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moof's prattling


August 24th, 2014

moof's guide to japan: "do"s, "don't"s, and "things to be aware of", part I @ 11:38 pm

So you want to go to Japan. Cool! Here's some stuff to be aware of.


  • Japanese vowels are very similar to Italian. They're produced way back in the throat, and they don't change based on position in the word or surrounding consonants. tonkotsu and tonkatsu refer to very different things; resist the tendency to slur vowels into a schwa. And vowel length can matter: "meshi" means 'food', "mēshi" (with an extended e) means 'business card'.

  • Japanese people are not used to people speaking bad Japanese. Bad pronunciation and bad grammar will often confuse the hell out of them.

  • Did you take high school Spanish? Do you remember much of it? Do you know what "piso mojado" means? How's your accent? Yeah, well, it's like that for Japanese folks and English, except they were even less likely to have native speakers teaching them. And an awful lot of people would be too embarrassed with their language ability to admit to knowing any English at all.

  • If you write something down, it's often much more likely to be understood than if you speak it aloud. Phrasebooks can be helpful for this, so you can point at the phrase you're speaking.

  • The single most useful thing to learn before your trip is not Japanese per se, but the katakana syllabary. There's a whole lot of English words that have been imported for everyday use and they show up on a lot of signs. Take a look at https://www.narita-airport.jp/jp/inquiry/ ; the first two boxes have 'フライト' ("furaito") and 'セキュリティチェック’ ("sekyuritichekku"). If you know that the "r" and "l" sounds are interchangeable, it shouldn't be too hard to recognize those two as "flight" and "security check".

Getting around

  • If you're going to be spending a fair amount of time in cities, get a Suica stored-value card or the local equivalent. It's a supreme pain in the ass to figure out what the train or bus fares are going to be, which magic turnstiles you have to use to transfer between lines more cheaply, and so forth. By getting one, you can just slap $10 or $20 on there, and just tap it at the turnstyles, and all the calculation and deduction and transfer stuff will be done for you, pretty much.

  • With the exception of Kyoto, the trains (subway or aboveground) in big cities are usually going to be cheaper and more convenient than buses. They're on-time, they're cheap, they're reliable; if the train schedule says they're going to leave at 09:45, by golly, it's going to leave at 9:45. This goes for local trains, the shinkansen, pretty much everything.

  • Most cities will have more than one transit vendor, and it'll be far cheaper (if sometimes much slower) to use only one vendor's transit line than to switch back and forth between them on any given trip.

  • Almost all businesses will have little maps showing where they are, along with their address. The address is good for computer navigation or looking something up in a map book, but almost useless for actually navigating somewhere on foot. If you're at "1-23-4" and trying to get to "1-24-4", it doesn't mean you're necessarily anywhere near, and even local residents are unlikely to know where a given address is. See the fine Wikipedia article for more details. If your hotel has a map on its webpage, print it out along with the address.

  • In a lot of major cities, the trains shut down midnight-ish and the cabs go into super usury mode. If you're going to go out late, be prepared to hoof it back, wait until 5 when the trains start running again, or shell out $50 for a cab.


  • Most ATMs have hours, because why would you ever need to withdraw money past 7pm? Your foreign ATM cards are most likely to work in either a Japanese Post Office ATM, or a 7-Eleven ATM. (Supposedly Citibank, too, but I've seen all of two Citibank ATMs over there, I think.)

  • Be prepared to use cash. A lot. Some places will accept credit cards for over a certain amount, but it's often a minimum of $50-$100. Many places don't accept credit cards at all.

  • If you've got a Suica, some vending machines will let you use it to pay.

  • It's way too easy to end up with $20 of change at the end of the day if you're not paying attention, since the 500円 coin is the largest denomination, and that's $5.


  • The single most useful word: "sumimasen". It's roughly equivalent to "excuse me" and all the connotations associated therein; you can use it to get somebody's attention, to apologize, etc.

  • Second most useful word: "arigatō", 'thank you'.

  • Use the above two a lot. Looking abashed and apologizing will smoothe over an incredible amount of social awkwardness and/or impropriety.

  • Don't be loud. Watch where you're going. Be on time.

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[User Picture Icon]
Date:August 25th, 2014 02:26 pm (UTC)
I'm going to have to come back and read this several more times.
also arrrrrgh because I'm mostly concentrating on getting hiragana burnt into my head. Well, I'll start working on katakana.
[User Picture Icon]
Date:August 25th, 2014 06:47 pm (UTC)
Heh, don't treat it as gospel; add a minibus-sized grain of salt and YMMV. And FWIW, I found katakana to be far easier than hiragana; hiragana fucks with my dyslexia something terrible and many of the characters look very similar to each other. Katakana is far more distinct.
Date:August 25th, 2014 11:12 pm (UTC)
One of the little bits of advice I found helpful was to have all the phrases in English and Japanese printed (I actually had them on my phone so I always had them with me) next to each other along with the address and the map for my hotel. Things like "How much for a taxi to here?" and such things we needed at the airport. Having it all done before I arrived was most useful since the cab drivers we talked to didn't speak any English but were happy to work it out and I didn't have to find a phrasebook, I had all those specific things immediately to hand while mostly asleep after a long flight.

M's recommendation for cash was cash machines at big chain hotels which is also usually a safe location to be taking out large sums of cash. We did indeed get through a lot of cash. I even used my Suica card at a vending machine to use up some of the money on it.

Mostly, for people like me who suck at languages, I recommend taking someone along who has some familiarity with the language, culture and getting around, worked out well for me ;)

(I was also rather aghast at some of my cow-orkers embarrassing wait staff in restaurants and such by trying to ask them long complex questions in English when they understood almost none of it and continuing to try when they were obviously getting nowhere, not even simplifying the sentences... and these weren't even the Americans, particularly one whose first language wasn't English)
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Date:August 26th, 2014 02:57 am (UTC)
I was thinking about mentioning something more about phrasebooks; my favorite one is Toshiya Enomoto's, although I suspect that the Hello Kitty is also pretty good.

Another thing I was thinking of adding: "Speak slowly. Use simple grammar. Enunciate more."

Something I'll definitely add: pitfalls of electronic navigation. Google Maps for Japan has gone to utter shit in five years, and I don't know why.
[User Picture Icon]
Date:August 26th, 2014 01:27 am (UTC)
Japanese people are not used to people speaking bad Japanese.

Huh. Do you know why that is?
[User Picture Icon]
Date:August 26th, 2014 02:50 am (UTC)
I think they're simply not exposed to it that often. It's a really pretty homogeneous culture; the vast majority of people there are from Japan and speak Japanese natively. Some people, like hotel clerks, train station attendants, or employees of convenience stores near foreigner-frequented hotels might hear it more often - but I suspect that even then they hear people trying to communicate in English rather than in Japanese.
[User Picture Icon]
Date:August 26th, 2014 05:01 am (UTC)
The most complete confusion I have ever caused by speaking Mandarin was in a Chinese restaurant in DC. Problem solved by going to a nearby wall, pointing at an item listed on bright fluorescent poster paper, and looking very enthusiastic and hungry.
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Date:September 9th, 2014 09:58 pm (UTC)
"Look where you're going" I had a lot of trouble avoiding bumping into people. I thought it was because I was pretty big. I could not figure out the algorithm for avoiding people in a crowded train station. Do I dodge? Do I just look ahead and let them know by my gaze where I intend to go? I did a lot of apologizing.
[User Picture Icon]
Date:September 9th, 2014 10:24 pm (UTC)
Part of it is literally looking where you're going, making it obvious that you're heading in a specific direction. Most people fall into clear patterns of more or less aggressive: the more aggressive ones will speed up to move out of someone's way, the less aggressive will slow down to let people pass. But both of those are predicated on making it clear where you're going so you can either avoid or be avoided.

Make no mistake, though - this is a learned skill, not something one naturally falls into. I've seen similar epithets applied to New York City.

moof's prattling