A question I am often asked is ‘how easy is it to travel in Japan if you don’t know the language”. After four self planned independent holidays there, I can confidently say it’s not a barrier to travelling in Japan, and certainly no more difficult than travelling in any other country where you don’t speak the local lingo. In my experience, it’s been easier.

Japan is very tourist conscious, and its efforts to be tourist friendly for international visitors who don’t speak Japanese got a big boost in preparations for the Tokyo Olympics. Although the pandemic put paid to big Olympic crowds, the event did see a marked improvement in english signage, menus, brochures, information offices and other aids for english speakers. Taxis, hotels and the guiding industry also put extra efforts to boost their English skills.

Even more remote regions, off the beaten tourist track, became more open to providing information in English in an effort to attract tourism in their areas. I learnt a lot more about these areas when they began offering free online internet tours in English during the pandemic!

First time visitors to Japan are likely to follow a main tourist route – Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima where there’s an abundance of assistance for english speakers. You will have little difficulties.

All Shinkensens (bullet trains) and other major trains, including the central circular Yamamoto line in Tokyo, have announcements and signs in english. Major train stations have loads of english signage, and english speaking train personnel.

A friendly English speaking railways officer at Kanazawa Station
Assistance at Kyoto railway station

“The next stop is Yokohama. Please get off on the left side of the train.” Yes, up comes the english direction on an tv screen or in an announcement about which side of the train to alight from for the oncoming platform! On Shinkensens you might sometimes detect an Aussie accent in announcements. She is a West Aussie.

There also are information and booking offices with english speakers at train and bus stations. Some special services such as the lovely Sakura trams in Tokyo offer english brochures about what the trams offer and where they go.

Major train stations such as Tokyo Station and Kyoto Station have their own English language websites with station plans and directories. Well worth studying before you go to Japan. These stations are small cities within themselves with fabulous restaurants and shops! I love them!

Oh no! Never fear – we figured it all out


The big game changer these days are free translator apps that you load onto your phone, such as Google translator. There also are an abundance of other translator devices to buy, and you can hire them at major airports in Japan. Translators transform Japanese signage, menus, etc into English (and other languages), and the accuracy these days is pretty good. My husband was like a kid in a toy store using Google translator on our trip to Japan last November.

We’ve found that Japanese are starting to carry translators too, especially in stores. We wandered into a lovely shop in regional area on one occasion where no english was spoken. The shop keeper delightedly produced her translator as my husband produced his! We had quite a conversation and ended up chatting for about half an hour!

Going off the usual tourist track where English is not widely understood, you can expect some difficulties. But nothing insurmountable if you have done your research homework and preparation, keep your cool, and have a Japanese/english dictionary and a translator app. Actually, I have never had to resort to a dictionary in Japan.

On those occasions when language has been a stumbling block, I’ve found that Japanese people are aware of our problem, and watch out for us to ensure we reach our destination, often going out of their way to help, despite the language barrier.

Many areas also have volunteer free guides who speak english. This includes Tokyo. And of course, there are the usual fee paid english speaking guides and tours available.


We used this free service for a guided tour of Matsumoto Castle

We sometimes go on half day paying tours with english speaking guides – there’s an excellent one hour Tokyo familiarisation bus tour for around $20 Australian – the Hato Bus – that leaves from outside Tokyo station. I highly recommend it.

The Hato one hour Tokyo tour – excellent!

I have found that travelling independently in Japan is remarkably easy. Public transport is excellent, particularly if you use the wonderful rail networks. Japan Railway passes (JR) are sold in countries around the world ahead of your trip. Other rail and bus passes are available in Japan.


My effort into researching our trips always pays off, and is a substantial help towards achieving a good visit without knowing the local language.

My first stop is always the local official Japan Tourist office – JNTO (Japan National Tourism Organisation) – in Australia it is based in Sydney, and easily accessed via their extensive website or by email contact. They offer the latest information, travel updates, a regular newsletter and an abundance of brochures and booklets – some you can download, and others they will snail mail to you free. These are brochures produced in Japan that you can’t generally access at regular travel agents. They will also answer your queries and offer advice by email.

It’s exciting when the postman delivers a parcel packed with a treasure of current brochures, maps and information that I’ve asked for from the JNTO.


I generally book hotels and ryokans within walking distance of train stations in Japan – less complicated than if you have to find your way further afield. If I have to get a taxi, I get someone (hotel assistant etc) to write my destination in Japanese – just in case I get a driver who can’t understand me.

Could Japanese Taxis be the cleanest in the world? Probably!

It is also useful to ascertain if accommodation has english speaking staff and if they have western style beds. Most of the big chain hotels and western style hotels do, but some hotels and ryokans only offer Japanese style bedding. Which is fine if your knees can handle getting up from the floor.

To experience some very special places, it is often necessary to sleep Japanese style on floor level futons – for instance, the wonderful small ryokans at the charming village of Tsumago in the beautiful Kiso valley – we stayed at Fujioto’s where the tariff included magnificent breakfast and dinner feasts! I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Lucky you weren’t a fly on the wall, observing my ‘senior’s acrobatic approach’ to getting up off my futon!

Ready for dinner at Fujimoto’s in Tsumago in my ryokan supplied yukata – light summer kimono

Another worthwhile futon effort was the small family run Oki’s Inn in a traditional shopping arcade in Kyoto. A former townhouse from the early 1900’s and bakery, it only offers four bedrooms, each with modern ensuites. The couple who run it actually met in my home town in Tasmania! They speak good english! It’s a great experience to stay there.



Check out the local community office in the arcade. They did a sterling job supporting the local shopkeepers and community during the tough pandemic years, and they have resumed their popular local walking tours with english speaking guides at very cheap prices!

Ask for Kyoko and tell her Therese sent you! Back in 2019, she endured my endless emails with a million questions about the community walking tours. I now regard her as a good friend. And ask her if ‘Hiromi’ is still leading walks. Hiromi is an excellent English speaker and a wonderful guide. Kyoko will also be able to provide you with information on knife sharpening classes with a Master. Hubby Mike did the class last November – our Oki’s Inn landlord volunteered to translate – a highlight of Mike’s 2022 trip.


We have used buses in Japan too and again this is where our research proven essential. On a bus trip from Matsumoto to the beautiful Kamikochi in the Northern Japanese Alps in Nagano prefecture, our research suggested we get off at the Tashiro Pond, about three kilometres short of our destination, and complete the journey on a short delightful trek. So we were ready and watching out for the earlier hop off bus stop. Most of the Japanese passengers got off there too, doing the same thing. So that was a big hint we were getting it right!

English signs on the trail at Kamikochi
Morning tea on our mini 3 k hike at Komikochi


I always ensure that some english is spoken at our accommodations. All the main international booking sites offer Japanese accommodation. It’s worthwhile watching out for specials!

I usually use the Qantas site (even if I’m not flying Qantas), Booking.com, Expedia and Japan’s own Japanican – https://www.japanican.com

With hotels that are part of major chains and some ryokans, I will book direct if their price is the best. I have found no problem in doing this. Chains I have used include Mitsui Garden hotels and Daiwa Roynet, and I’ve always been pleased with the accommodation price wise and quality wise. NOTE that many accommodations can have quite small rooms – we always ensure we book a room with at least 18 sq m – enough to accommodate a Queen size bed or two singles.

When the pandemic hit, cancelling out our planned 2020 JAPAN trip at the last minute, all these sites returned my accommodation money in full – no cancellation fees. No hassle.

That included by direct booking at Fujioto’s in Tsumago. I’m sure they were losing most of their bookings at the time, but they demanded no cancellation fee. I did finally get there in 2022!

One booking for the WAT Hotel in Takayama in the Hida region was a ‘no refund’ booking I had made to gain a cheaper rate. I did not expect any money back when I cancelled. However, I was asked for the reason I was cancelling, and subsequently was returned my full accommodation cost. I mention that hotel because it was a very honourable thing to do.


Another thing we do in preparation for our Japan trips is to google walk from train stations to our accommodation or to particular places we want to visit. We do our google walks on our computer before we leave home – as a result, when we arrive in a new place, it feels familiar to us. And we roughly know where we are going! MJ loves doing the google walks and noting down landmarks that we can spot en route.

As with every trip I do, I check review sites such as Trip Advisor and other bloggers for useful information.

And we regularly watch NHK TV World – a Government run Japan station in English that has an amazing array of programmes on Japan, its culture, tourism and food. Its international news programmes are excellent too.

I’ve got loads of ideas on where to go in Japan from NHK. We mainly use the free app and chrome it to our TV. You can also access it free on Apple TV.

About a week before we left on our November 2022 trip, NHK ran a programme on a beautiful place called Amanohashidate (天橋立) by the sea. I’d never heard of it before, and was delighted to find that it was in Kyoto prefecture – an ideal day trip – two hour rail trip from Kyoto where we were staying for several days. So it immediately was included on our itinerary.

What a gem! We saw no other foreigners there, and being a mid November week day there weren’t a lot of Japanese tourists. I imagine it’s very popular in summer. The train journey from Kyoto to Amanohashidate was also excellent, with loads of interesting scenery along the way. I’ll be writing a separate blog story on Amanobashidate soon.



I have slowly built up a small vocabulary of about 50 common Japanese words and phrases to express politeness – thank you, good evening, good morning, excuse me, pleased to meet you, delicious, excellent, etc. I find my effort is appreciated, even if I can’t engage in an actual Japanese conversation. Help with this is readily available free on the Internet.

Three of my essentials are:

Idesu ka. May I? I use this all the time when I want to take a photo of a Japanese person, a house or object. Who wants a tourist pointing a camera at you? But if that tourist politely asks if it’s ok, it’s remarkable how many people will smile and indicate ‘yes’. In fact, I’ve only ever had one refusal – a young policeman who was very apologetic. I presume police aren’t allowed to have their photo taken with the public.

This onion peeler in Tokyo didn’t speak English, but gladly posed for a photo when I asked ‘Ides ka’.

Itadakimasu – always said before a meal in thanks for the food. Definitely one to learn as Japanese say it religiously before beginning to eat.

Gochisousama it was a real feast. Said in appreciation of a good meal once you are finished. Say it to your host or waiter – it always brings a smile to their face.

Do try to learn common courtesy words such as ‘thank you’. They are simple words in Japanese. I have seen cafe/restaurant tables of westerners who either did not have the confidence to say these words, rudely couldn’t be bothered or they said it in English which the waiter did not understand. Just do it! Doesn’t matter if you don’t pronounce them exactly right, though you will hear them often enough and soon get them correct. Arigato – thanks!

Those occasions when my lack of Japanese language skills have presented a dilemma have turned out to be occasions that always bring a smile to my face when I remember them. They have been solvable dilemmas. Common sense usually wins out.


I also advise to generally gain an appreciation of Japanese culture – things to do and not to do. For instance: Don’t talk loudly in public areas or on public transport. Don’t eat while you are walking or on a suburban train. Eating is fine on Shinkansens and other long distance trains – in fact most people buy meal boxes known as ekiben for their trip or buy from the food trolleys that often come through carriages. Ice-creams are highly recommended from these trolleys – perhaps the most frozen hard ice-creams you will ever encounter, but worth the wait until they soften up! Oishi! Delicious!


An Ekiban we bought for about $12 Australian for a train journey. Mike used his google translate to check what was in it!


I have also learnt to ask ‘Do you speak English?’ All Japanese school children learn english, though the focus is on grammar rather than conversation. At a pinch, kids might be able to help!

Famously, on a shinkensen, I sat next to a Japanese woman in silence for about an hour after greeting her with one of my few Japanese phrases for “Good morning,” as I sat down. She returned the greeting in Japanese, and no more was said until she noticed my teenage son, across the aisle, writing a postcard in Japanese to his teacher back in WA.

“He’s writing in Japanese’ she exclaimed in English. “And you are speaking english,” I replied. We were both equally shocked! Turned out she spoke excellent English having lived in New York, but because I greeted her in Japanese and spoke no further, she thought I didn’t want to engage in conversation. We ended up deep in conversation for the remaining hour of the train trip. I’ve told this story in one of my other blog pieces, but it’s worth repeating.

You might think I was being accompanied on that occasion on the train by a Japanese speaker in my son. But no. When the pressure to interpret was on, he lost confidence and wasn’t a lot of help. So I would resort to my fail safe – sign language! (This was before google translator).

Japanese people are very polite, and generally won’t generally intrude on your space unless you make it clear you need assistance or want to engage. However, I’ve found Japanese in recent years are much more open to coming to the aid of international traveller than they were when I first visited 20 plus years ago. Possibly because more and more Japanese are travelling internationally themselves as independent travellers, rather than on Japanese guided tours. On recent trips, I’ve been hearing comments such as “Oh, we visited Australia on holiday,” Or “my granddaughter is on a working holiday in Australia.”


In a nutshell – Have confidence in yourself as a traveller in Japan, do your pre trip research and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid also to use those few Japanese words and phrases you’ve learnt. Japanese don’t really expect you to be able to speak Japanese. However, they are delighted when you attempt a few phrases, especially if you are extending common courtesy. Many will want to try some English conversation with you too!

Is Japan worth the effort – absolutely! Culturally, scenery wise, and food – it’s fabulous. As for the myths that it is overcrowded – there is a vast number of wonderful places that are not overcrowded even in Tokyo – and with trains, simply don’t travel in peak hour! Expensive – absolutely not, unless you want to frequent Michelin star restaurants and high end hotels.

There are many myths enduring about Japan that stem from decades ago when it was regarded as very expensive, not tourist friendly, and a country where little english was spoken. How things have changed! And that furphy – overcrowded. There’s that common image of the packed road crossing at Shibuya in Tokyo. It’s right in front of a railway station, and traffic in all directions is stopped to let pedestrians to floor the whole intersection. Take another look at that photo. How many people do you see bumping into each other?

Of course, you can put yourself into a crowded situation – I bet you can in your own country too. But employ strategies. Don’t get onto trains at peak time – an hour or so in the mornings and evenings – go early to popular attractions, be mindful of where you visit on weekends and public holidays when Japanese might be visiting popular places, and visit the many areas of Tokyo where it’s not overcrowded.

Tokyo – I love it! A city of expansive waterways and canals

In Tokyo, a city I rate as one of the most beautiful and delightful in the world, I mainly stay in Kyobashi, close to Tokyo railway station. I branch out by to explore Tokyo’s suburbs. In early mornings, I take quiet ambles to the neighbouring suburbs of Ginza and Nihonbashi with my camera. There are very few people about. At weekends, part of Ginza, a highly fashionable CBD area, main streets are closed off to traffic, turning it into a delightful pedestrian mall filled with families and other shoppers. This happens in other popular shopping suburbs as well.

A November Sunday in a main street of Tokyo’s CBD famous Ginza area.

Japan is an exploration delight, full of wonderful surprises – even if you don’t speak Japanese. Do I wish I had a full grasp of the Japanese language? I do. It would open up so much more of this exquisite oriental flower called Japan to me. But it is a complicated language, and at my age it’s a bit late in the day to grasp it. Armed, however, with my translator and my meagre list of Japanese words, I know I can continue to discover, explore and enjoy Japan.

Any questions? Just ask me. I’m happy to share our experiences.


  1. Hi Therese, Bonny Clark introduced me to your blog which gives me a wonderful insight on Japan. We are taking a 17 day cruise around Japan, Taiwan and Jejo Korea. Returning to Tokyo, on 28th October. We have heard the autumn leaves are amazing in HAKODATE. Reading your blog we feel we would love to find some walks enjoying the autumn colours.
    We are active pensioners, keen cyclists and live on the Gold Coast. We would like to walk from tea house to tea house, however have a suitcase each, so thinking day walks might be the solution.
    I was wondering if you any ideas of a hotel in the region or tour we could take.
    Quite honestly the language is fear of mine , but your blog has given me confidence.
    Thanking you in advance.
    Pamela and Warren


  2. Thank you for this informative post, Therese! I’ve bookmarked it for the next time the duck and I travel to Japan (whenever that may be). Even though we lived in Tokyo for a while, we never visited restaurants or planned weekend trips without having a Japanese friend there to talk for us (I suppose with our specific food preferences, that was a good idea). I’m determined to be braver next time!
    We were thrilled when we discovered we could use Google translate at the grocery store to read ingredient lists, even when we didn’t have a data plan yet. And, as a person with a terrible sense of direction, I heavily rely on Google-walking to new places beforehand. Before our first Tokyo grocery shopping trip, the duck and I virtually walked there and back several times until we were courageous enough to finally leave the house. If we hadn’t, we probably would still be wandering around our old neighborhood.


    • When were you in Tokyo? How long did you live there? It would be great to have a japanese friend to interpret for you, but perhaps you depended on them too much. We find Tokyo easy to negotiate. There is a lot more english signs, menus etc than when I first visited over 20 years ago

      Liked by 1 person

      • We lived there five years ago, for about a year. I was lucky to have friends help me activate my SIM card (for which you had to call a number in Japanese) and ensure the food I ordered would likely not disagree with me. Nowadays, I still wouldn’t feel comfortable ordering food without a Japanese-speaking friend’s help. Having conveyor belt sushi with a non-Japanese-speaking friend went well, though. So maybe, there’s hope.
        When it came to everyday activities, like navigating public transport or buying groceries, I had no problems in Tokyo (apart from my generally terrible sense of direction), even though my Japanese was, and still is, lousy. After reading your post, I want to try and be more independent regarding travels outside Tokyo, though!


      • GO FOR IT! I would love to live in Japan for a year – a bit late in the day for me to do that now. But we will continue to doing small trips there for as long as we can given our advanced age. I barely have 50 japanese words, and can’t understand if someone answers me in japanese. But we seem to muddle through, and that is all part of the adventure. We had a Japanese guide/friend accompany us to a Soba restaurant in Kyoto last November and she explained a lot about Soba that we would never had known if she hadn’t been there. So you are fortunate to have Japanese friends in Japan. We’ve been off track from the usual tourist routes now a number of times- detours I research meticulously – and so far it’s turned out fine.The sun always comes up tomorrow! Interesting, my son speaks, reads and comprehends Japanese fairly well after many many years of study .. but in Japan he becomes self conscious and rarely uses his Japanese. Don’t count on the conveyor belt sushi – they are phasing them out in Japan for health reasons. I was watching a NHK TV programme about it today.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, I will! I always enjoy reading about your Japan adventures and look forward to following some of your tips and recommendations the next time I visit. Funnily enough, the phrase I used most regularly (apart from the standard “hello,” “thank you,” and “excuse me”) was “I don’t need a bag” whenever I purchased something at a Konbini or grocery store. Once, I asked a bus driver if I was on the right bus. But other than that, I was always too afraid of accidentally saying something rude. Oh, I didn’t know that about the conveyor belt sushi restaurants. But it makes complete sense. Thank you for sharing!


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