The English language is not commonly spoken in Japan, but surviving Japan without Japanese is possible. Here are 10 tips to make the most of your time in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Tyson Peveto is an American travel writer living abroad since 2017. After three years in Bangkok, he currently lives in Germany with his wife and dog.
Japan is one of the most incredible countries to visit in the world. From ancient history and architecture to the impressively advanced modern society, there’s a little something for every visitor. That said, the biggest fear for some English-speaking visitors is surviving Japan without Japanese. The language barrier should not be a hindrance to you ticking the Land of the Rising Sun off your bucket list!
Around 90% of the country are native Japanese speakers and outside of touristy locations, those who speak English might be few and far between. Surviving Japan without Japanese is possible though. With our tips below and an adventurous spirit, you can experience and enjoy everything Japan has to offer!
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Luckily, navigating around Japan can be easy with a bit of preparation. The interconnected rail systems guarantee that you can get practically anywhere in the country. Signage in most public places and all stations will include either English or Romanized characters of Japanese names so you should be able to always tell what station, street, or location you’re at. Also, most stations will have their announcements repeated in English.
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If you plan on using the rail system to get around Japan, the most important purchase will be a Japan Rail Pass, or JR Pass. There is a one-time fee for the pass and will cover either seven, 14, or 21 days. The JR Pass will give you unlimited entry onto most city-to-city railways, bullet trains, and even some buses and ferry boats. Be aware that you have to purchase the JR Pass before entering the country.
If your time in Japan will be spent in one specific region, there are regional versions of the JR Pass. These might be a more affordable option if you’re not crossing all of Japan while visiting. The regional JR Passes can be reserved online before arriving or at any major JR station in the region you’re interested in. For reservations and more information about all the options, the Japan Rail Pass website has English and everything else you need to know.
For those spending a few days in Tokyo, purchasing a Suica card is a must. This rechargeable card can be purchased at any major JR East station, either at the ticket office or the Multifunction Ticket Vending Machines. The Suica card can be used on all JR East lines, as well as subways and buses around the Tokyo/Kanto area. It cannot be used on high-speed bullet trains or long-distance buses.
After figuring out which subway/train you need to be on, just tap the card onto the reader and it will automatically deduct the amount of the ride once you get off at your destination station. Doing this can save you money and will save time since you’re not purchasing single-ride tickets every trip. The Suica card can also be used at many vending machines and convenience stores. Just look for the logo when checking out.
In today’s digital world, staying connected to the internet is one of the most helpful tools for surviving Japan without Japanese. For directions, help with the language, choosing and finding restaurants, and even knowing what you’re ordering, having data on your phone and certain apps is practically a necessity.
The first decision is knowing how you are going to stay connected. Most cell phone plans have options for international travel but they are usually inhibitingly expensive. For those with unlocked phones, you can purchase a tourist SIM Card when arriving in Japan. Compared to the rest of Asia, Japan’s tourist SIMs are fairly expensive.
They also have a bit more set-up than the usual process. You can purchase a SIM card at certain kiosks around the airport but if you arrive at an odd time, they might not be open. Once in the city, SIM cards are sold at BIC Camera stores and Yodobashi Camera.
A cheaper option that can also cover multiple devices is a pocket wifi. These devices usually have unlimited data and can cover up to 10 devices, depending on which one you choose. Just throw one in your bag or backpack and you’ll always be connected to the internet. There are numerous options for pocket wifis and most offer pick-up and drop-off at airport kiosks.
Japan Rail offers one that starts at $52 for 5 days and you can either pick it up at the airport or have it delivered to your hotel (or anywhere else you’re staying). A slightly cheaper option from Ninja Wifi charges per day but only covers five devices and has a delivery fee if you’re not picking it up at an airport/Shinjuku kiosk.
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Now that you have data as you travel around Japan, there are a few apps we recommend to make your daily interactions as easy as possible:
Whether you’re walking around a city or trying to navigate the subway system, Google Maps can help make sure you know where you’re going. This app will give you directions for walking, driving, or using public transit options. For public transit, it will show you the name of your train, the line you’re using, the stations between your stops, and even the price.
Note that the price is only reflective of single-ride tickets so if you have one of the above-mentioned passes, this information is irrelevant. The other benefit of using Google Maps instead of the local navigation apps is the additional information included: nearby restaurants, bars, cafes, parks, and other tourist destinations.
Using a translation app can be helpful in many situations, from verifying what you might be eating to asking for certain things. Google Translate has a very helpful camera feature where you can point the phone towards what you are trying to read and it will translate in real-time.
This will be beneficial with menus, signs, and anything else you might need to read. You can also put in English words and phrases into the app and it will give you the translation, written in Japanese script and with Roman letters for you to know how to pronounce it. The app will also say the word/phrase so you can hear how it should sound.
While you’re exploring a city, you will of course be ready to eat at some point. You want to find the best restaurants to truly experience Japanese cuisine. Instead of just choosing a restaurant at random, you can download a restaurant-finder app like GuruNavi to help find one. With this app, you can narrow it down by cuisine. Some examples on the app are:
There are also other features you can filter through that might be very helpful for you:
Speaking of cuisine, you might be visiting Japan just for the fresh and delicious sushi. If you want to be sure of what you’re ordering, the Sushi Dictionary app might be perfect for you. The app will show translations of any sushi option you come across so you can understand the whole menu and order exactly what you want. For each dish, you’ll have the English translation, the Romanized spelling of the Japanese, and the Japanese word in both kanji and kana scripts.
In addition to the above apps, there are a few other tips to help you navigate the overwhelming world of Japanese cuisine and restaurants. The first thing is to make sure you have enough cash on you. For how modern Japan is, the economy is still very cash-driven. Prices will be shown to you on a cash register or bill so don’t worry about needing to know the numbers in Japanese.
Also, many restaurants (especially in smaller cities that expect tourists) have plastic examples of the dishes they offer. You can easily point to what you want and the server will be more than happy to make sure you get your food. If the language barrier still worries you, there are two options unique to Japan.
These restaurants serve sushi and other small dishes on a train or conveyor belt that goes around the restaurant. Just sit down where you want and start grabbing plates off the belt as they pass. This is a fun experience where you can see all the offerings as they go by and order as much as you want of whatever dish.
These restaurants are usually inexpensive, just costing a few dollars per plate. They will charge you by the plate at the end of the meal. Some will have different colors for different prices, other restaurants will have the same price for all plates. Either way, when you’re done, the server will count the plates and send you to the cashier with a bill.
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Many mid-size casual restaurants and ramen shops have ticketing machines as soon as you walk in. This is for you to order and pay for your meal. Be prepared that some of these machines will only have Japanese on them but with menus full of photography, it’s still very doable. Just scan through the menu, select the items you want, slip in the cash for payment, and get your ticket.
You’ll then select a seat and hand your ticket to the waiter. They’ll quickly bring your order and once done eating, all you have to do is leave. No language struggles, no pointing and waving necessary. If you do want to make sure the ticket machines have an English option, there are two popular chains with this feature: Matsuya and Yoshinoya.
With how accommodating Japanese people are and the above tips, you should be able to have a successful adventure surviving Japan without Japanese. But no matter the country or the people’s language ability, it is always respectful and helpful to attempt their language. Knowing just a few Japanese phrases off the top of your head will show that you’re trying and those dealing with you will be very appreciative and maybe even more helpful because of it. Here are a few of the most beneficial phrases to memorize:
You have your flights booked and itinerary planned. You’ve reserved a pocket wifi and have downloaded all the necessary apps. A few Japanese phrases have been memorized and your JR Pass is purchased. Now you won’t just be getting around Japan without knowing Japanese but thriving as a respectful and prepared tourist, ready for any adventure that Japan has to offer.