[From August Issue 2010]
While most Japanese do not speak English, they do know some basic English words. When you ask them the way to a station, they will only understand if you use the English word “station.” However, when you lose your way and try asking “Where am I?” few Japanese will understand what you are saying. Instead, you should ask in Japanese, “Koko wa doko desuka?” Furthermore, big city streets in Japan are very complicated, so it is recommended that you bring a map whenever you visit a new place.
Even if you fortunately encounter an English speaking person, they may not be a local. They still may not be able to help you. On such occasions, it may be best to ask someone in a local shop. If you can not communicate in English, try asking “Eigo o hanasu hito imasu ka.” (Is there anyone here who speaks English?) If you can not find anyone who does, then ask “Kouban wa dokodesu ka.” (Where is the police box?)
Japan is said to be one of the world’s safest countries, partly because of the system of neighborhood police boxes. In Japan there are more than 6,000 police boxes, each responsible for overseeing a particular area. Therefore, policemen know their local geography well. Even many Japanese ask for directions at the police box.
“Koko kara donokurai kakarimasu ka” (How long does it take?) is also an useful question. People may reply, “Aruite / kuruma de go-fun” (five minute on foot / by car.” The words “fun / pun” (minute) and “jikan” (hour) are must-learn words.
When people wait for someone at a train station, they usually meet them at the ticket gate. But there are many ticket gates in big stations like Shinjuku and Shibuya. Each one is usually named “East entrance/exit” and/or “South entrance/exit.” Subway stations generally have exit names like “A1” and/or “B2.” Still, even Japanese can sometimes have trouble finding the right gate.
Therefore, many people meet at landmarks in front of stations, such as “Studio Alta” at Shinjuku station and “Hachiko” at Shibuya station. These landmarks are very well known. So, for instance if you lose your way at Shinjuku station, just ask someone, “Aruta sutajio wa doko desu ka,” (Where is Studio Alta?) and they will help you easily find it.
Words and phrases often used when asking for directions include: “~ dori” (~ street), “shingou” (signal), “kado” (corner), “juujiro” (intersection), “T-jiro” (T-junction), “ikidomari” (dead end), “massugu” (go straight), “migi ni magaru” (turn right) and “hidari ni magaru” (turn left). When you go to an unfamiliar place you should learn about some of the area’s landmarks beforehand, such as department stores and public facilities. Those who you ask for directions may say: “xx depa-to no chikaku” (near xx department store), “~ no sangen saki” (three buildings past ~), “~ no mukai gawa / hantai gawa” (the opposite side of ~) and “~ no naname mae” (diagonally across from ~).