If you decided to read this article, it’s probably because you are either interested in, planning on, or currently traveling in Japan. The language barrier in Japan can sometimes make travel a bit intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be.

Learning a few basic phrases and some etiquette will help you feel a bit more confident as you go through Japan, even if you still stick out as a foreigner.

The Basics
Phrases and Etiquette for Travel in Japan

If you’re traveling to any foreign country, it’s a really good idea to know some essential phrases and etiquette to help you get by. Of course you’ll want to know “yes” (はい: hai) and “no” (いいえ: iie), but here’s a list of other super basic phrases you probably already have down.

EnglishRomaji日本語
Excuse meSumimasenすみません
Thank youArigatou gozaimasuありがとうございます
PleaseOnegai shimasuお願いします
I don’t understandWakarimasen分かりません
Do you speak English?Eigo wo hanasemasu ka?英語を話せますか?
Where is the bathroom?Otearai wa doko desu ka?お手洗いはどこですか?

Remember as you travel that it’s important to be polite in Japanese. All of these phrases use more formal Japanese because you’ll generally be using them with people you don’t know. You should also remember to bow when saying “thank you” or when stopping someone to ask for help.

What Verb Should I Use?

Now that we’ve talked about some of the basics (and we can ask anyone where the bathroom is), let’s talk about how to discuss travel plans. This can be helpful in normal conversations with friends, or when asking for directions.

One of the big questions with talking about methods of travel is knowing which verb to use. Sometimes verbs in Japanese can be tricky, so let’s look at some verbs that pertain pretty specifically to travel.

Of course, there’s the verb “to go,” which is iku (行く). A lot of times, it’s going to be alright to use this one. Iku is especially good for describing a mode of transportation. You can do this by using the particle de (で), which in these cases means something like “by means of.”

Basu de iku” means “To go by bus” (バスで行く), “Densha de iku” is “To go by train” (電車で行く), and so on.

The verb for “to ride” or “to take” is noru (乗る). So you can also say “Basu ni noru” (バスに乗る) and it only changes the meaning to “To take the bus.” These are generally interchangeable, but they do have subtle differences in both English and Japanese.

You can also combine noru and iku and say “Basu ni notte iku” (バスに乗って行く). You might hear this phrase used as well.

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Common Phrases and etiquetteWhen Asking For Directions

As you travel, you might need to ask for directions at some point. Sometimes you’ll be lucky enough to find someone who speaks English and can help you out, but that’s going to be pretty rare (especially if you’re going to rural, less touristy places).

Here’s a list of words that will help when you’re giving or receiving directions.

EnglishRomaji日本語
Where is…?… wa doko desu ka?…はどこですか
StraightMassugu真っ直ぐ
RightMigi
LeftHidari
Turn (right/left)(Migi/Hidari) ni magaru(右/左)に曲がる
IntersectionKousaten交差点
CornerKado
StoplightShingou信号

Etiquette in Japan

Being polite is always a really good idea when going to a foreign country, and that applies especially to a country like Japan.

Japanese culture is built on etiquette, so if you want to travel there, make sure you know the rules pretty much everyone follows. Of course, not everyone follows the rules all the time. But you’re going to stick out as a foreigner, and you’ll probably feel more comfortable if you try.

As I mentioned before, bowing is super important. There’s a bunch of unspoken rules on when to bow, how low, and for how long. For a casual traveler though, you’ll just want to make sure you bow when you say thank you or if you happen to get in someone’s way. You might notice that even a head nod is enough (like for when someone holds a door open for you). You aren’t going to be making any formal apology bows though, so don’t worry about all the little details too much.

Another big unspoken rule is that people generally stay quiet on public transportation. Trains and buses are almost silent in Japan. If you need to have a conversation, try to keep it quiet so you don’t disturb the other passengers.

Also keep an eye out for Women Only cars on trains. In more rural places, they might only be labeled in Japanese, so you may need to be careful. If you’re a man and you get on one of these, you’re definitely going to get a lot of dirty looks.

Eating and drinking while you’re walking is also frowned upon. People will buy drinks (from conbinis and vending machines), and then just stand and drink them because it’s a little rude to walk around with them.

These are just a few examples. It never hurts to do a bit of research before traveling in a new country to make sure you’re respectful during your trip.

Have Fun!

Traveling in Japan can be an absolute blast! There’s so many places to go, and Japanese people are honestly some of the kindest I’ve ever met. It’s a super safe country, and pretty much everyone I talked to was happy to help whenever I got lost.

Doing a little preparation with your language skills, and really trying to understand and follow some basic Japanese etiquette will help you feel more comfortable as you travel through Japan.

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