You are traveling to Japan but you have no grasp of the local language? Worry not! Here are some of the essential phrases and words that you may need to make that travel a little easier and break what most of us call the language barrier.
Tips on speaking Japanese phrases for travelers
Ask for help - most Japanese will often respond
One may be afraid to approach the locals for help, whether for directions or assistance on other things as a foreigner in Japan or in any country. However, there is nothing to be afraid of. All you need to do is to be polite in approaching and speaking to the Japanese and most will respond and oblige in helping you.
If you are not adept at the language, keep a note of phrases for easier communication.
As travelers to a different country, usually, one is not familiar with how to speak the country’s language. Japan has a very intricate language and you may not easily learn their language in just a few days or weeks. However, you can write and keep your own list of phrases to use and communicate with the Japanese people. Make sure that this list is of easy access for you and that it won’t be easily damaged throughout your stay in Japan.
Observe the formal forms when speaking and do not carelessly use casual forms.
In the Japanese language, they use formal forms and casual forms. These are used in different situations, but it is mostly based on the relationship of the speaker to the listener. If the speaker is not familiar or does not have a close relationship with the listener, or if the speaker is of a lower rank in terms of seniority than the listener, it is deemed proper to always use the formal form when speaking to them.
One style of speaking politely in the Japanese language is called Teineigo which literally means “polite language”. This is the style most commonly used by those who have no relationship with the listener or is of a lower rank. Teineigo uses the polite copula (to-be word) “des(u)” and the polite verb suffix “-mas(u)”. It also uses the honorifics of “o” and “go”. You can also look for polite Japanese phrases in advance and take note of them.
Essential phrases when traveling
Phrases during transportation
When one is traveling, he or she utilizes the modes of transportation most of the time to get from one place to another. Below are phrases you can use during transportation through taxis, buses or trains:
“Tickets to _____, please.”
“_____ までの切符をください。” (_____made no kippu o kudasai)
This phrase is most often used at train stations where you can buy train tickets going to a certain place. For example, you would like to go to Tokyo. At the counter, you may ask “Tokyo made no kippu o kudasai.”
“How much is it to ______?”
“______まで大体いくらですか？” (______ made ikura desuka?)
Usually, this phrase is used in taxis or buses. If you are about to board a taxi to Tokyo and you are not sure of the fare, you may ask the driver, “Tokyo made ikura desuka?”
“Which train should I take?”
“どの電車ですか？” (Dono densha desuka?)
You use this phrase when you are at the train station and are confused about which train you would be taking. Just politely approach a friendly Japanese person, show your ticket and ask, “Dono densha desuka?” He or she will then show or point you to which train.
“How many more stations is it to ______?”
“______まであと何駅ですか？” (______made ato nan eki desuka?)
When riding the train, it may take a few or several stops to other train stations to get to where you are supposed to go. If you are not sure or if you want to know how many stations there are to Tokyo for example, you may ask the nearest Japanese person, “Tokyo made ato nan eki desuka?”.
“Stop here, please.”
“とめてください。” (Tomete kudasai)
While riding the taxi, you may say “Tomete kudasai” when you know you have reached your chosen destination.
How to ask for assistance
“Excuse me, is it okay to ask you for a little help?”
“すみません、ちょっといいですか？” (Sumimasen, chotto ii desuka?)
There will be times when you will need help or assistance. If you want help or assistance from a friendly Japanese person, approach him or her and politely say, “Sumimasen, chotto ii desuka?”
How to tell the Taxi to go to specific locations
“I want to go to ______.” - “______に行きたいです。” (______ni ikitai desu) or
“To _______, please.” - “______までお願いします。” (______ made onegaishimasu)
When you are in a taxi and would like to tell the taxi driver where you want to go, Tokyo for example, you can say “Tokyo ni ikitai desu”. Simply replace or fill in the blank the place you want to go to.
How to ask for directions (Malls, landmarks, train stations)
Below are phrases of questions to ask when do not know where the place you are going to is or how you are going to get there:
“Does this go to ______?”
“これ _______に行きますか？” (Kore, _____ ni ikimasuka?)
“How can I get to _____?”
“_______までどうやったら行けますか？” (______ made douyattara ikemasuka?)
“Which way is _______?”
“_______はどっちですか？” (______wa docchi desuka?)
Another way of asking directions is by asking which way is the destination you are going to. Is it straight ahead? To the left? To the right? You should also take note of these Japanese translations to understand the possible responses:
“まっすぐ (massugu)” - straight
“右 (migi)” - right
“左 (hidari)” - left
“Is it possible to walk from here?”
“ここから 歩けますか？” (Koko kara arukemasuka?) or
“Is it possible to walk to _______ from here?”
“ここから _______まで歩けますか？” (Koko kara _______made arukemasuka?)
How to ask for specific places like the toilet
“Where is the ______?”
“_______はどこですか？” (_______ wa doko desuka?)
You can use this when you are asking for specific places such as the toilet. Toilet in Japanese is “toire”. For instance, you want to ask where the toilet is, you ask “Toire wa doko desuka?”
Other useful tips when traveling like who to ask (i.e. Train counter staff)
You can ask the staff at the train station for the appropriate fare to your destination as the fare charts at the ticket vending stations may be difficult to understand.
Make sure to safe-keep your train tickets and avoid losing it. You will be needing it when you exit the station of your destination and station staff may also want to see it.
Give yourself enough time to look for the right train platform every time you are about to alight for the first time or for the next train to your destination.
Prepare in advance the Japanese words you know you might use or encounter during your stays like names of places or Japanese translations for items, places, etc.
Other phrases useful for traveling
Commonly used Japanese phrases such as Yes, No, Hello, etc.
Yes and No - Two of the most commonly used Japanese phrases are the words “yes” and “no”. In Japanese, these are “はい (hai)” and “いいえ (iie)”, respectively.
Hello - “こんにちは (Konnichiwa)” means “hello” and it is the most commonly used greeting throughout the day. You can also use “おはようございます (ohayo gozaimasu)” and “こんばんは (konbanwa)” which means “good morning” and “good evening”, respectively.
Introducing yourself - There is a possibility that you will be making friends in Japan. To properly introduce yourself, you may say, “私の名前は＿＿＿＿です。(Watashi no namae wa _____ desu.)” with your name filling the blank. This means “My name is _____.” You can ask for their name as well by asking, “お名前は何ですか？(O-namae wa nan desuka?)” which means “What is your name?” You can say “はじめまして(Hajimashite)” which is “Nice to meet you” in Japanese before or after exchanging names.
Goodbye - If you would be saying goodbye to someone you won’t be seeing again, you say “さようなら (sayonara)”. You can say “またね (matane)” which means “see you later” to someone you will be seeing again.
Please - One helpful and polite word you should use when asking for help or requesting someone for something is “お願いします (onegaishimasu)” which means “please”.
Excuse me - When you are approaching someone or if you would like to speak to someone, like a waiter or attendant, you say “すみません (sumimasen)”. You can also say this when you accidentally bump into someone.
I’m sorry - If you have done something wrong or impolite, you can say sorry or apologize to them by saying “ごめんなさい (gomennasai)”.
You can do and buy so much at the all. You would be needing some Japanese phrases to help you buy and choose what you want or need to buy correctly.
“Can I try it on?”
“試着できますか？” (Shichaku dekimasuka?)
“いくらですか？” (Ikura desuka?)
“This one, please.”
“これください。” (Kore kudasai)
“Do you take credit cards?”
“カードは使えますか？” (Kado wa tsukaemasuka?)
For more phrases, please check out our article on Shopping.
Japanese Phrases that You Must Know When Shopping
Below are some phrases that may help you converse with Japanese locals in the restaurant:
“What do you recommend?”
“おすすめはなんですか？” (Osusume wa nan desuka?)
“What is this?”
“これは何ですか？” (Kore wa nan desuka?)
If you are not sure or certain as to what something is, you can seek and ask by saying “Kore wa nan des(u) ka?” to the waiter or server.
“Do you have ______?”
“______はありますか？” (______ wa arimasuka?)
When we travel to other countries like Japan, sometimes, there is a specific food that you want to try, items you want to buy or you would like to request something like an English menu. In this case, you can ask politely “英語メニューはありますか？” (Eigo menyu wa arimasuka?)
For more, check out our article on dining phrases.
Dine with Grace; Essential Phrases When Eating in Japanese Restaurants
Asking someone if they can speak English
During your stay and travel in Japan, there is a probability that you may meet someone that can speak in English. Asking a Japanese local if English is okay would be very helpful as you and the Japanese locals can converse better. You can ask them this by politely saying “英語でもいいですか？” (Eigo demo ii desuka?).
Breaking the Language Barrier
Traveling to foreign countries with foreign languages like Japan may be quite intimidating at first but you don’t have to completely learn their language to go there. You just need a handful of phrases and words to learn, know and remember to be able to converse with the Japanese locals and ease your travel woes when it comes to speaking with them. You may also take note, or create your very own cheatsheet through reading books, online articles or watching videos about the important words, phrases and sentences when one is traveling to Japan. One important reminder is to be always polite in conversing with them and make sure that you have your notes with you at all times, whether it be on your phone or as a real physical note or book.