There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact. ~ Arthur Conan Doyle
The most important thing you need to know, as you’re preparing for your first trip to Japan, is that the people there speak Japanese.
I know. That sounds so totally obvious. Possibly even unimportant.
Especially if you’ve traveled overseas before, say to Europe or Latin America, where you were able to get around and sightsee easily enough without speaking much of the local language. “Been there, done that,” you say. “I’ll be fine in Japan, too.”
But, Japan is different. It’s a place where even in Tokyo, its most cosmopolitan city, everyone speaks Japanese and most only Japanese. Where the signs for everything, including advertising, storefronts, menus, newspapers, and street names – when you can find them – are typically in Japanese only in its various written forms – kanji, hiragana, katakana, and romaji – every one of them so unfamiliar.
Hey, where people even cross the street differently.
So, if you don’t speak Japanese, now is the time to learn. You’re going half way around the world, spending precious dollars and time, and you want to make the most of it.
Our grandmas were right to teach us that remembering to say “Please,” “Thank you,” and “Sorry” would take us far in life, but navigating Japan solo requires more than a handful of polite phrases – as my husband learned during our initial trip to Japan together – his first time in Asia ever.
I planned the trip and recommended some good books on Japanese culture and language for him to read as preparation. But, after learning a few introductory phrases and going online to check out the stops on our itinerary, my husband declared he was ready to go.
OK, fine – so, off we went for a 10-day adventure on the islands of Honshu and Kyushu.
Months later, the poor man can still relate in great detail the things that made it such a “traumatic experience” for him.
Trauma set in, he says, when we arrived at Narita airport, grew when we entered the Tokyo subway system. He was surprised – ok, shocked – that all the signs were in Japanese and that, beyond the basic knowledge of “This is Tokyo,” he never really knew where he was.
He had seen, while traveling in Mexico, the familiar “Coca-Cola” logo posted everywhere, and in Paris, he had had no problem navigating the metro by himself – could actually go somewhere on his own and get back to where we were staying. No French required. But, in Tokyo, Osaka, and even the much smaller city of Nagasaki, it was a different story.
The fact that some of the larger cities made available subway maps with station names labeled in romaji that he could read, or at least pronounce, hadn’t helped much, he insists. “Sure, I could stay underground, ride the subway all day, but sooner or later I’d have to go upstairs to the street – then what?”
My love had come to Japan fully expecting the people to speak a language he didn’t know. That wasn’t so bad – in a pinch, he knew I’d be there to interpret or translate. But not being able to read or sound out a foreign word that was, at least, phonetically recognizable to him as an English speaker?
That was a new experience.
He never bothered to carry any of our inn’s business cards when we went out and about. “What if,” he muses now, “we had been separated? I couldn’t have told anyone where we were staying.”
Back to you and today.
If time is of the essence, knowing how to ask the most basic reporter style questions of “What,” “Where,” and “When” is key. Learn enough vocabulary to get directions and info regarding basics like rest rooms, groceries, and modes of transportation.
Prepare and practice your personal introduction with simple words to share about your family and interests when opportunity arises – it will. For the rest, keep a pocket dictionary close-by, your ears and eyes open – and smile.
The natural curiosity and warmth of most of the Japanese people you meet will carry you the rest of the way.
If you’ve been to Japan or another country where they spoke a language largely unknown to you and used another “alphabet,” you probably have a good story to tell.
If so, please share in a comment below. Your fellow travelers ~ including me ~ would love to hear it!
In the meantime ~
If you’re considering a trip to Japan and your Japanese is either weak or non-existent, check out these resources:
1) Japanese Pod 101 ~ provides a convenient way to learn Japanese through video and audio lessons, whether you are an “absolute beginner” or a more advanced student.
2) Tofugu ~ is brimming over with resources no matter your level, including helps for learning the various kinds of writing used in Japan, so you can read the signs and ~ wow ~ know where you are.
Featured Image, Kyoto Japan City Skyline, by SeanPavonePhoto.
Great post, Melodie ~ helpful info shared in an interesting way. I’m both scared and intrigued by the thought of a trip to Japan :).
Glad you thought the info helpful, Chris –
I understand the fear – Japan is different, about 180 degrees from the U.S., culturally speaking. Still, I encourage you to dwell on and, eventually, give in to the intrigue. You’ll find the experience is so worth it!
Great story and tips Melodie.
I was fortunate, my first experiences with travel overseas were for business and I was with my bosses and they had been there before. The first was Tokyo and the second was Frankfurt & Cologne Germany. Both were incredible trips.
Tokyo was incredible and they took me all over showing me the sites, my boss was Japanese which of course was a huge help! But even with that, it was overwhelming at times, walking downtown Tokyo and all the people, the noise and yet it was so clean, it really was beautiful, especially at night.
Over the years I had picked up enough Japanese to be dangerous so I let my boss do the talking!
Your first memories of Japan sound similar to some of my own, Marta.
I had traveled there with a group as well and we arrived toward evening. Walking around Tokyo that first night with its gazillions of people all moving quickly and the brightly lit streets. Knowing hardly any Japanese at the time. That part about feeling overwhelmed is certainly familiar.
You’re also right about the beauty of Tokyo at night. Sounds as if you will be going back to Japan someday.
Thanks much for sharing.
Excelente!!!!!! OK, I don’t know how to say that in Japanese. Pictures are a great way to tell a story. For us, visual learners, we love it!
Gracias, Carolina – I’m happy you’ve found value in what I’ve shared here; if it has also made you want to hit the travel trail, I’m ecstatic!
Pleased to know that the photographs helped you visualize the perplexing situation Lawrence found himself in. (You’ll notice that, in the final photo, his expression is just a little bit grumpy . . !) 🙂
Melodie, I had no idea!
This is terrific, and well crafted, information for would-be travellers to this fascinating country. I’m with Chris in that it seems both compelling and a little frightening. No doubt simply fear of the unknown.
Wow, thanks, Victoria!
Yes, Japan is a fascinating country – way too fascinating to let a lifetime go by without taking a serious look-see, don’t you think?
To provide the info and encouragement you need to step into the promise of the unknown is my reason for writing, so don’t hesitate to drop me a line if you’d like details on anything I write about here.
Melodie ~ an engaging story and good information. You’re a good writer. Keep it up!
Thank you, Scott, for the encouragement – and here is the deal I propose to you: As I keep writing, you keep reading. Fair? 🙂
Melodie, I love both the content and the photo’s woven between. Really really good stuff in there!
Thanks for stopping by, Deb!
Very glad you found the content solid and compelling.
This is great info Melodie. If I went over there…just as you say, I’d expect most folks to be fairly functional in English, and would have a rude awakening.
Thanks, Kevin –
Always happy to provide specific info that people can use to travel with greater ease. And zero angst!
Good post. (Crap I really miss Japan!)
Thanks for your encouraging words. The experience of living,working there is sort of unforgettable, isn’t it?
Melodie, this is awesome! I can imagine the fear of being in a country with a “symbolic” language (no alphabet even close to ours), and not knowing how to read any of it. I hope one day to travel to Israel, and though they cater to English speaking people a lot, I still want to be able to read Hebrew on my own before I go there.
Can’t wait to read more of your travels!
Appreciate your stopping by and taking the time to comment.
Israel in your future . . . very exciting! A fascinating and beautiful country – you will enjoy your time there so much more knowing Hebrew – so keep up the language study. (I look forward to hearing about your travels, too!)
Mel, What a lovely and informative story; thanks for sharing.
I’ve worked with two very interesting Japanese men who collaborated with us on a project a few years ago. They spent six months in New York City and were equally fascinated. They each took various weekend trips to other states, and to my delight, shared their American stories every Monday morning.
I now regret not having accepted their invitations to visit Japan. My curiosity has been sparked by your post.
Keep up the good work
Thanks, Judy –
Great to learn that your former colleagues enjoyed their American experience enough to regularly venture out to other states.
Your words “curiosity” and “sparked” mixed with the idea of visiting Japan are music to my ears!
HAPPY BIRTHDAY MELODIE
HOPE YOU HAD A GOOD ONE
LOVE DAUGHTER & GRANDDAUGHTER
Love you two more!
Thank you – enjoyed a wonderful day here with your Dad and Grandpa in Kansas! 🙂