In this article I want to share my experience with language, travelling and food in Japan. Before I went to the country famous for Sakura and green tea, I did not know much about it. I was met with challenges along the way, from language problems to getting lost in supermarkets. Here are some of my struggles and lessons learned from staying a month in Japan.
Before I came to Japan, I thought my fluency in English would be enough to get me around. But I quickly learned that at least some preparation would have been of great help.
I flew from Brussels to Kansai International Airport, Osaka. Once I arrived at the airport, my struggle started. Every board I saw was written in Japanese script, with only one-word translations in English underneath. It dawned on me: Here I was in Japan, but I couldn’t speak or read one single word of Japanese. How the hell did I think I was going to manage? It’s great to believe in yourself of course, and being independent is a great thing, but I was actually getting scared.
After my initial shock, I realized that it was not all that bad: The free airport Wi-Fi and Google Maps showed me where I had to go to reach my hotel in Osaka. Once I arrived, I had some more language barriers with the receptionist, and it made me wish that I would speak at least basic level Japanese.
Living in the Western world, I felt really great about speaking English. I even thought of myself as an international person as in ‘If I can speak English, I can speak the language of the world, right?’. Well, although English is the most important world language in our world, very large parts of the world take pride in speaking their own language, like Japan or China. I could feel their language pride everywhere: even though I was walking through an international city like Osaka; Japanese was clearly the dominant language, even in the big shopping districts like Dotonbori, which is crowded by international tourists. English was more like a lucky find.
This doesn’t mean it was impossible to get around as a foreign tourist. Metro and train stations were also equipped with directions in English, and considering the fact that Japanese people are generally very friendly and polite, I was quick to get help if I was lost. For the rest of the time, Google Maps became my best friend, along with Google Translator.
In the end I accepted my inferiority: I had to learn some Japanese. If not to get around, then at least to respect the culture of the country. So after one week, I headed for a well-known Japanese-English book store in Osaka Umeda. I left the store with two books in my hand. A small English to Japanese dictionary, and a book to learn the most common phrases for everyday life. I haven’t read them yet, but I did learn some of the words that at least I use daily: Arigato guzaimasu (polite form of ‘Thank you’), Sumimasen (‘Excuse me’), Gomenasai (‘I am sorry’), and Hai (‘Yes’). As little as it seems, equipped with these few words and my hand movements, I actually managed to get through Osaka and Kyoto! (I still plan to learn the language properly, though.)
Lesson: What I learned from my month in Japan is that because of living in the West, I had a quite self-centered view on the world. We think English is enough to get around anywhere in the world, and we even call it a world language. But there are so many parts of the world where English is not that big, like in Japan. These countries are thriving by using their own language, so it’s important to keep the language barrier in mind when going around Japan.
Travel in Japan
Travel between cities
Being able to travel easily through a country has a lot to do with how well you can speak the language. At first, it was really hard for me to find my way around Japan. On all boards at the train stations, information was given in big Japanese script, with very short (or no) English translations underneath.
This is what most train schedule boards in Japan look like. You can imagine that me, someone who can’t read Japanese script, had difficulty figuring out which train was next. Luckily, in big cities like Osaka and Kyoto, they switched between Japanese and English displays, so I could read the boards in the end.
You can also tell that this was a train station where many international tourists come: Everything on the board itself is translated into English as well. In smaller and less touristy places, the train stations don’t have this much translation.
I also had to learn some things about the way that Japanese people like to travel. When you arrive at your platform, you see marked places on the ground every few metres from each other. At first I had no idea what their meaning was (there was only Japanese script written on them), but then I noticed that they created a system of how everyone should wait for the train. I noticed that everybody formed lines behind these marks, and nowhere else. I assume that it says something like ‘start queue here‘ on these marks.
I also noticed that Japanese people paid a lot of attention to each other’s space. Even when standing in line, people did not touch each other or bump into each other when entering the train or Metro. And inside the train or Metro, everyone was careful to not touch the person next to their seat. Super polite!
Travel within cities
To travel between cities, I mostly used trains and Metros. But apart from that, I loved to cycle! Cycling was the best way to explore nature in Japan, it made my trips to the Osaka Castle and to Nara Park unforgettable. Places like Nara have a lot of temples and shrines spread over a large area, so cycling around is cheap and gets you around easily. Most bikes that I saw could be turned into electrical bikes – very handy for long trips or for older people.
But how do you rent a bike for a day trip? It turned out to be pretty easy! Different companies rent out bikes for only a few euros per hour. You can find bike pick-up spots in every district of big cities like Osaka or Nara. Finding the next pick-up spot near you is easy too: most companies have a track function on their websites to show how far away you are from a spot. You may have some difficulty understanding their websites at first, but be patient and you’ll figure it out!
Travelling during COVID-19
I happened to be in Japan during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. That made my travel experience a bit different than what it normally would be like. Wearing a face mask is quite normal in Japan anyways, but the pandemic definitely increased the use of hand sanitizer in public.
As cases began to surge in Japan as well, less and less people used public transport. As I was on my way to the airport to fly back home, I travelled with a Shinkansen (which is one of the fastest trains in the world!). I was shocked to see how empty it was – the person at the ticket counter told me that normally the Shinkansen is so full, that you have to buy a ticket with reserved seat. But because it was so empty in those days, I could buy a cheaper ticket that is normally seen as a ‘standing ticket’ and there was still enough space for me to sit down.
Lesson: Travelling through Japan without knowing the language was hard at first, but I quickly got the hang of it. As long as you are in touristic places like Osaka, Tokyo or Kyoto, you should be able to find your way. Almost all boards have (short) English translations included, and after some time you begin to understand the travel customs of Japanese people. Just be careful when you visit a less touristy place: it could be that you don’t find English translations! In that case, don’t be shy to ask someone for help, Japanese people are very friendly to help you out.
I personally really liked how Japanese people make sure to keep their distance and not touch each other’s personal space. Their polite behavior made it much easier for me, a often lost tourist, to ease up and adapt to their travel culture.
Expectation vs. reality
I’m a really big foodie: I have a long list of favorite restaurants and favorite foods. One of my favorite foods ever is Sushi – I go to a Sushi restaurant whenever I want to celebrate something! Sushi restaurants have all kinds of Japanese dishes (think of Edamame, fried rice with vegetables and baked banana, my favorite dessert!), so I thought that I already had a pretty good idea of Japanese food. And I think most people in Europe would first think of Sushi if they would have to guess a Japanese dish.
So, I wasn’t worried about what food was waiting for me in Japan. I loved Sushi, plus Japanese food was perfect for me: As a Muslim, I only eat Halal food. (For those of you who don’t know what that is: Halal means ‘permitted’ in Arabic. Fish, like Sushi, is Halal, so Muslims can eat it). So even if I wouldn’t like Japanese food, I would at least have Sushi to hold on to.
Cut to Japan: Everything was different than I thought. It turns out that Japanese people love pork, so much so that it can be found in almost every food. Also in foods where you would not expect it at all, like in Tamago (Japanese egg cake). Once I found that out, it became increasingly difficult for me to shop for food because I had no idea what was in it – pork is not halal so I couldn’t eat a lot of foods. In my despair, I decided to look for ‘foreign’ foods like Indian/Pakistani cuisine and Indonesian cuisine. I did eat fish sushi whenever I could find it, and I also came across this really tasty Ramen shop in Osaka that served Halal food.
Cooking and grocery shopping
Cooking was another challenge. For the second half of my stay, I lived in a student apartment with a shared kitchen. I decided to cook some food at home so I could make sure it would be all Halal. I went to the grocery store to buy stuff for some rice with vegetables, but buying groceries that are labeled in a script you can’t read is pretty hard. I ended up staying at the grocery store two hours instead of the twenty minutes I had planned, and I came home with rice that turned out to be for rice cake. Needless to say, my dinner tasted differently than expected. But apart from being disappointed in my dinner, I felt something else: Humbled down. I went to the grocery store thinking the foods that I know are so important that they just had to have them at the store. But just like Dutch grocery stores are filled with cheese and German stores are filled with bread, the Japanese carry their own food culture with pride. I found all kinds of rice at the store, rice for Sushi, for rice cake and more. I also saw a whole section of algae and vinegars to make different types of Sushi. If you think about it, this makes much more sense than finding Swiss cheese or pesto. This is an aspect I wish I would have thought about more.
Before Japan, I had never been to a convenience store. But Japan is so crowded with them, that it’s hard to avoid one. Convenience stores are incredibly good at this one thing: being convenient. You go in, grab a pre-made breakfast, lunch or dinner, and you can go about your day without the hassle of cooking yourself.
I had difficulties finding Halal food, so I made it a habit to almost always go to a convenience store for breakfast. I quickly found a new favorite: Fluffy pancakes filled with maple syrup! On the days that I planned a day trip to visit some attractions, I always packed a couple of those pancakes into my bag. Not the most healthy option, but super tasty and cheap.
Lesson: Although in the beginning it was difficult for me to adapt to the Japanese food culture, I eventually appreciated it. Living in a new country is not all about nice things, but also about challenges that you learn to stand up to. The lesson that I learned was that it’s great to be comfortable in the foods that you love, but you should also be able to appreciate new styles of food. After coming back, I even miss some of the new foods that I got to know in Japan!
Recommendations for food:
The Halal Ramen shop that I went to in Osaka is called Naritaya Osaka Minami, I really recommend giving it a try! I was really happy that I could finally eat some ramen with beef here.
If you’re into Indian food and you’re in Nara, then I highly recommend visiting Ponte Rosso, one of the most authentic and delicious Indian restaurants I found on my trip. It’s hidden away in a quiet street but is still within 5 minutes of the Nara Train Station. The staff is very friendly and the portions fill you up really well!
If anyone of you eats Halal like me and is planning to visit Japan after the pandemic, I can really recommend the Happy Cow App. This app shows you a map of all the vegan and vegetarian restaurants in your area. Another thing that helped me was the website ‘Halal in Japan’ which not only gives tips for Halal eating in Japan, but also for all kinds of other Islamic aspects like finding prayer rooms in your area. Besides that you can always still go for typically Halal foods like Turkish and Pakistani cuisine. But if you’re in a new country anyway, it’s really worth it to find a Halal Japanese restaurant to truly enjoy the local cuisine!
Hope you enjoyed my little Japan guide, stay safe everyone!