Being able to speak Japanese is not mandatory when going to Japan. If you’re traveling to Tokyo, you will survive with English just fine. If you are traveling to some other cities, you will most likely be fine with English or will be able to make yourself understood by gestures and body language. However, knowing some Japanese will make your trip a lot easier.

Together with KettiNotes’ Japanese co-author, we have listed 10 phrases/words that will not only make your Japan trip a little bit less stressful, they will also help you make a better impression in the people you meet on your trip.

A beautiful street near Gaienmae Station in Tokyo, Japan

1. Sumimasen (すみません)

This word is more or less equal to English “excuse me” but has even wider using possibilities.

Examples of situations where you can use this word:
– When making your way through a crowd or getting off a crowded train. This is one of the most common usages of sumimasen and it will also probably be the one you will use the most. If someone is in your way and you can’t get past, one polite sumimasen will usually lead into that person letting you past (he might also apologize for being in your way even if it wasn’t necessary).
– When you want to get the attention of the waiter in a restaurant.
– As an apology.
– When asking something. If you’re lost and want to ask directions, sumimasen is not only the most common but also a polite way to reach out to people.

2. Arigatoo gozaimasu (ありがとうございます)

Just remembering arigatoo is enough but if you want to more polite, you should try using arigatoo gozaimasu. Just arigatoo is okay for travelers (and definitely better than nothing!) but it’s actually only used among friends, family or when talking to someone younger than you. I would never use arigatoo towards a teacher or my boss at work as it would be extremely rude.

Examples of situations where you can use this word:
– Thanking for help or pretty much anything you feel thankful for.
– Saying thank you to waiter in restaurant when he brings you dishes or fills up your tea cup. This is not mandatory but all my Japanese friends whom I have eaten out with do this and it’s considered good manners.

3. Oishii desu (美味しいです)

Eating this dish really made me want to say "oishii desu".
This dish is one of the thousands I have eaten in Japan that have made me want to say “oishii desu”.

You might have heard this one before. Oishii means delicious and paired with desu copula, it could be translated as “(something) is delicious”. By the way, while desu alone doesn’t really mean anything, you should definitely remember it! It’s one of the most important basics of Japanese sentence structure, usually meaning “to be” or “it is”. You can easily introduce yourself or tell where you are from by just adding desu after your name or the name of the country!

Examples of situations where you can use this word:
– When eating something good.
– Regardless of the taste when you are eating with someone you don’t know well. Sometimes you just can’t say that something tastes bad.

4. Daijoobu desu (大丈夫です)

This is an extremely useful phrase. Daijoobu basically means “I’m fine” but it also has some other meanings.

Examples of situations where you can use this word:
– When someone asks you if you are okay after you have hurt or fallen down for example.
– When you are asked if you need something in a restaurant and you don’t need anything. If you are already drunk enough and get asked if you would like one more glass of beer, you might be better off rejecting the offer by saying daijoobu desu.
– When asked if you’re fine with something and you want to say yes. “Is this time okay for you?” – “Daijoobu desu“.

5. Kore wo kudasai (これをください)

Translated simply as “This please”. A very simple but still polite way to ask for something even if you had no idea what the thing is called. Just point whatever you want, say this phrase and you will most probably be understood. Actually, you might just get understood without saying anything and just pointing as well but if you want to be polite, you might want to try using kore wo kudasai.

Examples of situations where you can use this word:
– When ordering something in a restaurant or a cafe. Even if you couldn’t understand the menu, you can order by either pointing at the pictures or the words written. I’m not sure if I would recommend pointing on something if you have no idea what it is though but I have yet to eat a bad-tasting meal in Japan so there’s a big chance you’ll get something good anyway.
– When shopping.

6. Doko desu ka (どこですか)

A street in the middle of nowhere in Saitama, Japan
Sometimes you just need the question “doko desu ka”. One example of this kind of situation is when you get lost in the countryside of Saitama.

This is a simple question that could be translated as “Where (something) is?”. If the place is clear from the context, just saying this phrase is enough. You can also add a word or a name of place in front of the question.

Examples of situations where you can use this word:
– Asking directions.
– When you are lost and want to know where you’re right now. In this case, you could add the word ima (今, now) or koko (ここ, here) in front of the sentence to be better understood.

7. Ikura desu ka (いくらですか)

A simple way to ask how much something costs. You rarely need to ask this when shopping as most items have price tags on them but it might be useful in cafes or restaurants if you can’t read the menu and there’s no English one available. In case you don’t know Japanese numbers, you might want to carry some kind of memo and a pen with you in order to get the numbers written down for you.

Examples of situations where you can use this word:
– In a shop or a restaurant when you don’t know how much something costs.
– When asking about train tickets.
– As a pun: ikura also means salmon roe.

8. Tasukete kudasai (助けてください)

A way to ask for help. I would probably only use this when I’m in serious need of help but you can use it in lighter situations as well – just remember to pay attention to the tone of your voice so you won’t be misunderstood.

Examples of situations where you can use this word:
– When you really, really need help. In these times, you can just yell tasukete as well.
– When you have lost something (or are seriously lost yourself).
– When you have got yourself a scary stalker or had something stolen from you.

9. Gomennasai (ごめんなさい)

As sumimasen introduced above at the beginning of this list, gomennasai is also used for apologizing. However, unlike sumimasen, gomennasai only has this meaning – it’s not used as for getting someone’s attention or for asking someone to let you through. It’s used for genuinely apologizing.

Examples of situations where you can use this word:
– When you have done something inappropriate or have offended someone.
– Anytime you feel like you should apologize.

10. Wakarimasen (わかりません)

Last but probably the most useful word in this list. Depending on a situation, wakarimasen means “I don’t understand” or “I don’t know” and you can use it pretty much in any situation you would say the same phrases in English. This one is a lot safer to use than another word for “I don’t know”, shirimasen (知りません) that I would suggest you to not use until you know more of the nuances of Japanese.

Examples of situations where you can use this word:
– When someone suddenly starts talking to you in Japanese and you have no idea what he is saying.
– When someone asks you a question and you don’t know the answer – or for some reason, just don’t want to answer.
– When you’re not sure about something or don’t understand.


For those of you who wish to put a little bit more effort on your Japanese before coming here, I would recommend starting with easy travel phrasebooks such as Toshiya Enomoto’s Japan or Japanese Phrases for Dummies. I also remember enjoying reading More Making Out in Japanese that has recently had a new edition released. It’s a very fun and light one to read but you should remember that there are many words in this book that you should not use on your trip – it doesn’t include only the “good” and polite phrases! Links below and above are affiliated links.

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