Culture Studies

Japanese Phrases for Travellers

I’m posting this for the use of a few people I know who intend to travel to Japan later this year, and anyone else who is an English speaker but needs to get around in this wonderful, exciting foreign country.
*Now with useful edits!

I’m not going to post images for this, because there is already enough stereotyping in the world right now.
What I will tell you is that in the lead up to the 2020 Olympic games, Japan is making their main cities more tourist-friendly. This involves installing English signs and the majority of ticket operators able to speak English, too. So, whether or not you have a JR pass to travel along the JR train and bus lines, you’ll be able to buy tickets pretty easily.

Here’s some more stuff to know

When you speak in Japanese, all vowels are short.
A is pronounced like it is in the word ‘cat‘ ‘father’
E is pronounced like it is in the word ‘bet’
I is pronounced like it is in the word ‘fish’
O is pronounced like it is in the word ‘top’
U is pronounced like it is in the word ‘sue’
OU is pronounced like the word ‘Sword’.

Type any of the following useful phrases into Google Translate, and it will pronounce them for you. If you’re desperate, Japan has a LOT of free Wifi, and Google translate can be found on any browser on your mobile device. Just type in what you want to say, make the Google voice say the thing, and you’re out of your tight spot! Otherwise, here are some useful things to know;


Train stations are BIG. really big. You NEED to know what exit to take to get in and out, otherwise you’ll be facing a totally different part of the city. Here’s some Kanji to help you out. Kanji are Chinese-adapted characters that represent complex concepts in a simple visual to remember. I find it much easier to recall the Kanji for certain things than the whole word, so after a while you’ll get used to it.

North – 北
South – 南
East – 
West – 西
Underground – 地下
Male – 男性
Female – 女性
Entry – 入口
Exit – 出口

You need to be able to read these words more often than you’ll be able to speak them. This is because you don’t need to ask for the exit if you can read the sign that says ‘Exit’. They’ll be pretty obviously signposted. Otherwise, feel free to ask a station attendant for help!

Excuse me, where is the bathroom?
Sumi masen, TO-I-RE wa doko desu ka?

ε=(ノ゚Д゚)ノ ∥WC∥ <- Funny emoji that my Japanese keyboard provides for your entertainment.

*note, the word ‘desu’ has a ‘su’ at the end, but you don’t pronounce the ‘u’. Usually, characters come in pairs or ‘sets’ of letters (sa shi su se so, na ni nu ne no, ra ri ru re ro, ta chi tsu te to…etc) but in the specific case of ‘desu’, you pronounce it as ‘dess’. Same with ‘imasu’, ‘kimasu‘ and ‘shimasu‘. Just ignore the ‘u’ at the end.
Another *note – when you combine the sets ‘shi’ and ‘te’, it becomes ‘shte’. Listen to it on Google translate to see what I mean.
I know this might feel like a lot to take in, but once you remember this it becomes a LOT easier to say things.

I’m lost, can you help?
Watashi wa ma-yo-tte imasu. O te-tsu-dai deki masu ka?

Excuse me, could you please assist?
sumi ma sen, o te tsu dai itada kemasen ka?

Do you speak English?
Eigo o hanasemasu ka?

I am Australian*. (American, etc)
Watashi wa Ou-So-To-Ra-Ri-a Jin* desu. (A-me-ri-ka jin, etc)

Where is [Location/thing] ?
[Location/thing] wa doko desu ka?

One cake, please!
kee-ki o hitotsu ku-da-sa-i


BOLD – you can replace this word with whatever else you want to buy. Cake – kee-ki. Coffee – kou-hi. Snack – o-ka-shi. Set of takoyaki – Ta-ko-ya-ki. If your snack or food item comes in a set, you only need to ask for the item, and you’ll get the whole set in return. If your salesperson is confused they might ask ‘hitori de?’ (On its own?) or ‘hito tsu da ke?’ (Just one?) to see if you want JUST ONE little Takoyaki ball/whatever. If this IS the case, just nod and say Yes (hai) or No (ii-e), I want the set please (setto ga hoshii o-ne-gai shi-masu).

Here’s some specific words that you will want to read, as they’re not often spoken on the street. You can usually order food or items by pointing at something and saying ‘That, please!‘ (Kono wa shi-te kudasai!) but it helps if you know how to find it.

Ramen (Noodles with meat and vegetables) – ラーメン
Soba (Noodles) – そば
Curry – カレー
Katsu (Crumbed, fried meat) – かつ
Tempura – てんぷら
Sushi – すし
Lunch Set – 昼食 セット
Half Price! – 半額 !
Sale! – 販売
Open – 開いた
Closed – 閉まっている
Entry Fee/Cover Charge (Some bars have this) – 入場料 / 席料
Sake/Wine – お酒

Japan is still a cash-currency country, so don’t be surprised if some cheap restaurants are cash-only still! Make sure you have about $10 per person (1,000 Y) before you walk in for lunch. It’s usually cheaper than that, but have it just in case 🙂 Dinner averages 10-12 dollars (1000~1500 Y) so keep this in mind. Serving sizes are usually generous, so don’t feel worried when you order a 700Y bowl of ramen – you’ll be full afterwards!

Happy travels! Let me know if I missed anything, or you’d like more information and/or resources.


4 thoughts on “Japanese Phrases for Travellers

  1. Hello, thanks for the post.

    If you don’t mind, I found a few mistakes regarding the Japanese here.

    For example:
    Ramen = ラーメン
    Sake = お酒
    一つのケーキしてください should be ケーキをひとつください

    Regarding the phrase about asking for directions, I made a post which analyzes it in case you are interested:


    1. Thanks for the post analysing my clunky attempts at asking for directions. I admit I probably should have run this past a native speaker before just relying on Google Translate again ^^’ Personally I memorised ‘すみません、お手伝いいただけませんか?’ but I didn’t want to go into why I use ‘Would you kindly~’ as opposed to just ‘please’, but my western brain processed ‘tetsudai’ (help) and dekimasu ka (can?) as sufficient. Oops =P

      I will remind myself not to do that again in the future.

      Liked by 1 person

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