23 Survival Japanese Travel Phrases + 23 Must-know Kanji Characters

23 Survival Japanese Travel Phrases + 23 Must-know Kanji Characters

These Japanese travel phrases will help you navigate through the wonderful and sometimes crazy world that is Japan. And if used absolutely right, you’ll sound like you’re a master in Japanese. Ok, maybe not a master but it would at least make you look like you’re very good in Japanese. 😁

Don’t Japanese people speak English?

Most Japanese people understand English, however, they’re not confident in speaking it. Before I learned to speak Japanese, people blatantly ignored me when I spoke English to them. Besides, locals really appreciate it if you learn their language not only in Japan but in any country that you’ll visit.

To make this guide more practical, you’ll be learning Japanese words and meanings used by people traveling to Japan. The phrases will be written in Japanese for reference, but you don’t need to know how to read it unless you’re seriously studying Japanese. There are some kanji characters that you need to know because you’ll encounter them as a door or street sign.

If you’re serious about learning Japanese, I recommend signing up for an iTalki account. The great thing about iTalki, aside from being super cheap, is that you can try out a language teacher before committing to a full lesson. That way you’re not forced to spend money on an instructor that you don’t like.

Anyway, let’s start with the obvious Japanese travel phrases first.


Casual Japanese Greetings

The Japanese language has different word variations depending on the level of politeness. The Japanese travel phrases you’ll learn are formal but can be used in casual conversations without sounding weird.

1. Good Morning. Ohayou gozaimasu. おはようございます.

Good morning in Japanese is ohayou gozaimasu. It’s pretty straight forward but do remember to only use it until around 10am. After that, Japanese tend to use the next phrase.

2. Good Afternoon (or Hello). Konnichiwa. こんにちは.

Good afternoon in Japanese is konnichiwa. When pronouncing the word, make sure you hold the “n” sound longer so that it sounds like “kon-nichiwa” not “ko-nichiwa”. Most foreigners make this mistake so when locals hear you properly pronounce it, they’d think you’re very good in Japanese.

Hello in Japanese is also konnichiwa. The odd thing about it is that konnichiwa doesn’t translate to hello or good afternoon in English. It’s actually short for “How are you feeling today?” Culturally though, it’s used as “hello” or “good afternoon”.

3. Good evening. Konbanwa. こんばんは

Good evening in Japanese is konbanwa. This is used when you’re saying farewell to your friends and heading home. This is different from oyasumi nasai (おやすみなさい), which is good night in Japanese. Oyasumi nasai is used when you’re talking to your girlfriend on the phone letting her know that you’re in bed about to go to sleep after all the, “You hang up.” “No you hang up” “I love you” “I love you more”

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Conversational Japanese Phrases

These are very useful everyday Japanese Travel Phrases that you’ll be using when you’re in Japan, starting with what you’re going to use most often.

4. I only know a little Japanese. Nihongo ga chotto. 日本語が ちょっと

The beautiful thing about the Japanese language is that most words can be removed if it can be inferred through context clues. In this case, the phrase literally translates to “Japanese a little”. And since you’re a foreigner, it’s already implied that you’re referring to your Japanese speaking skills.

This is a great way to tell somebody that you don’t know Japanese that well but respect them enough to learn a few words. Now if you really don’t know Japanese…

5. I don’t know Japanese. Nihongo wakarimasen. 日本語わかりません

This is just straight up, “I don’t know Japanese” which will typically shut the person up. It’s not rude though, so don’t worry about using this. You can even shorten this to wakarimasen which is “I don’t know.” They’d be able to infer through context that you’re referring to what they’re saying in Japanese.

6. Can you speak English? Eigo dekimasu ka? 英語できますか?

If you’ve given up and just want to speak in English, then this is the phrase for you. Literally translated it’s ,“English, can you?” Some Japanese phrasebooks might use, “eigo o hanasemasu ka? (英語を話せますか?)” which properly translates to, “Can you speak English?”

Doesn’t matter which one you use though. Personally, I prefer the first one as it’s much simpler. The latter can easily be messed up since it has more grammatical elements.

7. Please. Onegaishimasu. お願いします

Please in Japanese can either be onegaishimasu or kudasai. Though then can be interchanged, onegashimasu is a bit more polite so use that more often. Of course, there are cultural nuances between the two but for your trip to Japan, you’ll be fine with just remembering onegaishimasu.

The usage is very similar to its English equivalent, for when you politely want to ask for something. Like if you want to ask for water, say “mizu onegaishimasu”.

8. Slowly please. Yukkuri onegaishimasu. ゆっくり おねがいします

When learning a new language, native speakers seem to sound faster than normal. It’s even worse in Japanese because they literally speak 25% faster than English speakers; so this phrase would be very useful.

Use this when you want the person to speak slower. This is sometimes used with the phrase, “mou ichido onegaishimasu (もう一度お願いします)” which means one more time. You don’t need to remember that though because it’s typically implied that you want the person to say the sentence again, this time slower.

9. Thank you. arigatou gozaimasu. ありがとうございます

Standard thank you phrase. If you want to be impressively polite and formal, add “domo” at the beginning to form domo arigatou gozaimasu. You can say this super polite thank you to your host. No need to be formal with shop keepers though. The standard arigatou gozaimasu is plenty formal for that occasion.

10. Excuse me. Sumimasen. すみません

Excuse me in Japanese is sumimasen. You’d use this typically the same way you’d use excuse me in English; like when you want to call someone’s attention or if you want to go through a crowd of people. You can also use this to call the attention of a waiter in a restaurant. You can even use this as a sort of thank you. In the case where you use sumimasen to politely ask someone directions, instead of saying arigatou gozaimasu, say sumimasen to thank the person. Culturally it’s like saying, “Sorry again for bothering you. Thank you.”

If you accidentally step on someone else’s foot in a crowded train, you might say sumimasen similar to how you’d say excuse me if you accidentally bump into someone but that’s incorrect. You should say the Japanese equivalent of I’m sorry.

11. I’m sorry. Gomen nasai. ごめんなさい

This should be pretty straight forward but if you’re still confused between sumimasen and gomen nasai, think of the latter as something you’d say to explicitly apologize for something you have already done.

12. Yes. Hai. はい | No. Iie. いいえ

Typical yes or no phrase.

CURIOUS FACT: Hai is better translated as “I agree” than “Yes”. Consider the phrase, “Have you not eaten?” In English you might respond with, “No I have not” which in Japanese is iie but that’s incorrect. You’d actually say “hai” to agree that you have not actually eaten. Sounds confusing but you’d rarely need to use this distinction in practice. You can, however, tell your friends about this so you’d look smarter. Told you you’d be a master in Japanese. 😁

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Directions and Asking for Stuff

Super useful set of Japanese travel phrases. Make sure you pay attention to this section, specially with number 14.

13. Where is the <blank>? <blank> wa doko desu ka? <なに なに> はどこですか?

Since you’re new to Japan, this phrase would be very useful. All you need to do is add the word you’re looking for and voila. Here are some examples:

  • Toilet. Toire. トイレ
  • Train Station. Eki. 駅
  • Taxi Stand. Takushī noriba. タクシー乗り場

So if you’re looking for the toilet say, “Toire wa doko desu ka?” You can use this for practically anything you’re looking for.

Now here’s the problem, can you understand the response? The amazing thing about the Japanese is that they’re super helpful to foreigners asking for directions. I’ve personally experienced this a couple of times when I was looking for a taxi stand. Instead of giving me an overly difficult set of directions, they just brought me to the place. Some of my friends experienced this as well so it’s more common than you think. But just in case that doesn’t happen, here are a few direction words to remember.

  • From here. Koko kara. ここ から
  • Left. Hidari. 左
  • Right. Migi. 右
  • Straight. Massugu. まっすぐ

Typically the only thing you need to remember is the left and right words. To help with that remember the phrase, “Me (migi), I’m always right. And he (hidari), is always left behind.”

14. <Blank> wa? <なに なに> は?

There’s no English translation to this magical phrase but if there’s one thing you want to remember in this article it’s this phrase, <blank> wa? This phrase can be used to ask directions, ask if they can or can’t do something, allow or not allow something etc. It’s so flexible that you can probably use this with any word and still get the message across.

How does it work? Add a noun then add wa and use a tone like you’re asking something. For example: toire wa? Means “Where is the toilet?” Literally it translates to “toilet?” but like what I’ve been saying, since it’s implied that you’re looking for the toilet, then you can drop all the other words and just say toire wa? What if you’re eating at a restaurant and you can’t read the menu but you want to ask if they have sushi; just say “sushi wa?” Say you’re at a grocery but you don’t know where the bread section is; say, “pan wa?” Or if you see an amazing cosplayer and you want to take a picture say, “sashin wa?

Seriously, this is so amazingly flexible that it would save you from a lot of hassle if you remember this one Japanese travel phrase. This should be in all Japanese travel phrases guide and Japan phrase books but sadly no one mentions this one hack.

Anyway, let’s explore that last one a bit more.

15. Can I take a picture? Shashin wo totte mo ii desu ka? 写真を撮ってもいいですか?

Japan is full of amazing people that you’d want to take pictures of them. The proper way of asking is of course “shashin wo totte mo ii desu ka?” but as we’ve already learned we could just use the short cut shashin wa? Now this is a little bit unclear if you want to take a photo of them or if you want to take a photo with them. To clear this up you can add, “issho ni (いっしょ に)” which means, “together”. So the grammatically correct statement is, “issho ni shashin wo totte mo ii desu ka?” But at this point, we want to know the short cut which is, “Shashin wa? Issho ni?” or “Picture? Together?”

16. Are you single? Dokushin desu ka? 独身ですか?

This phrase is something you’ll use practically every day! No? Ok then. I’ll just leave this here.

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How to order food in Japan / Buying stuff

17. Welcome. Irrashaimase. いらっしゃいませ

Welcome in Japanese is actually yokoso (ようこそ). You’ll see this in a lot of signs specially at the airport. Irrashaimase is typically used in shops. So in a way, it’s also welcome except they’re welcoming your money.

This is totally different from “you’re welcome” when somebody thanks you. “You are welcome” in Japanese is dou itashimashite (どういたしまして).

18. For how many? Nan mei sama desu ka? 何名様ですか?

This phrase is something that you’ll never use but will be hearing a lot. As soon as you walk into a restaurant, (after shouting irrashaimase at the top of their lungs) you’ll be asked this question. Commonly, people just hold up their hands which isn’t rude at all. But in case you want to be fancy and practice your Japanese, here’s how to count people in Japanese:

  • 1 person – hitori (一人)
  • 2 people – futari (二人)
  • 3 people – sannin (三人)
  • 4 people – yonin (四人)
  • 5 people – gonin (五人)
  • 6 people – rokunin (六人)
  • 7 people – shichinin (七人)
  • 8 people – hachinin (八人)
  • 9 people – kyuunin (九人)
  • 10 people – juunin (十人)


19. Smoking or Non-Smoking? kitsuen desu ka? 喫煙ですか? OR Kinen desu ka? 禁煙ですか ?

This is a very important question that you need to pay attention to as this could easily ruin your meal. In Japan, diners are still allowed to smoke inside a restaurant but they do have a designated smoking section.

Kitsuen desu ka?” is a question asking if you’re going to smoke. If you want to be seated among other smokers say, “kitsuen desu.” It’s the same phrase without the ka. If you want to be seated with the non-smokers say, “kinen desu.

When this is asked it would be either just the first one (kitsuen desu ka?) or both (kitsuen desu ka? kinen desu ka?). Again, make sure you pay attention to this one. However…

I have bad news for you. In most restaurants, specially older ones, there’s no divider between smoking and non-smoking sections. That means it’s possible to still sit beside a smoking section. Just be prepared when this happens.

20. Check please? O kaikei onegaishimasu? お会計お願いします?

Typically in Japanese restaurants, they give you the bill as soon as they finish serving all of the dishes. After that, you head over to the counter to make your payment. But there are some restaurants where you need to ask for the check from the waiter.

An easier way to ask for the check is to do the normal handwriting gesture. Some younger Japanese tend to just make a small x using their pointing fingers which accomplishes the same thing. Remember, small x using your fingers not a big x using your forearms. Those have two totally different meanings.

21. Do you accept credit cards? Kaado wa ii desu ka? カードはいいですか?

Very important if you prefer to pay using credit card instead of cash. Literally translated, this means, “Card is good?” They would respond with either hai or iie.

22. How much? Ikura desu ka? いくらですか?

For buying stuff outside of restaurants, you could use this phrase to ask how much. The answer is pretty straight forward but you need to learn basic numbers in Japanese to understand the response.

23. I don’t need it. Iranai. いらない

You would use this one if you’re browsing at a street market and one vendor insists that you buy something. This is super casual so make sure you sound respectful when saying this. If you raise your voice and use a tone showing you’re annoyed, this would come off as very rude. If you don’t want to accidentally offend anyone, you can use the polite form irimasen (いりません).

Must-know Kanji Characters

Now for this set of Japanese travel phrases, you need to memorize the characters. OR you can take a screenshot of this and leave it on your phone.

Open and Close Kanji (Japanese Travel Phrases)

You would see these Japanese kanji characters on elevator buttons. It’s easy to infer which one’s open (the green one) if you don’t panic first. 😁

Open and Close Hiragana (Japanese Travel Phrases)

Same as the first one but this time it’s written in hiragana. While it’s pretty obvious which one’s open and which is close in this image, you might see the words in other places like on a window.

Elevator (Japanese Travel Phrases)

This one should be easy if you already know how to read some hiragana. What can be confusing is what it refers to, like what exactly is the home button. In this case, home refers to the train tracks. So the home button can either bring you up or down depending on where the tracks are.

Kaisatsu refers to the turnstiles or barriers for going in and out of the station.

Push and Pull (Japanese Travel Phrases)

This is very common in Japanese shops and restaurants. To help you remember this, focus on the pull kanji character. See how it looks like a bow that you will be pulling an arrow back. And if it’s not pull, it’s push. But you can also look at the push kanji character and remember that it looks like arcade buttons that you push with a joystick beside it.

Flush 1 (Japanese Travel Phrases)

And now we come to the infamous Japanese toilets. You want to remember this one because you don’t want to do a small flush after taking a dump. You can distinguish between the small meek looking man with arms on his side compared to the big man with arms and legs wide open.

Flush 2 (Japanese Travel Phrases)

If you notice, these is the same kanji characters but with the complete Japanese travel phrases. You don’t need to read the actual phrase, just remember the big and small kanji characters.

By the way, the above photo is of a control panel that’s embedded in the wall of the toilet. It controls flushing and other stuff like vanity sounds (to drown out the sound of your dump) and toilet freshener. Japanese toilets are amazing. 🤩

This has confused many travelers so make sure to take note of these kanji. Or just play around with all the buttons. It’s more exciting that way. 😂

More Must-Know Kanji Characters

I wasn’t able to get photos for this set of Japanese Travel phrases so I’ll just write the symbols and meanings.

Male. Otoko. 男
Female. Onna. 女

This one’s super important. Some restaurants, even in Tokyo, have these kanji characters instead of the male and female symbols. You’d also see these at onsens. If you’re a guy, you do not want to accidentally want to walk into a room full of naked women. 😏

Entrance. Iri guchi. 入口
Exit. De guchi. 出口

If you’re only traveling to places like Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto; entrances and exits are marked with English names so you should be good. If you’re traveling to more remote areas of Japan, these signs would be super useful.

Washroom. Otearai. お手洗い
Toilet. Toire.トイレ

Washroom and toilet are interchangeable in Japanese so it doesn’t matter which one you see but make sure you remember both.

Ramen. ラーメン or らーめん

If you see these characters, do yourself a favor and go inside.

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Let's Discuss

That’s about it for our Japanese Travel Phrases. Did you find these useful? Are there any other phrases that you wish you knew? Let us know in the comments.

Mel Vargas

Hi, I'm Mel. I'm the jedi half of Curious Couple Travels. I used to be a corporate slave like most people but I've decided to leave work and spend the next 12 months traveling. Am I prepared? Maybe... Scared? A little. Excited? HECK YEAH!

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