How to be adventurous in Japan without speaking Japanese

Part II of the Travel in Japan series

An umbrella shop in Tokyo holds merchandise ranging between $1 and $50 (USD).

By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly

The first rule when it comes to finding an adventure in Japan is getting rid of tour guides and translators.

If uncertainties and surprises thrill you, read on. If you can walk up big steps and traverse long distances in good spirit, this is the trip for you. If you enjoy experiencing new foods and striking up conversations with strangers, continue on.

Don’t worry about safety in Japan. Just look at their police officers and you will realize crime is low in Japan. Cops don’t carry guns. You can roam around the country without worrying about being pick-pocketed like you would in other parts of Asia. There are no dishonest taxi drivers like those in Istanbul or Athens.

The question is, How do you get around the country without speaking Japanese?

Inside the Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo are extravagant golden chandeliers hanging in front of enormous mirrors that have the hotel’s visitors seeing double.

Many Japanese officials looked at me with disbelief when he or she learned that we were traveling alone without knowing how to speak Japanese.

“More and more Japanese know English, but don’t speak [because] they are afraid of making mistakes,” said an American I met in Tokyo who has lived in Japan for years. “It’s a cultural thing,” he added. “Making mistakes [is] shameful.”

My past Japan trips have had both guides and translators, but I did not enjoy them as much as this one because we were able to explore by ourselves. A couple times the Japanese even offered to help us even though we did not seek any help.

As a way to efficiently use all the space available, the Japanese have built a dense marketplace underneath the railways in Tokyo.

“Where are you going?” a woman asked us at a subway station while we were glancing at the map on the wall. That never happened during my other trips.

Another time, a stranger tried to explain directions and failed with his limited English. He then led the way, “Follow me. This way.”

Those simple words meant a lot to us.

You speak English?

When traveling in Japan, be bold. Ask strangers questions. Don’t be afraid to make silly mistakes. We not only learned, but we were also amused when we erred.

“You speak English?” is the first thing out of my mouth whenever we encountered someone.
The most common question they asked was,

“Where are you from?”

A temple dedicated to the goddess of mercy, Kuan Yin, in Ueno is built with Chinese architecture in mind.

“Seattle. You know … Ichiro?”

“Ah, Seattle. Ken Griffey?”

If you talk about baseball, Japanese folks relate to you quickly.

You won’t go hungry if you can’t speak Japanese. Many Japanese restaurants displayed samples of dishes in its storefront. Just ask the waitress to go to the front with you. Point out the dish you want.

For restaurants without window displays, I asked for an English menu.

No tipping

Rarely did I repeat the same errors in one day, but there was one incident when we arrived at the airport. My husband and I got off the airport shuttle bus, which the Japanese call a limousine, and tipped the driver. He shoved the tip back at my husband and bowed to us, mumbling something in Japanese.

Later, a young woman loaded our luggage onto her cart and took us to our hotel room. We tried giving her a tip and she told us in plain English, “Japan does not have a tipping system.”

In the United States, bookstores are a decreasing business; in Japan, however, they are thriving.

We then went for a snack at a nearby Chinese restaurant. The bill was for 1800 yen, about $18 (USD). We gave the Chinese waiter 2000 yen and the waiter brought us back 200 yen in change.

The waiter later chased after us to give us back the money we left on the table.

“Keep it,” we said in Chinese. And he complied. Third time’s the charm?

Automation takes over

On the day we arrived, we rushed to a bank to exchange our dollars for Japanese currency. The English sign read, “bank,” but there was nobody inside the store — only 13 ATM machines.

During our five days in Japan, I did not see one bank with tellers inside.

In America, we have drive-through restaurants. In Japan, machines are erected in front of many Japanese restaurants where diners pay and buy a ticket for what they want. Customers hand the restaurant workers the ticket and get the food.

A gift shop selling herbal medicine in Tokyo

These machines did not bother me, as they provided 21st century essentials — except for one. The cigarette machines are everywhere. Although the smart machines checked identification, they don’t prevent young Japanese men and women from smoking because they are easily accessible and cheap (only $3­–$4 USD).

This is what I disliked about Japan. There was smoky air in every public place, including shops, restaurants, and hotel rooms — even when no one was smoking. Smoking is so severe in Japan that it has infiltrated many areas. It’s common for folks to wear a mask.

I became sick on the third day in Japan due to the smoke. I took six herbal allergy pills, but they didn’t stop my nose from running. I finally bought a mask from a drug store and wore it, and only then did I feel normal.

To temple or to the mall?

Things are expensive in Japan, so I reasoned: I don’t need anything!

But soon, I noticed many shops had sales. The sluggish economy did create a silver lining for shoppers. Storefronts were aesthetically appealing. How the clothes were displayed! How the ribbons, knots, and scarves were folded!
And hey, Japanese sizes are my size. The fashion was stylish, pretty, and well tailored. Prices were reasonable when you considered the quality.

If you want good prices, stay away from brand names and huge department stores. Try the many boutiques in the subways. The rows of shops are like another world, full of gorgeous merchandise. I bought clothes, shoes, and earrings. Some items on sale can be cheaper than those found in Seattle.

At a mall called the Decks, I tried my luck with bargaining. Instead of 3000 yen for an item, I wrote 3000 on the salesman’s pad. I crossed it out and put 2500 underneath it. Before I finished the last zero, he motioned OK with his finger. I was not bargaining for the sake of saving money. I was curious if the Japanese played along and let customers have some fun.

In another store, I did the same thing. The owner gladly said yes.

Don’t worry about what’s written on the price tag. Just pen a fair price and ask. The worst response you can get is,


The tax is already included in Japanese products. America is famous for hidden fees. The listed price always comes with additional taxes. For example, a $200 hotel room in America would end up being $245 with tax. In Japan, the quoted price is the real thing. The menu price already includes taxes, and no tip is required.

Ideal hotels for Americans

If you don’t speak Japanese, your hotel is an important source for information. We decided on an American-franchised hotel in Ginza, which had an English-speaking staff so we could easily get information, check the Internet, and have the opportunity to meet fellow Americans. It’s lonely not being able to talk to people when I travel. It’s also important that you pick a hotel close to a business district so you can hang out there in the evening.

Sometimes I opt to save a lot of money by staying in an older Japanese-style hotel, where rooms and beds are tiny and you can hear your neighbors talking. You might have to share the bathroom. It costs 3500 yen in Harajuku (about $35 USD).

The four-star hotel we stayed in this time charged us $200 (USD) a night and included breakfast for two. This is considered a good deal in Japan. The original price was $300 (USD) without breakfast, so be sure to negotiate your rates.

The geography of Tokyo is not logical like it is in U.S. cities. It doesn’t follow numbers. Parts of a district seem like they were suddenly added. They lacked pattern in development. The hotel staff comes in handy for questions about where things are located. The staff also provide comprehensive English guides for tourists on how to get from the hotel to shopping areas, sightseeing opportunities, restaurants, entertainment venues, and souvenir shops.

The other source for directions is the police. Police officers know the addresses in their district; they serve more as a community liaison than as law enforcement.

Use the subway

If you can master Japan’s subway system, you can go anywhere in Tokyo. Owned by 13 companies, the metro lines are complicated, confusing, and overwhelming to foreigners. Luckily, we met an American from our hotel who walked us through the system of buying tickets and entering and exiting the subway.

The Japanese system is also similar to the Hong Kong system. Being able to read Chinese is a plus, as Japanese districts use a lot of Chinese characters. The English translations for Japanese words are often written in a smaller font.

Taking the subway is faster and more efficient than traveling on buses or by taxi. Always carry a map and study the directions before you visit a place. My husband studied the map diligently, and he ended up becoming my guide.

The Japanese are like Nordstrom

Most Seattleites rave about the service at Nordstrom. In Japan, sales and service clerks behave like Nordstrom representatives, and perhaps even better.

In the United States, salespeople may dump all merchandise into one big bag. In Japan, one smiling owner packed more than 30 art objects individually for me, each with a mini plastic bag and his artist logo seal stamped on top with the utmost care. Upon hearing that I did not need a shoe box, another salesperson tightly wrapped a new pair of shoes with tissues to retain the shoes’ original shape. The tape and tissue paper matched in color. The wrapping looked like art. I could never have done it.

During another occasion, I bought a sweater, and all three of the saleswomen lined up to bow and say thank you as I was leaving.

The moment we exited a restaurant, the wait staff would be there to bow and say thanks. The cooks would echo the same sentiment from the kitchen in a sing-song way, no matter how busy they were. They said it with energy, poise, and enthusiasm.

If there was anything I could apply from Japanese culture into my business, it would be this important lesson: Expressing appreciation like the Japanese do is great customer service.

What inspired me

Some friends suggested we go see Electronics City and Tokyo Tower. I skipped them because those places are not relaxing.

Instead, we chose to go to the Tokyo University, Royal Palace Garden, Fish Market, Opera District, Meiji Shrine, National Japanese Museum, the theaters at Ginza, the Tokyo cruise at Odaiba, snacks and toy markets, and many temples. Of the 16 districts in Tokyo, we toured half of them. I recommend going to all of them.

What inspired me most is the Meiji Shrine. One part of the exhibit houses all the portraits of the Japanese emperors from the first to the current. In 1868, the Meiji Emperor began his reign with reforms and modernization and thus ended feudalism in Japan.

The Meiji Emperor’s and Empress’ portraits, wearing Western clothing and hairstyle, were a sharp contrast to the thousand years of prior emperors in traditional clothing. It symbolized their courage in pushing for change and their willingness to accept new ideas. If it seems challenging for President Obama to initiate changes now in the United States, think about how difficult it must have been for the Meiji Emperor to do so in the 19th century. Yet he did it. ♦

Assunta Ng can be reached at

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