Don’t be afraid to visit or tour Japan because you are intimidated by the language. Even though we had the luxury of help from some of my Japanese business contacts during our first trip, my wife and I found that we can easily make our way around the cities without being fluent or even conversational in the in Japanese. This article does not replace the Japan travel books you can find at your local bookstore or library. I recommend that you acquire such a guide and study before embarking. I’d like to talk about how you can, at least in populated areas like Tokyo, Nagoya, and other large cities, enjoy the country without knowing very much Japanese. Depending on whether or not you want to “go it alone” or join a tour group is up to you. If you wish to have help, by all means get a professional guide, or if you happen to know someone in Japan to guide you, go for it.
Learn a few key words
I’m not suggesting that you go unprepared. Below are a few essential words that will get you a positive response from Japanese people in the hotel, restaurants, or transportation. Whenever visiting foreign countries you get much better service and attention if you make some effort to communicate in the local language. Some Japanese may try out their “English” on you, particularly if it appears you need help. Many young Japanese people speak a little English since they are taught some English beginning in grade school. The following list of words can help in many situations. We were able to get by using this limited vocabulary (note there is no accent on any syllables).
§ Thank you – “arigato” (are-ee-gah-toe)
§ Thank you very much, indeed! – “domo arigato gozaimass” (go-zye-mahs)
§ Yes – “hai” (hye)
§ No – “ie” (ee-eh)
§ Excuse me (to get attention) – “sumimasen” (soo-mee-mah-sen)
§ Please – “dozo” (do-zo)
§ Good morning – “Ohayo gozaimass” (ohio go-zye-mahs)
§ Good day – “konnichiwa” (co-nee-chee-wah)
§ Goodbye – “sayonara” (sye-oh-nah-rah)
§ Restroom/toilet – “Otearai” (oh-tare-eye)
§ Bullet train – “Shinkansen” (shin-can-sen)
§ Box lunch – “bento” (ben-toe)
§ Beer – “biru” (beer-oo)
§ Coffee (hot) – “hotto kohi” (hah-toe co-hee) or just say “coffee”
§ Water – “mizu” (mee-zoo)
§ Tea – “kocha” (co-cha)
§ Taxi – “takushi” (Tah-koo-shee)
§ Train – “densha” (den-shah)
§ Hotel – “hoteru” (Ho-tare-oo)
The information below describes Narita airport and Tokyo, but I recommend you download a map of whichever airport you arrive to acquaint yourself with the layouts. When you get off the plane in an international terminal you’ll probably find English speaking attendants to help you to the next gate or the main terminal if you arrived in a satellite terminal. The departure and arrival monitors alternate displays in Japanese and then English. Once you get into the main terminal you’ll find the Narita airport (as are most of Japan airports) very clean and similar to what you see in major U. S. cities. There are usually no large garbage cans in Japanese airports; more likely are recycling bins. These recycling bins are marked in Japanese and English.
The Japanese are disciplined about entering their country. You are asked to fill out customs forms that are in English. Most agents know enough English to ask applicable questions. The customs agents will ask, in English if you are obviously from America, where you are from and why you are visiting Japan.
Most signs in the airport are in Japanese and English. Again, I recommend you download a map of the airport before you leave. If you get lost, then go to Information where you will find an English speaking person.
I’m including restroom and toilet descriptions here because this is likely one of your first stops after getting off the plane. The restrooms are generally marked with male and female icons, WC (as in water closet), or simply “Lavatory”. The restrooms will have both western style and Japanese toilets. If you decide to try the Japanese toilet, first take items out of your pants pockets and set them aside then squat over the trough facing the hooded end and do your business. Paper towels are not provided in most restrooms; more likely are wash basins and hand air dryers. Western toilets in upscale areas are high tech where you can wash and dry yourself before you stand up from the seat. Buttons along the side of the seat have pictograms showing what each button performs. You will likely find toilet paper in the western style toilets. Also, be aware that there are unisex toilets in public areas (e.g., parks and tourist areas) with male urinals in full view from outside.
Ground Transportation at the Airport
After you get your baggage and clear customs, make your way to the ground transportation counters on the street level of the terminal, usually found right outside customs. Unless you are confident about driving on Japanese freeways and streets, which are the same as England, i.e., the steering wheel is on the right side and you drive on the left side of the street, then I suggest you take the choices of ground transportation. Also, not all traffic signs have English translations.
There are airport limousines and buses that can take you from Narita to Tokyo. Try to find a bus that stops at your hotel. If none exists, then catch a bus to the Tokyo City Air Terminal (TCAT), a transportation terminal in the middle of town. The counter people speak enough English to sell you a ticket and tell you which bus stop to wait, just ask for TCAT. Friendly Airport Limousine, actually a bus, has service about every hour or so to a few dozen “alighting points”. If your destination is not on the list, then just go to the TCAT and catch a taxi (see Taxi below).
If you wish to take the train, download a map of the train routes before you leave home. Go to the train depot after you clear airport customs and look for self service kiosks that sell train tickets. Chances are, if you look confused enough, someone who speaks English will come to your assistance. The self service kiosks and maps are in Japanese and English. If no one comes to help, you can always go to the information desk and ask; or just be patient and continue purchasing your ticket from the kiosk. If you take your time you can probably figure it out. Kiosks accept currency and credit cards. You’ll take your ticket to board the train and keep it for the conductor to punch. The announcements of stops on most trains in cities are made in Japanese and English. English announcements are with a British accent. Distances are in kilometers; Japan is on the metric system. Also, trains run on time and do not stop for very long. This includes the Shinkansen (bullet train) so when you catch a train, do not dally. If you take an express from the airport to down town and are seated, the conductor will appear at the end of the car. He will announce his presence, bow, and began to come by and punch your tickets. Sometimes they tip their cap just before he takes your ticket. Soon after, an attendant may come by with a cart of drinks and snacks that you can buy for a couple of hundred yen. Keep your ticket because you will use it to exit the station by inserting it into an identical turnstile.
Subways are the same. The kiosks and maps are in Japanese and English and so are the announcements. Some subways also have digital displays showing the next stops in Japanese and English. Announcements are made in Japanese and English, as well. It’s best if you also know how many stops are made before you reach your destination. Similar to U. S. subways, routes are color-coded; you take your ticket and slip it into a turnstile where it is recorded and returned to you as you pass through. Keep your ticket as you will use it to exit at your destination. Some subway cars are reserved for women only. Apparently, when too much groping was going on in crowded subway cars, the women demanded that a separate car dedicated to them only. These subway cars are marked on the floor in pink signs in Japanese and English.
Avoid taking taxis to and from Tokyo and Narita airport as it may cost you well over $200.
Japanese currency is very easy to understand. The numbers on coins and paper money are in Arabic numerals (i.e., 0, 1, 2, 3, 4…etc.) and the value of the Yen is currently (at this writing) about 81 yen per dollar. Think of it this way: a Yen is about equal to a penny. So anything costing 100 Yen is a little more than a dollar. ATM machines are in Japanese and English (press the English button), are usually in secure areas, and are the best places to get Japanese money. As in the U. S. you can get money from your bank account or your credit card. Currency exchange stations are good but charge a nominal fee. The best exchange rates are probably at the airport. Visa, Mastercard, and American Express are accepted widely and are usually posted outside restaurants and shops. If in doubt, show the vendor, as in a restaurant, which card you intend to use and get their confirmation. If you get a “hai” response, then you’re okay.
Tipping is not a language issue, but I’m including it due to the importance of cultural understanding. The Japanese feel that it is an honor to serve you, thus tipping is almost offensive to them. A bow to show respect and an “arigato” after paying your bill is sufficient. A smile is always a kind gesture. If you do leave money and say, “I do not need change”, you will likely be given change, anyway.
Hotels in Japan
If you can afford an upscale hotel, your language barrier problems become much easier. Most upscale hotels in Japan employ bilingual front desk employees though a “Konnichiwa” greeting from you is very courteous. When you’ve completed your transaction, an “arigato” is always appropriate. The concierge is also likely to speak at least some English. When in your room, and you would like room or laundry service, your telephone will have English translations and when you do call, the receiving party will know you are English speaking.
If you are not in an upscale hotel, there is a chance that English speaking personnel are not available, but that is the exception more than the rule, particularly in large cities or resorts.
Street signs are sometimes in Japanese and English, but only in large cities. The streets of Japanese cities are clean compared to U. S. cities, but there are very few garbage cans. If you have some trash, you may have to keep it and dispose of it yourself in your hotel room, or find an appropriate recycle bin. There is no apparent security or police presence. Even so, the streets are very secure. For example, Starbucks coffee bars are very common in Tokyo and other large cities. A common joke is that you give directions in Japan based on the number of Starbucks you pass; directions to a restaurant may be stated: “if you wish to go to such-and-such restaurant, go up this street past 3 Starbucks…..” What astonished us was when one of our colleagues set his laptop computer outside on a table, went inside to place his order, and then returned knowing the laptop would still be there. In Japan, even the big cities, there is little crime on the streets.
Taxis are small, so if you have a large amount of luggage you may share one of your seats with a suitcase. Most taxi drivers do not speak English so plan ahead and download a map of where you want to go in Japanese and English, have a business card of your destination with the address in Japanese, or have a concierge or doorman (if you are in an upscale hotel) translate for you. Otherwise, you may have a problem telling your taxi driver your destination. Taxis are very high tech with self-opening doors (you are requested to never open the doors yourself). One of the better services you will find in Japanese taxis is credit card machines and printers where you can charge your ride and sign a receipt. The taxi drivers are mostly very friendly and helpful with the luggage. You are also requested to put on your seat belt.
Not all Japanese restaurants have English menus, but some do. Those that are in airports or large train stations are likely to have English menus and it is best to ask for one when entering or look for ads outside that show whether or not an English menu is available. If not, many restaurants have menus posted outside with pictures of servings. That is the good news; the bad news is that you can’t always identify the menu item. Some Japanese restaurants specialize in organ food (liver, tongue, heart) and fish; but they also serve a lot of chicken and beef in addition to vegetables, rice, and noodles. Be courageous and try some of the local cuisine.
Most major tourist attractions are bilingual with English information and translations. For museums and castles, you will find signs and pamphlets at the entrances in various languages; some attractions offer English speaking guides for a nominal fee.
The numerous upscale shopping districts carry Japanese and western products and are usually identified in Japanese and English. Many big city shops have English speaking employees and some larger stores even have English guides; personal and written. When purchasing any product, expect to place your money or credit card in a tray. Change and receipts are returned in a tray, as well.
Getting back to Narita
Getting back to Narita airport is easy. If you have an airport limousine pickup from your hotel, then by all means take that. Otherwise, take a taxi to the TCAT (see above) and then a bus from TCAT to the airport. Any person at the counter will likely know enough English to help. Again, avoid taking taxis to the Narita airport from Tokyo as it may cost you well over $200.
The Japanese people are mostly very friendly. Bowing is common but you will also have handshakes when they know you are American. We had one instance when my wife was at the subway station trying to decipher the maps. A Japanese lady came up and said, “I help”. The lady then made sure my wife got on the right car and told her how many stops before her destination. The lady missed her train (she would catch a later one), but stayed with my wife until she got on board.
The Japanese are most accommodating for tourists. You will find that building and city appearances are the same as in western large cities; the only difference is that signs are in Japanese but in many cases are in English, as well. So don’t be afraid; a little preparation and planning for a tourist trip to Japan goes a long way to making your visit to this fascinating country well worth the effort.