Learn Japanese – 5W1H – Japanese Question Words – What,Where,When,Who,Why,How
Yuubinkyoku wa doko desu ka?
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Asking for Directions without Using “Doko” : Talk Like the Natives

This is a common phrase most of us learn in our first stages of Japanese learning. It means, “Where is the post office?”

<Insert place> はどこですか? 

It’s short, simple, and comes in real handy in a variety of situations. It is THE Japanese emergency phrase. However, did you know that this ISN’T how native Japanese people ask where something is? In today’s lesson, we’re going to learn how real Japanese people ask for directions…and I’ll give you a hint. Many times they don’t use the word “doko!”

Wait…Why Don’t They Use “Doko?”

If you’re at a restaurant and want to know where the bathroom is, it’s acceptable to ask a waiter using “doko.

O-tearai wa doko desu ka?
Where is the bathroom?

The reason it’s okay to use “doko” in this situation is because the waiter is like your servant. It’s his job to help you, the customer, with all of your needs so that you are happy, comfortable, and want to come back and eat dinner there again (and write them a good review on Gurunavi!). The waiter has to answer your questions; therefore, you can ask them—bluntly, as the Japanese say—”O-tearai wa doko desu ka?” without it sounding rude.

However, if it isn’t a staff/customer situation, and you want to ask a random person on the street where something is, that person is not required to even look at you, let alone take the time to answer your questions. Therefore, in this situation, using “doko” would come across as a bit rude—as if you believe that you are entitled to receive this stranger’s help.

So, How Do You Ask Directions without Saying “Doko?”

Let’s say you want to know where the nearest train station is. You might be tempted to say this.

Sumimasen, eki wa doko desu ka?
Excuse me, where is the train station?

However, a Japanese person might say this instead.  

Sumimasen, eki wo sagashite iru‘n desu ga.
Excuse me, I’m looking for the train station.

This has basically the same meaning as this, except there is a difference in nuance: 

Sumimasen, eki wo sagashite imasu.
Excuse me, I’m looking for the train station.

This phrase is still grammatically correct and makes sense, but it’s more or a statement of fact without the nuance that you’re asking if the person will help you. Saying, “I like cats,” would also be a statement of fact and would sound strange if you just approached someone on the street to tell them you liked cats. Therefore, if you say to a person on the street “Sumimasen, eki wo sagashite imasu,” their first reaction will be to think, “Um, okay? Why are you telling me this?” However, if you say, “Sumimasen, eki wo sagashite iru‘n desu ga,” they’ll know that you’re asking their help in finding the station.

Here’s another example of how a Japanese person might ask for directions by tacking on the ~んですが at the end of the sentence.

Sumimasen, eki ni ikitai’n desu ga.
Excuse me, I want to go to the train station.

The word “ga” means “but” in Japanese, so it sounds like the person is saying, “I want to go to the train station, but…” and just not finishing the sentence. This is where the nuance of “Can you help me out?” comes into play. You’re playing lost and innocent by not finishing your sentence and hoping that the other person will finish it for you—or, in other words, help you solve your problem. The same would go if, say, you also wanted to buy a train ticket but didn’t know how to use the ticket machine. You could ask the person (a stranger) next to you by saying this.

Sumimasen, densha no kippu wo kaitai’n desu ga.
Excuse me, I want to buy a ticket, but…

Attaching “~んですが” to the end of a sentence is the way Japanese people convey the nuance, “Could you please help me out?” “~んですが” can be attached to any verb (past or present) or i-adjective. However, if it is a naadjective or a noun, you must use なんですが (nan desu ga) instead.

Here are a few more ways that a Japanese person might ask for directions without asking directly, “WHERE is the station?”.

Eki ga doko ka shitte imasu ka?
Do you know where the station is?
Eki made no ikikata wo shitte imasu ka?
Do you know how to get to the station?
Mayotte shimatta’n desu ga.
I’m lost (could you please help me?).

And if you’re explaining where you are on the phone (e.g. if someone is coming to pick you up), you can also attach ~んですが, and it will convey the nuance that you want them to find you.

Eki no mae ni iru’n desu ga.
I’m in front of the station (could you please find me?).

Now that you know how to ask for directions like the native Japanese do, it’s time to get out there and practice! Go for a stroll in the streets of Japan! Get lost, and ask someone for directions! Have fun!

Oishii sushi wo tabetai’n desu ga.
I want to eat some delicious sushi, but...

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