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One of the biggest things we were worried about before travelling to Japan was the language barrier.
Whilst we’ve been to many countries before where we couldn’t speak the language, this was one of the first where we also couldn’t recognise any of the characters/letters, which we thought would make it tricky.
But we needn’t have worried.
Travelling around Japan speaking only English didn’t prove to be a barrier for us at all. It was rare we found ourselves in a situation where there wasn’t either an English sign or someone that spoke English. The people here went out of their way to help us – whether that was rail staff figuring out how to buy a ticket for the first time, or members of the public pointing us in the right direction when we looked a bit lost.
For the parts of Japan we visited, and the activities we completed, not being able to speak Japanese wasn’t a barrier for us at all.
*I want to note before I start the article that we spent our time around the big cities of Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima (as well as trips out to Nikko, Hakone and Nara), so this experience may vary in rural areas.
Here are a few general tips for helping you to navigate Japan wit zero Japanese.
Download a Translation App
Whilst much of Japan has English translations, there are moments where you’ll need some help, so for these, download a translation app. such as Google Translate.
Whilst you’ll need an internet connection (see my next point), it is incredibly useful to be able to point it at something and have it translate real-time, whether this is a menu or the complicated Japanese toilets!
Get a Wi-Fi Unit or SIM Card
Having access to the internet makes travelling around Japan without speaking the language SO much easier.
Whether it’s using a translation app to help you communicate with someone (we needed to send a parcel from Tokyo back to Australia, and being able to use the translation app. was a lifesaver) or using maps to navigate, you’ll regret it if you try to use only café or city Wi-Fi hubs.
We opted with a company called Ninja Wi-Fi, who had a stand at the airport. They gave us a unit that was the size of a phone, and 3GB of data a day, which proved to be more than enough. The beauty of doing it this way, is that everyone could connect to the Wi-Fi as we travelled, rather than only one person having the SIM card.
Use Google Maps
My phone is filled with screenshots like the one above, taken from Google Maps to help us find the quickest way across the cities.
Honestly, this made life so simple.
The various Metro lines are colour coded the same way as the app., it tells you what platform to head for, it even will tell you which carriage to sit in for the fastest access to exits.
This isn’t exactly a unique tip, but it is a vital one.
Navigating Public Transport
Public transport was the biggest aspect we were worried about when coming to Japan.
We were intimidated by Japan’s busy cities and extensive metro system, and thought the chances of us getting lost, or struggling to use the network were high, especially given how much cash is utilised here, so we’d have to regularly buy tickets.
We rarely used buses or trams (though if you do, they tend to be pay on exit, not entry, so don’t get too concerned, the driver will help you as you leave), spending most of our time on Japan’s extensive rail and metro network.
This can get a little confusing, as there are local overground routes (often split into regular routes and ‘express’ trains which skip stations), metro and the famous shinkansen, or bullet trains.
This is where Google Maps comes in really handy, but here are some more guides to help.
We decided not to buy an IC Pass (you can download this onto your phone and just tap and go) as we quite liked stopping and thinking at every station to make sure we were going in the right direction.
The stations will all have ticket machines line the above (make sure you are using the ticket machine for the right line, as sometimes multiple lines leave from the same station)
The most important thing to note here, is that on every machine there is the option to turn it into English before you start.
One thing to note when buying tickets, is that you pay by zone rather than station, so look up the station you want to get to on the map above the machine and it will have a number (usually something like 240) beside it, which indicates the fare for that stop.
Simply find the ¥240 ticket option on the machine, put in your cash and a little ticket will be printed for you to use.
Working out which platform to get to is also easy, the electronic signs will flick from Japanese to English, showing you all the information you need – see the side-by-side images above of a sign flicking between the two languages.
For busy tourist routes, they often go above-and-beyond to help English-speaking travellers, with graphics on the floor, additional wall signs and lines through the stations fairly common to help you make your transfer.
Getting to Your Destinations
Once on the train, things are just as easy.
There are big displays on most trains (some of the older ones have much more basic displays), which flick between Japanese and English, showing upcoming stations and approximate minutes until arrival.
Every station on metro lines in the big cities is also given a number, so even if the Japanese text is currently on the screen, if you have taken note of your station number you’ll still be able to figure out where you need to get off.
Restaurants were probably the place where we had the most problems with language barriers.
In most, there was someone English speaking, or an English menu (or at least a menu with pictures). But in some it was very difficult – one of which involved us ordering a pistachio and marmalade pizza by accident – a happy accident I’d add, as it was fantastic.
The good news about a restaurant is you usually get some time, so this is where the Wi-Fi unit and Google Translate really come into their own, allowing you to browse the menu in English, and then point at the menu when you are ordering.
Shops are a little easier than restaurants, as you can usually see what you want to buy, and we found they used western numbers for pricing in most places.
In chain stores such as 7-Eleven there was also often an English description on the product, though this wasn’t true for everything.
Using the ATMs was also easy, as they could all be switched into English language mode, and at that point, worked exactly like the machines in other countries.
Japan does much more than you’d see in somewhere like England to cater for foreign visitors.
Whether that’s just because English is such a widely spoken language, I don’t know, but it was much more than the obligatory information leaflet that you’d see in most places.
In many of the big tourist destinations, some (but rarely all) of the big signs had English information on them, making learning about the country much easier.
Where they didn’t, that Google Translate app. came in handy again.
Before You Go
I hope you found this post useful, and it’s reassured you that travelling in the big cities of Japan speaking only English is not only possible, but actually very easy.
If you’re currently planning a trip to Japan, then our Japan travel guide page has links out to dozens more helpful articles such as this one.
AUTHOR – BEN REEVE
Reeves Roam, is a first-hand travel blog. The Reeves have lived in the UK, South Africa and Australia and have travelled extensively in Europe and Southeast Asia.
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Thanks – Ben, Becca and Gracie