Overcoming Language Barriers in Japan.
First-time travelers to Japan may be intimidated at the thought of language barriers when traveling in the country. But, have no fear. The country continues to become more and more tourist friendly. Here are helpful tips for how to travel in Japan without speaking Japanese:
Tips for How to Travel in Japan Without Speaking Japanese
◦ Observe locals and learn from their social behavior. Note how they are polite and quiet in public transportation. They do not walk slowly with their heads down looking at their phones.
◦ The Japanese people are mostly friendly and helpful, so long as you approach them politely. (Of course, there is always a bad seed of unfriendly people everywhere…)
◦ Mind your manners.
◦ Get a pre-paid data SIM card. This way you can use Google Maps for directions and Google Translate when attempting to communicate with locals.
◦ Making friends with random strangers does not happen with locals who keep to themselves. If you are looking to talk to others, it will likely happen with fellow foreign travelers.
◦ When trying to communicate, talking loud or louder does not help. Loud voices are considered impolite. Approach with respect and speak with consideration.
Tips for Restaurants
◦ Ask the host if there is an English menu.
◦ Look at the plastic food display before entering the restaurant. This is a form of art in Japan and amazingly the real food arrives at your table looking almost exactly like the display.
◦ Use your fingers to show how many items you would like to order.
◦ At most restaurants, you will be given your bill while you are still eating. This indicates for you to pay your bill at the counter in the front of the restaurant, and it helps expedite turnovers so your table can be cleaned for the next guests while you pay.
Tips for Major Attractions
◦ Again, get a pre-paid data SIM card or a mobile WiFi device should you prefer. This is a must for Japan as Google Maps provides detailed instructions for trains and subways. Read this comparison of two SIM card companies in Japan.
◦ At train and subways stations, look for the yellow information map which helps show you which exit to take to get to your destination. These maps are in English.
◦ For major attractions, there will be signs along the way to guide you to your destination.
Tips for Public Transportation
◦ English signs are present in every major city’s transportation hubs. These signs will help you get to where you need to go.
◦ Find the information counters or kiosks with station employees if you need to ask for help.
◦ Taxi drivers will likely be the most challenging in terms of communication. For assistance, ask your hotel’s concierge or bell station for a taxi card. On this card, they can write out the Japanese characters of your destination. Then, hold on to the card to show to the taxi driver upon returning to your hotel.
◦ Alternatively, use Uber (available in Tokyo only). This way your destination is clearly in the GPS, and often Tokyo’s Uber drivers speak English.
◦ Japan has taken international communication with travelers seriously. As a result, you will see a growing number of illustrations at stations and on the trains/subways teaching tourists how to behave according to the Japanese culture and norms.
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