For many travelers, getting to live like a local and having the opportunity to connect with new people is a big priority. In Japan, this can be challenging due to the language barrier. Since half of all communication is non-verbal, I figured there must be some ways for visitors to Japan to overcome language differences and really experience the country in depth.
Here’s five ideas to interact with locals and enjoy cultural experiences without needing to speak Japanese. Having said this, people will respond positively if you’re able to say a few key words which is why I’ve suggested one for each scenario.
1. Blend in with the baseball crowd
Attending a baseball match in Tokyo or Yokohama is like going to a basketball game in NYC, or the Melbourne stadium to watch Aussie football. The dedicated supporters in the stands match the energy and entertainment on field. No matter where you sit, you’ll be surrounded by cheerful natives who’ll encourage you to sing along and participate in crazy coordinated crowd dances which put the “Mexican Wave” to shame.
Given the sport’s American influence, English phrases are used to commentate the game and are intertwined into chants. The supporters’ outward love for the game becomes infectious, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself high-fiving strangers and repeatedly shouting chants, even if you don’t understand their meaning. The Hiroshima Carps and Chiba Lotte Marines are well known for their dedicated cheer squads.
One word ice breaker: Ganbatte! meaning “do your best!” Use this word to show your encouragement. You’ll hear it shouted throughout the game and featured within popular cheers.
2. Go on a nomihodai night out
A more perilous yet entertaining adaptation of “all-you-can-eat,” bars and restaurants offering nomihodai (all-you-can-drink) serve patrons unlimited drinks for a fixed price and time duration. There’s no better way to get intoxicated than by surrounding yourself with groups of boisterous salarymen and youths celebrating milestones. While Dutch courage is nothing new, it’s interesting to witness just how much English is spoken by those who claim to know nothing when they’re sober. It’s the best opportunity to see typically reserved personalities transform into confident party animals, especially when they invite you to take part in the shenanigans.
One word ice breaker: Kanpai! meaning “Cheers!” Turn to those seated close by, raise your glass and say it loud. It creates the perfect opportunity to start a conversation.
3. Say it with paper
Throughout your travels you’ll see exceptional origami used to decorate shop counters and offered as token gifts. Friendly shop or cafe owners with spare time (usually in the more rural areas) may offer to teach you how to make your own if you show keenness towards learning. In Teshima, a friend and I rented a bicycle from a busy stall situated by the port. After a long day of cycling around the island, I returned to the stall with my friend trailing behind. The stallholder showed me how to make 3D balls while I waited. When my friend arrived, she was so surprised to see what I’d made – even more so when she realised the lady spoke little English.
As instructions are mostly visual, you could attend an origami workshop to learn a range of folding techniques. Alternatively, if you’re banking on making friends during your stay, perhaps you could try carrying sheets of paper around to prompt origami-making sessions in place of conversation.
One word ice breaker:: Sugoi meaning “cool”; or kawaii, meaning “cute.” Say either compliment with great enthusiasm while pointing to your favourite origami sculpture.
4. Organize a karaoke session
When you visit Japan, it’s customary to book a karaoke booth and sing the night away to the classics. While your travel companions may do a great rendition of Mariah Carey, the experience lacks authenticity without the company of Japanese speakers. There are two ways you can try and recruit some singing stars to show you the ropes and make the experience unforgettable. Eating at an izakaya (traditional Japanese pub) will put you in close proximity to groups of Japanese people who already plan on going to karaoke, or will require very little persuading to do so.
Simply mentioning the word “karaoke” or making a microphone with your fist and pretending to sing can help initiate after-dinner plans. Alternatively, book a karaoke booth with your travel companions and hope to cross paths with a friendly native, either in the lift, halls or bathroom. You can invite them to sing a duet (by gesturing) or ask them to pick a Japanese song for you. Confident singers are likely to take up the challenge.
One word ice breaker: Jouzu meaning “to be good at.” Use it to compliment someone’s singing ability and spur them on.
5. Find friends through an app
Social “dating” apps such as Tinder and Happn can actually be useful for making friends too. Many people in Japan use them to form friendships, so don’t simply regard them as a means to find romance. Seek out users who mention wanting English practice in their bio — there are plenty of them! Happn uses mobile location to connect users, meaning you’re only shown the profiles of people you’ve “crossed paths” with. It has a counter to show how often you come in contact, making it easy to determine whether you frequent the same venues or are lodging in the same area.
Stay in contact with your new friends by using the highly popular messaging app, Line. There’s a free translation service which can be added to individual conversations; whatever the person writes will be accompanied by an English translation underneath. It’s great for anyone learning Japanese. There are so many colourful “stickers” included, meaning you can communicate via cute pictures rather than words.
One word ice breaker: Hajimemashite meaning “nice to meet you.” When you “match” with someone, a chat box appears. Try and introduce yourself in Japanese using romaji (the English alphabet).