Before I traveled to Japan for the first time with the intent to improve my Japanese, I was assured by everyone that I would barely need to use the language at all.
“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 travel words and 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 Forvo 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.
It naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You’ll learn real Japanese as it’s spoken in real life.
Just take a look at the wide variety of authentic video content available in the program. Here’s a small sample:
You’ll discover tons of new Japanese vocabulary through these great clips.
Don’t worry about your skill level being an issue when it comes to understanding the language. FluentU makes native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts.
Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
You’ll see definitions, in-context usage examples and helpful illustrations. Simply tap “Add to” to send interesting vocabulary words to your personal vocab list for later review.
FluentU even uses a learning program which adapts to your specific needs to turn every video into a language learning lesson and get you to actively practice your newly-learned language skills.
Access FluentU on the website to use it with your computer or tablet or, better yet, start learning Japanese on the go with the FluentU app for iOS or Android!
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, kanji and romaji for each word, and will explain the use of certain phrases in context.
Some notes on pronunciation:
- Avoid turning vowels into dipthongs (vowel sounds that run into each other, like the ea in “bread”). Pronounce each vowel on its own even when there are two vowels next to each other. Onegai is read as “o-ne-ga-i,” not “o-ne-gai”
- The sound ou and repeated vowels like ii and ee are exceptions: They show an elongation of the sound. Ohayou is read as “o-ha-yoh,” not “o-ha-yo-u.”
- Treat ん (n) as its own syllable. Konnichiwa is read “ko-n-ni-chi-wa,” not “ko-ni-chi-wa.” It’s subtle, but it makes a difference!
- Repeated consonants are pronounced. For an example of how to do this, just read the word “bookkeeper” out loud.
- The small kana っ like in いって signify a break between the sounds—”it-te,” not “i-te.”
- Small y- kana like ゃ in おちゃ add the y sound to the preceding syllable—”o-chya,” not “o-chi-a.”
- は (ha) as a particle is pronounced wa, and を (wo) as a particle is pronounced o.
We won’t get into much more than that in this post, but if you want to dive deep into the intricacies of Japanese pronunciations, we have a post for that.
Greetings and Basic Japanese Phrases
This one above is an important one. I say “すみません” at least 30 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)
nihongo o hanashimasen
I don’t speak Japanese.
eigo o hanashimasu ka?
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)
mou ichido itte kudasai
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)
yukkuri hanashite kudasai
Can you please speak slowly?
お名前は何ですか？ (おなまえは なんですか？)
onamae wa nan desu ka?
What is your name?
私の名前は… (わたしの なまえ は…)
watashi no namae wa…
My name is…
kore wa ikura desu ka?
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.”
助けてもらえますか？ (たすけて もらえますか？)
Can you please help me?
(ここ) に行きたいです ([ここ] に いきたいです)
(koko) ni ikitai desu
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”) — “Shinjuku eki ni ikitai desu.“
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)
([hitori, futari, sannin, yonin] you no teeburu o onegai shimasu)
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)
menyuu o onegai shimasu
The menu, please
水をお願いします (みずを おねがいします)
mizu o onegai shimasu
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)
beeru o nihai onegai shimasu
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)
kore o (hitotsu, futatsu) onegai shimasu
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？)
bejitarian youno ryouri ga arimasu ka?
Do you have a vegetarian dish?
I’ve 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？) — kore wa niku desu ka?, 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) — watashi wa niku o tabemasen, 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)
You can also use this expression to ask someone if they’re okay. Just add the question particle ka to the end: 大丈夫ですか ？(だいじょうぶ ですか？) — daijyoubu desu ka?
お勘定をお願いします (おかんじょうを おねがいします)
okanjyou o onegai shimasu
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:
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！(Irrashya imase!)
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.
これをお願いします (これを おねがいします)
kore o onegai shimasu
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)
sore o hitotsu onegai shimasu
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)
genkin de onegai shimasu
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)
kurejitto kaado de onegai shimasu
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？)
nani ka osagashi desu ka?
Are you looking for something?
ijyou de yoroshii desu ka?
Is that all?
Here it is / Here you go
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 needed to go!
…wa doko desu ka?
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)
watashitachi ga doko ni iru no ka, chizu de oshiete kudasai
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.
chikai desu ka
Is it near?
tooi desu ka?
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)
kono jyuushyo made tsureteitte kudasai
Take me to this address, please
ryoukin wa ikura desu ka?
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)
koko de tomatte kudasai
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？)
kono basu wa … ni ikimasu ka?
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)
chizu o onegai shimasu
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)
massugu itte kudasai
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)
hidari ni magatte kudasai
右に曲がってください (みぎに まがってください)
migi ni magatte kudasai
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？— doko desu ka?
このホテル (この ほてる)
電車の駅 (でんしゃの えき)
denshya no eki
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, so I can have these Japanese travel 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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