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I always get asked about how hard it is to travel in Japan as an English speaker.
Without fail, I constantly hear “but how do you get around?” or “I’d love to go to travel to Japan, but I don’t know any Japanese!”
While most Japanese people speak Japanese in their everyday lives, many learn English as a second language or understand a bit of English. As flights from Australia to Japan have reduced in price over the last couple of years, I’ve had a couple of friends visit who don’t know any Japanese. And while learning some key phrases can enhance your experience, you can get away knowing zero Japanese!
Personally, I don’t speak much Japanese, and I only picked up my current language skills during my recent 2-month trip. Before this, the most I could say was “Arigatou Gozaimasu” which means “thank you very much.” My ability to get around Japan solo with my limited Japanese skills is a testament to how accessible Japan is English speaking travelers.
To help those who are planning on visiting, I’ve put together a couple of travel tips for English speakers, after all, having visited so many times with minimal language skills, I’ve picked up a couple of things!
1. Staff at the train station, your hotel or tourist information centers will speak some English
If you need to ask for directions or are not sure where you’re heading, the staff at train stations, hotels or tourist information centers are your best bet. These are the people who are likely to be multilingual or practice their English language skills on a daily basis. I’ve even visited a hotel where I wasn’t a guest to ask for directions on where the bus stop was. The staff there was more than happy to help me (and honestly, who could say no to helping a lost person??)
Out of politeness, I always asked if they spoke English first. This is a personal preference, most of the time you can be sure if they deal with visitors on a daily basis they will know some English. Make sure to speak slowly and don’t be afraid to write things down. How many of us have studied a second language in school, only to have our written or reading skills to be stronger than our listening or spoken skills? Another thing to remember is that sometimes, the way you pronounce words or names can be different. Writing things down can help you communicate what you’re looking for.
Floating torii gate on Miyajima Island, Japan
2. Before you ask for directions at the train station, check the signs first
Many of the major train stations in Japan have an illuminated board, displaying a map of the train station and surrounds, with a list of nearby destinations. You will find most if not all nearby locations on this list – I’ve found museums, bus terminals, shopping centers, parks and hotels listed on this map. The lists are very comprehensive and chances are the place you’re headed to is on here! If there’s no one around to ask for help, or if you haven’t had much luck with the station staff, this map is a life saver!
3. Not all bus drivers speak English
Most of the bus drivers I came across in Japan didn’t know much English. In some of the super touristy areas, you might strike it lucky, but most of the time, local bus drivers don’t speak much English. There is a silver lining to this – most of the major bus routes (that is the local buses that you take to tourist destinations) have English announcements. For major tourist destinations, there will be an announcement on where to disembark. Listen for these announcements, or ask your fellow passengers for help and advice.
View of Tokyo (Check out my budget traveler’s guide to Tokyo!)
4. Download Google Translate + buy a SIM card or rent a wireless router
If you are worried about being able to read signs or menus, I would highly recommend that you download the Google Translate app. This will allow you to take photos of signs and translate them to English or your native language. You do need the internet for this to work, so you can either connect to free wifi (widely available in major cities) or buy a SIM card.
For me, this was a major lifesaver. When shopping it helped me read ingredient lists (there’s nothing more awkward than accidentally buying your vegetarian aunt packaged food with shrimp paste in it). Google Translate also came in use in some of the restaurants in Hokkaido where they didn’t have English menus.
5. Most (if not all) touch-screen machines have an English option
If you’re buying train tickets or buying food at a restaurant from a touch screen, there will be an option to translate the menu in English. I am yet to find touch screen menu that didn’t have an English option!
When you’re buying train tickets, you don’t even need to speak to a person – the English menus on these machines are easy enough to navigate. This is similar to restaurants and is a great way to try new food. When you order form these machines in restaurants, you pay with cash (they very rarely accept credit card) and you will receive your change and a little ticket. Just hand your ticket to the waiter or waitress when you enter and you’re all set!
6. Learn a couple of basic phrases
While we’re not all multi-lingual masters (and I am particularly bad with learning languages), it does help to know a couple of phrases. The further you travel from major cities, the less likely you will be to find English speakers. Don’t let this deter you, however, you have to travel pretty far out and far from tourist spots to have this happen!
Some useful phrases are:
Thank you = Arigatou Gozaimasu
I don’t understand = Wakarimasen
Excuse me, do you speak English? = Sumimasen, Ee-go wakarimasu ka?
Yes = Hai
No = iie
Toilet = Toire
If you want to learn more phrases before you head to Japan, I’ve put together a guide to all the phrases you need to know before you visit Japan!
I’ve also created a survival phrase guide that you can download and print to take with you. While this guide doesn’t have all the phrases (you might need a dictionary if you want that!) what it does have is the most useful ones that you will need when in Japan.
Click the image below to download:
You definitely shouldn’t be afraid of trying these phrases out. Most people are just excited to hear others make such an effort to learn their language! I am yet to have anyone laugh at my extremely poor language skills. The effort to speak some Japanese is appreciated, even if you have to revert to English for everything else!
Japan is an incredibly fun country to visit, and you definitely shouldn’t be put off by the language barrier. It is incredibly easy to get around, even if you know zero Japanese (take it from someone who has done it – multiple times!)
If you know who to ask for help (like the friendly station staff, hotel receptionists or tourist information staff), you will have no problems. Also, make sure to remember to download Google Translate and you’ll be prepared for any situation!
Are you planning a trip to Japan? What’s been your biggest challenge when planning your trip?
Or have you already been to Japan? Did you have any language problems?
Leave me a comment and let me know!
Love this! It’s so true, it’s not as hard as people think it will be. Although the further away from major cities you travel the less likely English is spoken or understood so it’s good to be able to read a little Japanese at least. I went for 2 weeks a few years back: had zero language troubles and the absolute BEST time! Thanks for sharing your advice 🙂
Alyse, I’m so glad to hear you had an amazing time in Japan! It’s daunting at first, especially if you’ve never heard spoken Japanese before, but can definitely be done! And that’s a really good point about English not being very common the further out you go. I found that I only had problems when I was very far away from major cities (basically areas that weren’t served by JR trains). This may be more of a recent phenomenon though!
Looks amazing! Thanks for sharing.
Thank you for commenting Yana!
I hadn’t even thought of touch screens in restaurants. Great to know too that stations have such useful information. A trip to Japan is definitely on my bucket list, and thanks for sharing this really helpful info for first timers like me.
Bernadette, I hope you get a chance to visit Japan! It’s such a fun country to visit and is super easy to get around if you don’t speak Japanese. I’m glad you found the info useful!
A wireless router is always a good idea especially when you need Google Maps. I just returned from Tokyo and I agree that learning a few phrases really is useful! This article is great cuz we can definitely use this in other countries too!
Hi Amanda, I’m so glad you found this useful! You make such a good point – navigating countries that don’t speak your language involves really similar advice. I hope you had an amazing time in Tokyo!
Japan seems like a lovely country. Not knowing the local language never stopped me from travelling to certain countries. You have some great tips in this article for those who have their doubts.
Hi Eniko, I would highly recommend a trip to Japan if you ever get a chance. I’ve loved every trip I’ve had there. I’m glad you enjoyed my tips, I try not to stop the language barrier from deciding on where to travel to next!
My friend’s Uncle married a Japanese lady and settled in Japan. The children speak fluent Japanese even with the dad 😀 while language is not an exact barrier, it is always a good practice to be aware of what is prevalent in the land. Great post you got there lady 😉
That’s amazing to hear that your friend’s cousins are fluent in Japanese! I definitely wish I had taken my language classes when I was in school more seriously. Thank you for reading, I’m glad you liked it!
Thanks for the very useful tips and hints, I am going in early Jan 2020 for two weeks, principally from Tokyo to Nagasaki with some multi day stops on the way. Just doing the Japan Rail Pass exercise as to best Aus provider etc, do you hold a position on this aspect of travelling in Japan
Thanks again for a great resource
It sounds like you’ve got a great trip planned! I’m a bit confused as to your question – are you asking whether this is a good way to travel Japan, or are you after suggestions on the best place to purchase the JR pass in Australia?
If the former, yes – I highly recommend traveling via JR pass! It can sometimes be cheaper to purchase your tickets separately (not using the JR pass) but this is highly dependent upon your itinerary. It sounds like you’ll be doing quite a number of stops so without knowing your exact itinerary, it sounds like it would be a worthy investment.
As for the best place to purchase from Australia, unfortunately, it’s been a number of years since I’ve purchased a JR pass from here (the last time I was in Japan for so long, I wasn’t able to use one!) My tips would be: make sure you’re purchasing from a valid JR pass reseller, and when you get your pass double-check that all details on the pass are correct (e.g. your name on the pass should exactly match that on your passport).
I hope this helps and hope you have a wonderful time! Let me know if you have any other questions 🙂