Learning or brushing up on Japanese before you travel to Japan? I have visited Japan twice – the first time I was solo and the second time I was travelling with first time visitors who didn’t speak any Japanese.  I came to the conclusion that the below phrases ended up being my most used and helpful. 

I don’t know a lot of Japanese but I studied on and off and highly recommend practicing more than just these ten phrases; I used Japanese for Dummies audio CD setPimsleur Japanese audio CD set, and downloaded the free Duolingo app

Top ten phrases

  1. Eigo ga wakarimasuka?”
    • Translates to “Do you understand English?” – you might get lucky so might as well ask this first!
      • if you’re travelling in Tokyo then you have a higher chance they speak a small amount of English but don’t bet on it being a lot.
    • If you’re lucky and they say yes, remember to speak concisely and use simple words and phrases so it’s easier/faster to translate in their head. Try yes and no questions.
      • If they say no and you’re awkward like me and feel the need to apologize for no apparent reason, you can respond with “gomenasai” or “sorry” with a tiny bow and scurry away.
      • If they say no but you want to say one of the phrases below, then you can try the next phrase “Uh, excuse me…”!
  2. Ano” and “Sumimasen
    • Translates to “Uhm” and “excuse me” – very useful if you wish to get someone’s attention to ask them a question, “Ano… sumimasen”. It doesn’t have the same rude connotation that English can sometimes apply to this phrase. Especially using “ano (ah-no)” since that word in particular is used when you’re trying to interrupt and get someone’s attention.
    • Sumimasen (sue-me-mah-sen)” is also useful if you’re trying to get past or accidentally bump into someone as well as any other context you might use the term “excuse me” for.
  3. Tokyo eki wa doko desuka?”
    • Translates directly to “Tokyo station, where is it?” but grammatically “Where is Tokyo station?
      • It’s hard to find things so being able to ask for directions is still helpful even if you only understand a fraction of what they say while responding.
      • Other useful words: “Migi” or “right” and “hirari” or “left”
    • “____ wa doko desuka?” is “Where is ___?”
      • replace the blank with whatever you’re looking for, such as restroom/toilet or “Toiru (toy-ru).”
        • More useful phrases:
          • Elevator or “Erebeita (eh-reh-bay-ta)”
          • Escalator or “Esukareta (eh-su-kah-ray-tah)”
  4.  “Konnichiwa
    • Translates to “Hello” in any and all contexts possible – when you walk up to a counter to purchase something, you can say this if you want to appear friendly
    • It can also be used to say “Good afternoon”
      • Related phrases:
        • “Good morning” or “Ohaiyoo gozaimasu
        • “Good evening” or “Konbanwa
  5. Arigato gozaimasu
    • Translates to “Thank you”
      • Arigato” translates to “thanks” and is very casual; meant for close acquaintances
      • Domo arigato gozaimasu” translates to “thank you very much!” and is meant for formal situations or to show immense gratitude.
    • Apparently in Kyoto there is a local dialect where thank you is completely different. It’s something like “otenki” but I could be wrong!
  6. Ikura desu ka?” (while pointing at or holding the object – important)
    • Translates to “How much is this?”
      • Usually they will have a calculator that they can type out the price of the item. If not, try to mime writing it down on a piece of paper.
      • For my fellow US Dollar users, remember an easy way to get the USD price is by moving the decimal over twice. So an item that’s 10,090 Yen is less than $100.90 USD (try a currency exchange if you need exacts). Last time I visited Japan, in March 2019, I pulled out 10,000 Yen which is approximately $100 but after the actual currency exchange it was $91 USD.
    • Pull out cash when possible! Some places only accept cash, especially smaller shops and restaurants. More and more places accept cards in Tokyo but if you’re going to Kyoto or a small town, pull out as much cash as you can since hardly anywhere accepts card.
  7. itadakimasu” and “gochisoosama deshita
    • I don’t know if there is an exact translation for either but the first is said just before eating your food and ideally within earshot of the chef. The latter is said after you finish your meal and it’s a way to express your gratitude for the delicious meal. You can usually give the chefs a happy surprise if you say the latter, even if it’s just on the way out!
  8. Omizu onegaishimasu
    • Translates to “Water please!” and is the polite way to order water initially as well as to ask for a refill.
    • Combine phrases! “Sumimasen! Omizu onegaishumasu.” or “Excuse me, water please.”
  9. Oishii!” (while pointing at food, smiling)
    • Translates to “Delicious!” – useful for when you go back to a food vendor for seconds, which I totally did more than a few times! It usually makes them happy!
  10. Not a phrase but learning the katakana Japanese alphabet!
    • Understanding it gives you a better chance of being able to read menus when no English alternative is available. If you can pronounce the letters, they most commonly translate into English words with Japanese accents on them, such as Beer or “Biru (Bee-ru)” and Vodka or “Wuduka (oo-wa-du-kah).”
      • The vodka one is easier to get when you’re reading the katakana characters, clearly not when you’re trying to use English letters to spell it out! xD
    • However, if you also take the time to learn hiragana then you will be rewarded by being able to read Japanese words used in English like Ramen or Teriyaki or Gyoza! Also other delicious nuggets such as yakitori (chicken skewers) or karaage (deep fried chicken but medium nugget size)!

These are my top phrase recommendations! Feel free to share phrases you find useful while visiting Japan in the comments below!

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