting the JR Rail Pass: You don’t need to worry about using ticket machines all the time. And you can get this for 500 yen at pretty much any ticket machine across Japan. I think for another few hundred yen you get your name written on it as well. I haven’t done that. Because I’m… I’m cheap. I would strongly urge first time travellers coming to Japan to get a SIM card or a portable Wi-Fi so you have the internet with you, mainly just so you can use Google Maps. It is the main way that I and most foreign travellers get around Japan. All the train times and all the bus times are input into it seamlessly. Honestly without Google Maps I don’t think I’d even be here now. I’d probably be lost in a forest somewhere scrounging for… Berries. Ber- yeah. As somebody who travels around Japan quite a lot I found that this isn’t an issue at all. I think you’ll have no problems with accommodation whether you’re using hotels, Airbnb or even staying at traditional, Japanese Inn. That’s a lie there might be one one issue. If you’re lucky enough to have a public bath or a hot springs built into your accommodation, you’ll find that they’re segregated by male and female, and sometimes they’re poorly labelled as to which one is which. This could end in spectacular disaster and lots of awkward conversations with hotel staff. So what I would encourage you to do, just because not only do public baths use it, but also toilets across Japan. They sometimes only have kanji characters in male and female, especially at smaller bars and restaurants. So I would actually encourage you to learn those two characters: ‘Male’ and ‘Female’. They’re probably the only two characters you’ll ever need to know. Better still you can impress all your friends and family at your next birthday party when you whip out a pen and Pretend to know how to write lots of Japanese, giving the momentary illusion that you are a genius with extensive cultural knowledge. I mean, for that reason alone definitely… It’s definitely worth it. As somebody who eats out… Well, more than they probably should, I tend to find in the bigger restaurants this isn’t an issue – you will find English menus, or even then just menus with pictures on that you can point at. Typically the smaller the bar or restaurant and the further out into the countryside it is, the less likely you will find English. And in the terrifying event there’s neither English nor photos you can desperately point at, you are gonna have to wing it. Now, I did make a video a few months ago talking about nightlife etiquette and dining out etiquette. However, the most important phrase and thing in that video is the phrase: “Osusume wa?” “Osusume wa?” means “What do you recommend?” If you point at the menu and say “Ososume wa?” typically the staff will probably laugh in surprise, chuckle in surprise first. That is the only Japanese phrase that you know. And then they will try and do their best to explain what it is before you enthusiastically order it. Unless of course you are vegetarian and the speciality is pork. In which case you can just point it yourself and say: “Vegetarian”. Because fortunately the word for vegetarian in Japanese is: ‘Bejitarian’. It’s kind of like the same. And that’s another really useful point for dining out in Japan – many foods the words themselves are ‘Gairaigo’ or foreign borrowed words. Take for example beef, chicken and pork. For beef you can say “Bi-fu”. For pork you can say “Po-ku”. For chicken you can say “Chikin”. And for horse you can say “BASASHI”. All right, there’s a handful of exceptions but you get the general idea. Take fruit for example: Orange is “Orenji”. Banana is “Banana”. Apple is a “Appuru”. And cherry is “SAKURANBO”. Again some – some exceptions. The only other two words you really need to know are: Beer, which is “Bi-ru” and Whiskey which is “Uiski”. And there you have it So don’t be afraid to use ‘gairaigo’ – don’t be afraid to try and say the word. I’m not necessarily saying try and pronounce those words in their ‘gairaigo’ Japanese form, I’m saying try and just say the word in English and hopefully the staff will catch it and understand what you’re saying. You’ll find in the absence of English conversational practice at school, most Japanese people do tend to lack confidence in speaking and listening to English. To talk a bit more about this along with the essential four Japanese phrases you need to know before you come to Japan, I’ll now hand you over to a real-life Japanese man who stole a British accent. Even though we learn English [for] six years from junior high school to high school, somehow or we can’t speak or listen. So what you have to do when you come to Japan is: Don’t make sentences long. For instance, some people like me when you ask if the food is good or bad, you can say “Is it good?” But when you say “Is it good?”, it sounds like one word for Japanese people. So you could just take one word, one most important word – in this case which is ‘good’. So say “good” or “bad” – just take one word and they’ll understand you. Instead of saying “Where is the toilet?”, you can say: “Toilet? Where?” “Can you speak English?” Just say: “English? OK?” And if you make it like really simple, they’ll – they’ll get you. So there are only four phrases that you have to know when you come to Japan and that will get you by. First one is “Konnichiwa”, and that’s like “Hello” – as everyone knows. The second one is “I’m sorry” or “Excuse me” – That is “Sumimasen”. And then thirdly is “Thank you”, which is “Arigatou”. Not like “Arigato” – “Arigatou”.
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