Travelling to a foreign country like Japan is always exhilarating. But underneath that excitement, there lies that nagging anxiety – Will I overcome the language barrier? Will I be able to adjust to the culture differences? Will I be able to get around?
All these thoughts and more swam around my head as I embarked on my first trip to Japan. I was worried about how I’d survive, considering I didn’t know much more then Ohayo Gozaimasu and Arigato. But by simply reframing my thinking, I was able to ease myself into a new culture. And with this guide from my experience you will too.
What was it about Japan that was absolutely foreign? What was it about Japan that was somewhat familiar? Out of the familiarities, I could extract ways to navigate initially intimidating situations. And out of the foreignness, I could appreciate the new culture I was experiencing.
LANGUAGE IN JAPAN
Top tip: Japan is upping their English game, which will make things easier for you
Before my travels, I heard anecdotes from friends who traveled to Japan, warning that there would be little to no English. However, I should have double checked when these friends last traveled. I was shocked at the level of English that I encountered, as it was a lot more then I expected. Now I’m not saying you should travel to another country and expect everyone to be fluent in English, but there have been efforts to increase the amount of English signage in Japan, and English proficiency due to the upcoming 2020 Olympics.
All the major trains (subway, above ground, bullet train etc) have signs posted in multiple languages. All the announcements made on trains are made in Japanese followed by English, which makes things much easier to navigate. Even some of the street signs are multi-lingual so that foreigners are aware of some of the social etiquette.
For the most part, I noticed a lot of the major service employees (ie: at museums) had great English. If they’re used to a large number of tourists coming through their establishment, chances are, they know and will automatically speak to you in English. It’s a relief for those with fears about the language barriers, but I couldn’t help but feel like a useless anglophile in comparison.
Top tip: Google Translate sucks, try and learn some phrases instead. If that scares you, you can order a pocket translator to communicate with locals
Despite what I said above, there were still a lot of restaurants, convenience stores, grocery stores and other local places where locals don’t know English. They will speak to you almost exclusively in Japanese. Some restaurants will have signs posted saying that they do not have English menus or that the staff speak Japanese only. But not all establishments will forewarn you.
So what should you do in these cases?
Honestly, my best advice would be take the time to learn a few key phrases. Even if they respond to you in fluent Japanese, you can pretty much gather from context what’s about to happen next. Between your broken Japanese and their broken English you’ll fare just fine.
Some of the phrases I was able to pick up while there pretty much carried me the entire trip:
Watashitachi wa futari desu (we are two people – said when you first enter a restaurant. I suggest you learn the counting system for number of things– such as # of people or # of dishes you want to order– as well as the regular counting system. They’re two different systems and both will be useful)
Kore to….kore… onegai shimasu (this and this please – said when ordering)
Sumimasen, ikura desu ka? (excuse me, how much is it? – Again, learn the basic counting system so you can understand the answer)
And my personal favorite….
Visa daijoubu desu ka? (is Visa ok? – this one was super handy because a majority of food establishments are cash only!)
I did not try Google Translate as a way to speak to people. Mostly because I found myself sorely disappointed with Google’s ability to function when translating written word. Seriously. Don’t even bother to use Google translate’s camera function. The problem with it is that it lacks the ability to read the context of the situation. So of course, when it encounters a character that has multiple meanings, it simply cycles between all the different options, which makes it look like it’s seizing.
For example: take this character commonly seen around parking lots: 空 The character is sora, which means “sky”, but as this character can have multiple meanings depending on the context, “sky” isn’t exactly the translation you want to see off Google Translate. No Google, we are at a parking lot, it doesn’t mean “sky”, it means “space”, as in this parking lot has open spots.
So unless you want to see Google Translate drunkenly cycle through numerous translations, save yourself the trouble.
Instead, you may want to try and order a little translator stick. They provide two way translations that help you communicate with locals. I didn’t try this, so unfortunately I can’t provide a review for it, but you can typically order it along with your pocket wifi prior to arriving in Japan.
TRANSPORT IN JAPAN
Top tip: If you’re European you’ll feel most at home
While your very first step into a train station feels absolutely overwhelming, if you are familiar with most European train stations, you can intuitively make your way around the Japanese metro or above ground train system.
The pay stations have an international language option and offers multiple languages (we didn’t count but so you know it’s way more then just English and Japanese). It can be confusing at first as it shows you an option to purchase your ticket based off the cost of the distance. But if you find the option to purchase based off your final station name, everything feels familiar all over again.
The gates remind me of the types you find in the London tube (insert your ticket or tap your pass card to enter and to exit). The stations are set up like pretty much every train station around the globe. Even though the language may be very unfamiliar, as long as you match the characters on your ticket to the destination on your platform, you’re golden.
And if you’re driving? They’re all left hand drivers like in the UK, something that will come to a relief to those of you who come from left hand driving countries. If you’re from a right hand driving country, I suggest you take the train.
They’re cooler anyway. And Tokyo has great unlimited ticket options (ie: 72 hours unlimited Tokyo Metro rides for roughly $15). You can check out some of their value tickets here.
Top tip: You’re going to wish your train station ran like a Japanese one
The train stations have the ground marked with train car numbers and symbols.
At first, I was baffled, till my partner was able to suss out the meaning. Since the cars are automated, they stop in the same spot every time. (I don’t know about y’all, but if this was the case in Toronto why don’t we mark up our grounds? Is this because our trains don’t actually stop in the same spot? My mind is blown right now).
Since the trains stop in the same spot, they mark where the car will be on a 7 car train versus and 8 car train. They mark which parts of the train cars are for priority seats only, or which cars are women only during rush hour. So if you look up at the digital board, you get information on how many cars are on the next train (7 or 8). A shape symbol that you can line up with the markings on the ground, so that you match up in the exact spot that lines up to the open doors of the train.
Once you realize this, you finally understand why people are giving you weird looks when you’re standing in an empty line. You are standing in the wrong spot!
FOOD IN JAPAN
Top tip: Branch outside your comfort zone!
I could tell you how all your favorites are obviously going to be available but better then you’ve had before…But there’s so much more to food options then just sushi and ramen!
Top tip: It’s possible to get one filling meal for $5-$10!
So you know: Most food places accept cash only. So stock up on your cash! It’ll be difficult to find places that accept visa. Those that do tend to be fast food chains, or areas aimed at tourists. But if you want to eat like a local, you gotta carry cash like a local.
If you’re strapped for cash or eating on a budget, there are many options that will allow you to get a filling meal for the $5-$10 range that aren’t just fast food burgers. The holy grail for this are the Konbini aka convenience store. Bonus- Konbinis accept visa! They offer hot and cold meals for cheap, and they will even offer to heat up some of the meals for you so that it’s hot for your consumption. We saw a wide selection- think onigiri, sushi, donburi (meat dishes on rice), spaghetti dishes etc. for super low prices.
Outside of the konbini, there are Japanese fast food chains (ie: Tendon Tenya, known for Tempura dishes or Yoshinoya known for Japanese set dishes) that will also offer filling meals for $5-$10 range. (Note that they all refer to their combos as “sets” so when you order, don’t ask for a combo, ask for the set).
If you’re lucky and you hunt around enough, you can also find little hidden gems and cafes that offer homemade meals for cheap. While we stayed in Taito (in Tokyo), we found a cute café that offered delicious western set breakfast for $5 and a delicious Japanese set breakfast for $5, that was a filling breakfast for two for $10!
Unless you’re actively seeking out a curated meal event (ie: sushi omakase), even some of the more touristy food areas (ie: food courts or near tourist areas) have reasonably priced meals. This particular place, offered this $12 dish that was heaping, and came with self serve soup and rice.
And even the shinkansen station at Osaka had a food court, with a delicious omurice for roughly $10
I’m not sure who said Tokyo was an expensive city. Considering the wide array of delicious cheap meals that are available, it is not too difficult to manage your budget.
Try it yourself. The next time you find yourself on the verge of culture shock as you travel, think about the things that feel familiar. That can help you figure your way through new situations. And the foreign differences can be an exciting change. After all change in scenery is one of the main reasons for travel!