Learning just a little bit of your destination’s local language can greatly increase the amount of pleasure you get out of your trip, and seriously decrease the amount of frustration. Here is the first installment of what I consider an essential list of Japanese words and phrases you’ll find handy on the streets.
1. “Nama biiru”: This is one of the first phrases I learned in Japan, and it means “draft beer.” I guess it’s only appropriate that, having arrived in sweltering August, I would have picked this up pretty quickly. The character for “nama” (“draft” or “raw”) is 生, and this was also etched into my mind early on, as it reminded me of a profile of a mouth (the diagonal line) touching a cold glass of beer about to be tipped back. Finish the phrase off with a “kudasai” or “onegaishimasu” (“please”) and you’ve got yourself a right proper way to order in any drinking establishment.
2. “Fukuro wa ii desu”: The Japanese are crazy for packaging. Almost anything you buy will be rolled up in plastic wrap or tissue paper, double bubble wrapped, and hermetically sealed in a bag two times larger than necessary. Stop the bag insanity with this handy little phrase that means, “I don’t need a bag.” It’ll stop the bag, but not the little length of tape they’ll still stick to the side, proving that you did indeed pay for this product.
3. “____ doko desu ka?”: Insert any noun at the beginning of this phrase to ask where something is. For example: “Toire was doko desu ka?” means “Where is the toilet?” Hopefully, you’ll be given an easy-to-decipher point in the right direction. Or, more common than you might think, a super-friendly escort from a total stranger. If not, you’re on your own for understanding the directions.
4. “Ikura desu ka?”: A shopping essential, this one means “How much is it?” It probably helps if you’re holding or pointing to the object in question. Understanding the answer means just a little study of Japanese numbers.
5. Krazy Katakana: Japanese has a special alphabet for dealing with foreign words called “katakana.” The amount of words the language has taken from English and translated into this alphabet is astounding. This means that you, as an English speaker, are starting off with a huge advantage – the trick is using it. Try to say any English word and you might be discouraged by how little people understand. However, say any English word with a Japanese accent, and you’ve just increased your vocabulary immensely. The thing is, katakana is a syllabic alphabet, meaning almost every letter makes two sounds: a consonant and a vowel which can’t be separated. Try tacking a vowel onto your English word here and there (usually “u” or “o”) and your success will increase. For example: “ticket” becomes “chiketto” and “bill” becomes “biru.” Studying katakana before coming will also help you greatly in deciphering menus and signs.