If I were to ask you right now to name your biggest fear about going to Japan, what would it be?
Did you pick one?
Okay, let me guess... Is it the language barrier? Because that was mine.
This fear is completely understandable. I mean, you're traveling across the world, you can't speak the language, you can't read the signs, you can't ask for directions if you get lost. So how do people do it? They must have a basic understanding of Japanese, right? Wrong.
In fact, all of these assumptions are wrong and in this article I'm going to give you some helpful tips on how to explore the most beautiful country in the world with only English.
** Just a disclaimer before I go forward: I am in no way saying that you shouldn't try to learn a little bit of the language before you visit a country. After all, you're visiting their country, so it seems entitled to expect them to learn your language. I am a huge believer in respecting the people and culture of any country I travel to. I never just go to a country expecting them to treat me special or to go out of their way to make things easier for me. When reading this article, please keep in mind that the country you are visiting is home to millions of people and to always treat them with respect, we don't want them to be intimidated by us either.
Google Maps is a lifesaver. Period. I could not have gone on any of my trips to Japan without Google Maps on my phone. I can't overstate this enough, Google Maps will tell you what trains to get on, what time they depart, how much it will cost and sometimes even what platform to use.
There were very few times in Japan when Google Maps couldn't bring me directly to my destination with ease. And the few times that I got lost were simply because I was on the wrong side of a building or because I temporarily lost my phone connection.
It is true that constantly using your GPS will drain your phone battery, but that's why it's crucial to bring a portable phone charger with you at all times. I never left my hotel without my favorite portable charger that can also be solar-powered that I bought on Amazon about three years back. It was about $40 and it's still going strong today! #notsponsored
Another common issue is not being able to use your phone in a foreign country. Fortunately, I have a phone plan that allows me to text and use my data in foreign countries. But for those who don't, I suggest renting a pocket wifi or buying a temporary SIM card when you arrive to Japan. These items can usually be purchased at the airport but as I don't have personal experience using either of them, I can't review these products. However, I've heard of many people who do use them, especially the pocket wifi, and absolutely love them.
The first time I went to Japan, I was shocked to see that most of the transportation information was in multiple languages, including English. The train signs, bus stops, taxi instructions etc. were almost all translated in English. Even the overhead announcements in the train stations and on the train were in both languages.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that all transportation signage is in English, but most of it is. You usually find that the smaller, privately-owned companies aren't always translated, but the JR lines (the biggest train company in Japan) will take you most places you need to go anyway.
Getting around by train was my biggest fear before I went to Japan the first time...I literally lost nights of sleep worrying about getting lost or getting on the wrong train. But hopefully I can save some of you some sleep by letting you know how English-friendly the Japanese transportation system really is!
The food in Japan is divine. Japan has some of the top cuisine in the world and if you were to go to the country and not try their specialties, then you'd be missing out big time. But one major fear among foreigners visiting the country is how to order in a restaurant or at food stalls if you don't speak Japanese.
When you enter a Japanese restaurant, most of the time the staff can recognize that you're a foreigner and will politely offer you an English version of their menu. This is not an act of racism or prejudice, but rather an act of consideration. This also goes for other situations such as a server giving you a fork in addition to your chopsticks. Some foreigners take offense to these gestures because they take it as the server assuming that they are incompetent. However, in most cases this is not true. The Japanese culture is based around the consideration of others and English menus and forks are often offered out of politeness.
If they don't offer an English menu to you, don't be afraid to ask for one. You don't even need to memorize any phrases for this, even if you simply point to the menu and ask, "English?" that will be enough to get your point across. Also, one thing that's cool about Japanese food menus is that many of them have pictures of the food next to the item on the menu. So even if they don't have an English menu, you can easily point to the food you want to order.
When you're ready to order, the telepathic-server-summoning technique usually doesn't work in Japan. If you need to summon your server for any reason, simply raise your arm in the air and use the Japanese word for "excuse me," which is sumimasen (pronounced soo-me-muh-sen), and the server will come over.
One thing I need to mention is that Japan tends to be lacking when it comes to food allergies and dietary restrictions. I don't have any allergies myself, but I've heard from people who do and they sometimes have a hard time eating out. That also goes for vegans because veganism is not as popular in Japan as it is overseas and many restaurants don't seem to grasp the idea of what it is to be vegan. Many places or products will claim to be vegan but will use a fish base in their soup stock, or other things like that. This is not done out of disrespect, but out of misunderstanding. So if you do have any kind of food restrictions, just be careful to check into the restaurant online before eating there.
Oh! One more note: Japan is a non-tip society. If you try to leave a tip, even if you think you're being nice, you're likely to just confuse your waiter and they will try to give back your change.
After staying in about 15 Japanese hotels, hostels and ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) over the past 2 years, I can assure you that the check-in and check-out process is a cinch even with just English.
From my experience, most front-desk staff can speak a limited amount of English, and sometimes they're even fluent. Places of accommodation often expect foreigners to stay at their establishment and are well-prepared. Even if they don't have a front-desk employee who can speak English, they often have written instructions for visitors on the front desk.
The staff will always ask for your passport when you check in and will usually have you pay for your stay ahead of time. After you pay, they will give you your room key and usually a paper with their rules, instructions, and wifi password. The experience is not much different from that of hotels in other countries.
Although it is true that you don't need to learn any Japanese to explore the country, it doesn't hurt to learn some key phrases that you will be hearing every day. It's also helpful to learn how to say "thank you", "yes", "no", "excuse me", and my favorite, "where's the bathroom?"
I listed a couple key words below but without being able to hear the word spoken, the spelling can be intimidating. I suggest finding a YouTube video on how to pronounce these words and other important phrases to prepare you before you go to Japan.
Thank you: Arigatou or Arigatogozaimasu
Excuse me: sumimasen
Where's the bathroom?: Toire wa dokodesu ka?
Another phrase you'll hear every time you walk in to a store or restaurant is "irasshaimase!" This simply means "welcome" or is a store greeting. Trust me...you'll hear this one a lot.
I try to use Japanese phrases whenever I'm in Japan to show my respect to the people who live there. Like I mentioned before, it's great that Japan is so English-friendly but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to learn a few words to make communication a bit easier. Also, the Japanese people really appreciate when you try to speak their language and will not laugh at you if you make a mistake. In fact, they will be happy that you even attempted to speak their language in the first place.
I hope this article helped ease some of your language-barrier related anxiety about going to Japan. And with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics coming up, Japan is becoming more English-friendly than ever.
No more excuses.
If I missed anything or if you have any more questions about traveling to Japan without Japanese, please leave them in the comment section below and I will answer it or add it to the post. Thank you for all your support!
If you got to the end of this post, thank you so much for taking the time to visit my page!<3
If any of this information helped you, or if you have advice of your own, feel free to give this post a like, comment, or share!
See you soon!