“Everybody speaks English there,” people said, so I wouldn’t need to worry about the language barrier.
This was not the case.
Most of the people I encountered in Japan had a fairly elementary level of spoken English.
Sure, most Japanese people study English in school, but the learning is entirely by the textbook.
This means that I encountered people who could read and write English quite well, but had less confidence in speaking and understanding. (That’s a feeling that many of us language learners share.)
Besides that, realistically, most of the people you meet as a tourist aren’t language scholars—they’re waitstaff, taxi drivers and shop assistants. They don’t necessarily need to master the English language, so they only hold on to what they can actually use in their daily lives (which isn’t always that much).
Learning some basic phrases in Japanese leads to a better travel experience and opens up the country in a totally new and unexpected ways.
How to Study the Japanese Travel Phrases in This List
The beauty of Japanese is that it’s an extremely phonetic language, so if you say the words exactly as you read them, you can’t really get it wrong. Having said that, people will probably struggle to understand you if you speak in a broad Western accent, so it might pay to listen to some spoken Japanese before you start practicing pronunciation.
The most important thing to remember is that, unlike English speakers, Japanese speakers don’t put emphasis on the second or third syllable of a word—there’s some emphasis on the first syllable, but it’s subtle.
Some ways that you can listen to Japanese being spoken is by watching Japanese films or television programs, anime or YouTube clips.
You can visit Fodors and click on any phrase to hear a recorded clip of the pronunciation.
You can also use FluentU for an even more dynamic study in Japanese pronunciation.
FluentU uses authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. You can click on any word in the captions to hear the pronunciation in numerous real-world videos from across the site’s offerings, as well as to get an in-context definition and example sentences.
75+ Essential Japanese Travel Phrases to Lose Yourself Without Getting Lost
All the examples I’ve given below will be in the polite, neutral form of speech. You basically can’t go wrong speaking this way in Japan, so you don’t need to worry about making any social faux pas!
I’ll provide the hiragana and kanji for each word, and will explain the use of certain phrases in context.
Greetings and Basic Japanese Phrases
This one above is an important one. I say “すみません” at least thirty times a day in Japan. It’s a magical word.
It helps you push through a crowd, get attention from a waiter, ask for directions or be excused for basically any touristy blunder. This is definitely one to memorize. Simply saying “すみません” and gesturing is a pretty good way to express that you need help, but don’t speak Japanese.
Similar to the French bon appetit
This is what Japanese people say before they eat. It doesn’t have a literal translation in English, but it’s a way to give thanks for a meal.
Think of it like the French bon appetit or the Spanish buen provecho. Remember this one if you’re invited to eat with a Japanese person—and also remember its pair, ごちそうさま or ごちそうさまでした, for the end of a meal.
I don’t understand
日本語を話しません (にほんごを はなしません)
I don’t speak Japanese.
Do you speak English?
もう一度言ってください (もういちど いってください)
Can you please repeat that?
ゆっくり話してください (ゆっくり はなしてください)
Can you please speak slowly?
お名前は何ですか？ (おなまえは なんですか？)
What is your name?
私の名前は… (わたしの なまえ は…)
My name is…
How much does this cost?
Or, if you’re pointing at something that you can’t reach, you say “それは いくらですか？”
これ and それ literally just mean “this” and “that.”
助けてくれますか？ (たすけて くれますか？)
Can you please help me?
(ここ) に行きたいです ((ここ) に いきたいです)
I want to go… (here)
Say ここ if you have an address written down or a point marked on a map of where you want to go. If you know the name or address of the place where you want to go, simply say the place name followed by に行きたいです.
For example, if you want to go to Shinjuku station, you simply say “新宿駅に行きたいです” (しんじゅくえきに いきたいです).
Eating and Drinking in Japan
As a traveler, this is probably the time when you’ll be most challenged to use Japanese.
It’s a rule of thumb that the less a place caters to tourists, the better the food. That means no English menus, and sometimes no English-speaking waitstaff.
Luckily for us it’s very common for Japanese menus to feature photos of all the dishes, and many places have models of their dishes on display, so you likely won’t be going in completely blind. Use these phrases, and you should be in and out of a restaurant without a hiccup.
The only real challenge with ordering meals in Japanese is the use of counters. We have counters in English, too (for example “sheets” of paper, “glasses” of water, “blades” of grass), but not so many or so complicated as in Japanese.
Luckily Japanese has a “universal” counter, つ, which you can use for anything, including food.
The numbers one to four as つ counters are pronounced 一つ (ひとつ)、二つ (ふたつ)、三つ (みっつ)、四つ (よっつ). You can use this counter for drinks too, and the waiter will understand you.
However, if you want to be a little more impressive, you can use the drinks counter: 杯 (はい). The numbers one to four using this counter are 一杯 (いっぱい)、二杯 (にはい)、三杯 (さんばい)、四杯 (よんはい). If you want to learn more about counters, this post explains it pretty well.
(一人、二人、三人、四人) 用のテーブルをお願いします ([ひとり、ふたり、さんにん、よにん] ようの てーぶるを おねがします)
A table for (one, two, three, four persons), please
If you’re thinking “No!! More counters!!” don’t despair, because you can just do as the locals do and indicate the number of diners by holding up your fingers.
メニューをお願いします (めにゅーを おねがいします)
The menu, please
水をお願いします (みずを おねがいします)
A glass of water, please
ビールを二杯お願いします (びーるを にはい おねがいします)
Two beers, please
これを (一つ、二つ) お願いします (これを (ひとつ、ふたつ) おねがいします)
Can I please have (one, two) of this?
ベジタリアン用の料理がありますか？(べじたりあんようの りょうりが ありますか？)
Do you have a vegetarian dish?
I have traveled in Japan with vegetarians twice, and this question usually draws quite strange looks. Vegetarianism basically doesn’t exist in Japan, although Japanese cuisine is generally quite vegetarian-friendly.
It might work better to say “これは肉ですか？” (これは にく ですか？), to say “is this meat?” and follow up with “私は肉を食べません” (わたしは にくを たべません) which means “I don’t eat meat,” if you want to make yourself understood.
大丈夫です (だいじょうぶ です)
お勘定をお願いします (おかんじょうを おねがいします)
The check, please
Say the above, or you can do as the locals do and catch the waiter’s eye (with a smile!) and draw a clockwise circle in the air with your index finger pointing towards the roof.
In some restaurants, you need to bring the check to the cash register which usually is located by the restaurant’s doorway.
It was delicious
Here’s a list of common food and drink. I included the kanji for these words too, so that you can try to find them on a menu.
When you walk into a store or restaurant in Japan, you will be met with cries of いっらしゃいませ！
You aren’t expected to say anything in particular in response to this greeting, which basically means “welcome.” I just smile and say “こんにちは” which means of course “hello.”
Walking into a department store is particularly surreal, with each assistant taking cues from the others, so that every time a customer walks in “いらっしゃいませ！” bounces around the entire floor.
I would like this
それを一つお願いします (それを ひとつ おねがいします)
I would like one of those
現金でお願いします (げんきんで おねがいします)
I would like to pay in cash
クレジットカードでお願いします (くれじっとかーどで おねがいします)
I would like to pay by credit card
You’ll probably hear the following phrases from the assistant:
何かお探しですか？(なにか おさがし ですか？)
Are you looking for something?
Is that all?
Here it is.
Asking for Directions
Asking for directions is sort of daunting, especially when the person answers in a whole stream of fast-paced Japanese.
But you’ll find that Japan is one of the best places to be a lost and hopeless tourist—there’s always someone nearby who’s more than happy to help. I’ve even had people take time out of their days to walk me where I want to go!
Where is the…?
私達がどこにいるのか、地図で教えてください。(わたしたちが どこに いるのか、ちずで おしえてください。)
Can you please show me where we are on the map?
This is a bit of a mouthful and is sort of an odd question, but I’ve needed to ask it all around the world, and it can be a lot more helpful than asking for directions, especially if the person you’re asking doesn’t speak English.
Is it near?
Is it far?
この住所まで連れて行ってください (この じゅうしょ まで つれていってください)
Take me to this address, please
What is the fare?
ここで止まってください (ここで とまって ください)
Stop here, please
このバスは… に行きますか？(この ばすは… に いきますか？)
Does this bus go to (street name)?
地図をお願いします (ちずを おねがいします)
A map, please
Here are some phrases you might hear from someone giving you directions:
まっすぐ行ってください (まっすぐ いってください)
Go straight ahead
左に曲がってください (ひだりに まがってください)
右に曲がってください (みぎに まがってください)
And here are some of the common places that we might ask directions towards. Simply say wherever it is that you want to go followed by どこですか？
このホテル (この ほてる)
電車の駅 (でんしゃの えき)
The train station
The bus stop
Maybe this seems like a lot, but it will make your trip run more smoothly, and the people you meet will appreciate your effort. They won’t make you feel bad for pronouncing things wrong (though they may tease you a little bit), but if you say more than three words in Japanese, they’ll probably exclaim something positive about your “fluency.”
I like to make little phrasebooks for myself when I travel, with the above phrases and vocabulary always on hand.
Speaking the local language tends to get people on your side. They’re less likely to try to rip you off, and often will want to become your best friend.
I’ve been treated to tea and dinner in people’s homes, and once was driven around a city with a personal guide/impromptu friend all day, just because I struck up conversations in the local language.
Don’t be scared! Give it a try!
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