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13 phrases you need to know before traveling to Japan

13 phrases you need to know before traveling to Japan

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Traveling to Japan can be daunting if you don’t know any Japanese. I get it! Language can be a huge barrier, especially if you’ve never been to a country where English wasn’t the predominant language. But not to worry, I’ve put together a guide to phrases you need to know before you travel to Japan, including tips on how to use them. Learning a few words (while not necessary) will make a world of difference to your experience.

Side note: If you’re traveling to Japan soon, make sure to download my survival phrase guide. Print it out or download a copy to your phone to refer to while traveling! Get your free copy by clicking on the image below (you know you want to!)

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So here goes… Here are 13 must-know Japanese phrases for travel:

1. Hello = Konnichiwa こんにちは

You probably already know how to say “hello” in Japanese, but in case you don’t, this is one of the easiest words you can learn before you travel to Japan!

You can use “Konnichiwa” when you’re saying hello or greeting people. Konnichiwa is technically only used during the day, as there are other phrases for good morning and good evening:

Good morning = Ohayou Gozaimasu おはようございます
Good evening = Konbanwa こんばんは

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2. Thank you = Arigatou Gozaimasu ありがとうございます

If you want to thank someone, like your waiter/waitress at a restaurant or a friendly shop assistant, you can use “Arigatou Gozaimasu.”
Arigatou Gozaimasu was my most used phrase when I was in Japan, and as people in the service industry are SO polite, you can’t help but want to use it all the time!

There are many other ways (other than Arigatou Gozaimasu ありがとうございます ) to express your gratitude . Some variations are:

Thank you

Doumo Arigatou
Thanks a lot

Arigatou Gozaimasu
Thank you (This is more polite than Arigatou)

Doumo Arigatou Gozaimasu
Thank you very much


Getting a little confused with all the different forms of “thank you”? Don’t worry! Learning the phrase “Arigatou Gozaimasu” covers most, if not all situations!

3. Excuse me = Sumimasen すみません

If you want to get someone’s attention, Sumimasen is the right phrase for you! Whether you’re at a sushi bar and want to order or you are asking a stranger for directions, just say “Sumimasen.”

Sumimasen isn’t only just for getting someone’s attention though. You can also use it to apologize. For example, if you bump into someone in the middle of Shibuya crossing, you can say “Sumimasen.” It has the same meaning as when British people say “Excuse me” after bumping into someone.

4. I’m sorry = Gomen Nasai ごめんなさい

You can use “Sumimasen” (see number 3 above) in most situations, especially when you accidentally bump into someone! But if you REALLY want to apologize for something, you can say “Gomen Nasai.” Maybe you spilled your coffee on someone, or rolled your heavy suitcase over someone’s toe? You can say “Gomen Nasai” repeatedly while bowing.

Japanese phrases for travel

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5. I don’t understand = Wakarimasen わかりません

When you’re traveling in Japan, there will undoubtedly be a moment when you are confused or don’t understand what someone is telling you. If you want to tell them you don’t understand what they’re saying, you can say “Wakarimasen.”

6. I don’t understand Japanese = Nihongo ga Wakarimasen 日本語がわかりません

Alternatively, if you want to communicate that you don’t understand Japanese, you should say “Nihongo ga Wakarimasen” which means “I don’t understand Japanese.”

7. Excuse me, do you speak English? = Sumimasen, Ei-go Wakarimasu ka? すみません、英語分かりますか?

When you want to ask someone for directions in English, but you’re not sure if they speak English, you can say “Sumimasen, Ei-go Wakarimasu ka?” which means “excuse me, do you speak English?”

A word of warning when using this phrase: I found that many people would say “no” or tell me that they spoke very little English. The truth is, many Japanse people learn English, but not everyone feels comfortable speaking it! Most Japanese people have very few opportunities to practice their English, especially if they don’t interact with foreigners often. So if you get a similar response, don’t be put off. Use simple phrases, and don’t speak too quickly! You’ll soon find out whether the person you’re speaking to is being modest when they tell you that they only speak a little English.

8. Yes / I understand = Hai はい or No = Iie いいえ

If someone is asking you a question, and you want to respond yes, “hai” is the right response. If you want to say no, you can respond with “iie.”

“Hai” can also mean “I understand.” If someone is explaining something to you, and you want to say “I understand” you can respond with “hai.” Read on to number 9 below for another option for saying “I understand” which is more commonly used in Japan.

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9. I see, or I understand = Sou desu ne そうですね

This phrase is my husband’s favorite phrase, and he’s even adopted it into his everyday life (yes even, when speaking English!)

If someone is explaining something to you, you can say “sou desu ne.” Or if you are speaking to someone and you want to say “ahh yes” or “I see” you can say “Sou desu ne” or more commonly in Japan, “Sou Sou Sou” which you may overhear some Japanese people saying when they are conversing with a friend!

10. Smoking or Non-Smoking? = Kitsuen desu ka 喫煙ですか or Kinen desu ka 禁煙ですか

Some restaurants in Japan have separate sections for smoking and non-smoking. You may get asked when you enter a restaurant which you prefer. Just respond “Kinen desu” for non-smoking or “Kitsuen desu” for smoking.

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11. Welcome = Irasshaimase いらっしゃいませ or Irasshai いらっしゃい

When you enter restaurants in Japan, you may notice you’re greeted with a voice or a chorus of voices saying “Irasshaimase.” This means welcome in Japanese!

If you like this blog post, make sure to download our FREE Japanese survival phrase guide. You can print it out or download a copy to your phone to bring it with you. Just hit the image below to get your free copy:

Click here to download

12. How much is it? = Ikura desu ka? いくらですか?

When you’re shopping in Japan, you might want to ask how much something costs. You can say “Ikura desu ka?” which means “how much is it?” or if you want to point at something and ask how much is something you can say “Sore wa ikura desu ka?” which means “how much is that?”

If you’re holding something and you want to ask how much it is, you can say “Kore wa ikura desu ka?” which means “how much is this?”

13. Where is ______? = ______ wa doko desu ka? _______ はどこですか?

If you’re lost, or you want to ask where something is, you can use this phrase. Just say the word or name of the place you want to find before you say the rest of the phrase.

Some useful places:
Police station = Kouban 交番
Convenience store =Konbini コンビニ
Hotel = Hoteru ホテル
Bathroom / toilet = Toireトイレ

For example, if I want to know where the toilet is, I would say “Toire wa doko desu ka?” Where “Toire” is “toilet.”

Japanese phrases for travel

So there you have it – some basic Japanese phrases for travel! Have you been to Japan before? I’d love to know which phrases you used the most when traveling in Japan! Leave me a comment and let me know below!

Worried about the language barrier on your upcoming vacation to Japan?

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  1. February 23, 2018 / 7:57 pm

    This is so helpful! I actually grew up speaking Japanese so I can definitely converse in Japan, but i often have friends ask me to teach them some basic phrases for when they go. I will definitely refer them to this handy post!

    • Mae-Gene
      February 25, 2018 / 4:24 am

      Hi Caroline, I’m so glad you think this would be useful! Being able to speak Japanese must be so helpful when you visit Japan 🙂

  2. February 23, 2018 / 8:03 pm

    What a great post MG!! I live in Japan and can tell ya these are definitely must know phrases when traveling here!! Sometimes it seems crazy to me how little English Japanese people speak. But it’s definitely fun to be able to practice the little Japanese I speak, lol!

    – Laura

    • Mae-Gene
      February 25, 2018 / 4:26 am

      Hi Laura, I’m so glad you like the post! And yes, I 100% agree – English isn’t widely spoken in Japan, so it’s always helpful to learn a couple of phrases. I’m so glad to hear you’re having fun practicing a bit of Japanese!!

  3. February 23, 2018 / 8:29 pm

    Yes! Haha definitely very useful phrases. Two other I would say are “daijoubu desu” (it’s ok) and “dame desu” (it’s not ok) I probably use the first one on the daily!

    • Mae-Gene
      February 25, 2018 / 4:28 am

      Hi Viola!

      Oh my gosh thank you for these suggestions – I will have to update the post to include them! I’m a huge fan of “sumimasen” and “arigatou gozaimasu”.. They’re my most used phrases whenever I’m in Japan!

  4. February 23, 2018 / 11:46 pm

    This is super helpful! I love to know a bit of the local lingo but struggled so hard to pronounce words correctly in Japan. Shall bookmark this post in case I get the chance to go back again.

    • Mae-Gene
      February 25, 2018 / 4:29 am

      Hi Jayne, I’m so glad to hear you’re bookmarking this for your next visit. Japanese can be difficult to learn, but with a bit of practice, I’m sure you’ll be able to use some phrases during your travels!

  5. February 24, 2018 / 6:16 pm

    Such a handy list of phrases!

    • Mae-Gene
      February 25, 2018 / 4:30 am

      Thank you, Sandy! I’m glad you find this useful!

  6. March 3, 2018 / 8:49 pm

    Super helpful, thank you! Off to Japan in a couple of months for the second time. I remember some of these phrases from the first trip back in 2009 but these are sinking in a bit more now as I have basic Korean and the structure is pretty similar. Great post! Kim

    • Mae-Gene
      March 11, 2018 / 6:43 pm

      I’m so glad to hear that you found this post useful, Kim! Hope you have a wonderful trip to Japan!

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