Is English widely used in Japan?

Self-consciousness kills communication.” 
Rick Steves-

 

English is the worlds international language. I feel very lucky and humble to be able to speak the main language of the world but I sometimes take it for granted in foreign countries and expect menus and signs to be written in English or in a way I can understand.

Written Japanese is one of the hardest languages to read. It has three alphabets seemingly used interchangeably and many children cannot write their own name until they’re 10. One of my main concerns before I moved to Japan was that I wouldn’t be able to read the menus, road signs and places on the map. So are signs and literature produced in English in Japan?

Surprisingly the answer is not very often.

Japan is an island with a unique culture and until recently was completely self sufficient and isolated from the world. It suffers from a kind of Galapagos effect, things are different here than the rest of the world. The average Japanese person living outside of Tokyo has little need to learn English. Of course this is changing fast as Japan re-establishes itself after the economic downturn but the vast majority of Japanese know very little English. Couple this with innate shyness, humility and perfectionism and you have a nation that speaks very little English. To put it bluntly, English is not used because (some) Japanese think It’s useless. All the books are in Japanese, the TV is in Japanese so there’s very little impetus for the majority of people to learn English.

 

All is not lost though!

Romanji

Romanji is my saving grace. To the un-learned eye Japanese is a pile of unrelated symbols. In the tourist destinations of Japan such as Tokyo and Kyoto, Romanji (Japanese written in English) is widely used on menus, maps and in some museums. I am even learning Japanese with Romanji at the moment until my Kana and Kanji skills improve!

Photos on menus

What Japan lacks in written English, it makes up for in photos. Nearly every restaurant or fast food place has photos of the food or intricate plastic models depicting exactly what the dish looks like! Bazinga! This makes it incredibly easy to order food in Japan. A bonus is that you can just point to the photo or model to indicate that that’s the dish you want.

foodmachine Japanesefood

 Helpful Japanese

I’ve found the Japanese to be the most polite and helpful people I’ve ever met. Even in Tokyo people went out of their way to help me carry my suitcase up stairs in the Tokyo metro. If you ever look lost I guarantee that within a few minutes a helpful Japanese person will come to your rescue. Just point at a map or gesture what you need and nine times out of ten they will take you to where you need to go or get their English speaking friend on the phone!

 

Japan has been the hardest country for me in terms of communication. The shyness of Japanese and lack of English skills make simple things tricky but I also find that it’s what gives Japan it’s charm. I’m in a country that tailors for themselves, not tourists so everything feels that much more authentic and ‘real’. Before you come to Japan try and learn a few basic words and phrases in Japanese, they will help you a bunch and the Japanese will be very impressed with your effort!
sunset

Have you ever travelled to Japan? If so did you feel that there was a language barrier? Have you ever travelled to a country where you found it hard to communicate? If so, how did it make you feel?

 

Ask Stephanie Anything: 6 Cheap things to do in Singapore

 

featured image singapore

I get many emails from readers asking advice about where to stay and what to do in destinations that I’ve visited. Just email me at stephanie@pearlsandpassports.com if you have a question and I will answer it.

My question today was recieved from Caroline, a grad student who will be working in Singapore for the summer. How exciting!

”Hi Stephanie!

I just happened across your blog… I haven’t had time to search through it yet, but I was wondering if you might have some quick advice for me. I’m a grad student and I’ll be working at NUS in Singapore for a month this summer… do you have any tips for either really neat (and affordable) things to do in the city, or cool day trips from Singapore?

Thanks so much!

Caroline”

Singapore has an unjust reputation for being an expensive city. I believe that cities can be as expensive or as affordable as you want them to be. Dubai is one of my favourite cities in the world and I visited it on a very limited budget and had a great time!

Unlike Dubai space is at a premium on the small city state of Singapore. Most people live in high rise buildings above shops and restaurants. Despite this there are many things you can do for free or very cheaply in Singapore.

1) Visit the Botanical gardens.

Despite being so built up, Singapore has beautiful and vastt botanical gardens with beautiful flowers from different parts of the world. I found it hard to stay here for long due to the heat and humidity of Singapore but it is a great way to spend a few hours of the day. I especially loved the Orchid garden with the replication rainforest.

Bring a picnic and enjoy the greenery, you will appreciate it after working in the city!

botanicalsing

 

wat

2) Buy a pass for the Museums and Art galleries.

In most museums in Singapore you can buy a three day pass for all of the museums and art galleries for just $20! This is a real bargain and a great way to escape the heat and learn more about the fascinating history of Singapore! Be sure to attend the tours of the larger museums and art galleries, they are probably the most informative tours that I have ever had the pleasure of taking. Explore the smaller quirkier museums too like the philatetic museum, (Thats a stamp museum for us non- geeks).

artsing musingapore peranakan

 

3) Explore Chinatown.

People say that the best food in Singapore can be found in Chinatown, it’s an area buzzing with life. So many sights and sounds to behold. Pull up a chair on one of the tables in the centre of the narrow streets and taste the most authentic Chinese food outside of China.

There’s also a stall owned by a German selling bratwurst in Chinatown! I love the cultural diversity of Singapore.

4) Visit Sentosa.

Sentosa is a small island off Singapore that is easily reached by cable car from Singapore, (Be aware that the queues can get very long near the end of the day!). Sentosa is famed for it’s theme parks but it is also boasts a long white sandy beach and 70% of it is lush rainforest filled with wildlife. You will feel like you are a million miles from Singapore!

5) Explore Little India.

Before I flew to Singapore I spent six weeks in beautiful Sri Lanka. Initially the craziness of Sri Lanka left me feeling a little unsettled but I eventually got used to the different pace of life. When I arrived in Singapore I almost experienced another bout of culture shock, it was so different to Sri Lanka. Singapore is very urban, clean and organised and nearly every Singaporean has a smartphone and a snazzy wardrobe. It’s a million miles away from exotic Sri Lanka,

As soon as I got off the metro at Little India I felt right at home again. The streets were filled with familiar sights such as women dashing around in colourful saris and the smell of incense and curry around every street corner. The crowds of people in Little India were chaotic compared to the organised metros of Singapores CBD.

little India is the perfect place to experience Indian culture. There’s a surprise on every corner be it a Hindu temple or markets selling scores of Saris. There’s no shortage of amazing curry houses and cooling lassis either! I got my second henna hand tattoo in Little India for the cheap price of $5!

littleindia sari temple

 

 

 

6) Go on a free walking tour.

Singapore is such a beautiful city full of amazing architecture juxtaposed against temples and hawker centres. I went on a free walking tour in Singapore where the guides are Singaporean students. It was invaluable to help me orient myself in the vast metropolis and I got some cool local tips too!  I ended up near the famous Bugis street and ate dinner in one of the best Hawker centres in town for just $4.

Who says that Singapore is expensive?

 

 

 

 

Have you visited Singapore before? If so did you find it affordable like me or more expensive? Do you have any more tips on cheap things to see and do?

 

 

 

 

Ask Stephanie Anything: Flights

 

plane

I get many emails each week where wannabe travellers ask me various questions about travel. Here is an email that I recieved this week;

Hi Stephanie,

Hello!  I came across your blog this week and have really enjoyed reading some of your posts about your fascinating adventures!  Thank you!  I have a huge interest in taking a big Asia trip to many of the places you visited, but I am not sure where to begin!  I was wondering how you knew how much money to save prior to traveling to all of these amazing countries.  I have been doing the “9-5” so to speak for only three years now and would love to plan a big solo trip without the fear of having to book many overpriced flights.  Any insight would be so greatly appreciated.  Thank you for sharing your stories and inspiring me!

Best, Nina

Hi Nina! Thanks for reading my blog.

Safety and cost

Asia is an amazing place to travel too. Many people thought I was crazy for wanting to travel around Asia long term. I’m glad I never listened to the haters, travelling around Asia was the best experience of my life. It’s very exotic, historical, safe, easy to get around and most importantly cheap!

If you are worried about safety I wrote a detailed article on ytravel blog about staying safe in South East Asia, read about how to stay safe here.

I too worked the 9-5 before I set off on my ten month trip around the world. The main way I saved up was working overtime and living on an extreme budget. I go through saving up for a big trip in more detail here.

Overland travel vs flights

I love to travel without plans and luckily South East Asia is very easy and cheap to travel around last minute. I travelled overland around South East Asia. It wasn’t glamorous or comfortable and it sometimes took days but it gave me a unique insight into the workings of the different cultures in the countries I was travelling through.  Overnight trains in Thailand are surprisingly luxurious (If you choose the bottom bunk!) but overnight buses in all countries are very basic and you may be sharing a ‘bed’ with an Asian businessman who tries to spoon you in your sleep. Even the hard times are unique experiences where you get to discover different country’s quirks, (Even though you don’t think it at the time!).

Air Asia sell very cheap flights around Asia and there are a few other local budget airlines if you don’t fancy overland travel.

As for the main flights it depends what you want. There are three main ways to buy a flight ticket for a big trip.

Basic return ticket

These are perfect if you want to visit one country or continent. You can sometimes return from a different airport or country from the one you landed in and sometimes you can extend the layovers so you can experience more countries in the one trip.

One way ticket

Many long term travellers advocate the one way ticket. They are perfect if you have no idea where you want to go yet and it sounds pretty badass to say that you have bought ‘a one way ticket to Bangkok’ on your Facebook status! Beware that last minute flights once you are travelling can cost a lot! Only book a one way ticket if you have near enough open ended time to travel and have a flexible timetable to avoid having to pay for a very expensive flight home.

Round the world ticket

Round the world tickets are multiple tickets included in one price/ticket. They are usually an E ticket which means that you do not have to print off information for your flight, just turn up at the airport with your passport!

Many long term travellers will tell you to avoid these because you are stuck to an itinerary and plans change. I think that if you plan your basic trip that these tickets can be the cheapest and most convenient way to fly. Try to buy a ticket with a ‘multiflex’ pass so you can change the date of your flights as many times as you want. If you need to get home urgently many RTW tickets will fly you home asap for no extra cost. That’s priceless peace of mind.

I bought a round the world ticket from STA and it was undoubtedly the best choice for me. I got multiple quotes of the same itinerary from various agencies and the STA ticket was the cheapest and most convenient. STA sell a multiflex pass which means that you can change your flight date as much as you want if there are seats available. I bought one and certainly made use of it thanks to being the most indecisive traveller ever! I must have changed my flight dates at least 20 time throughout my trip due to plans changing and meeting friends. Beware that RTW tickets will charge you more to fly home at peak times like Christmas. I changed my plans and decided to travel home for Christmas. It was the best £150 I’ve ever spent!

 

I hope this information helps, let me know if you need any more information. Enjoy travelling around beautiful Asia, I miss it!

 

Please email me at stephanie@pearlsandpassports.com if you have any travel related questions 🙂

 

 

Thailand Update! I’m at Happy Healing Home and heading to somewhere new soon…

update

I have been in Thailand for nearly two months now. So far I have been to Bangkok, Koh Chang (Where I contracted the dreaded Dengue!), beautiful Chiang Mai and I am now at a kind of ‘hippie’ place, I feel like I stand out a bit with my vintage look so have been wearing my hippie pants and no makeup! So attractive!

Happy healing home in a small rural Thai village up in the hills. The views are breathtaking and I’m living in a hut that’s more basic than I lived in in Koh Chang, if you can believe it!

 

Soon my Thai Visa will run out and I will be going to my sixth country of my trip………………….

Laos!

I’m excited to see a less Westernised side to Asia and to meet Lao people who I hear are amongst the friendliest in the world.

There’s no internet and limited electricity here at Happy healing home so my blogging is on standby for a few days but I will be back soon blogging about the third country of my trip, Singapore!

Please let me know if you have any questions about my travels or suggestions for articles.

Ask Stephanie Anything! Part 1

anything

A lot of people ask me various questions about my travels on Facebook and Twitter so I thought that answering the questions publicly would be a good way to help other people. After all if one person is thinking it surely someone else is!

So here it goes! You can ask me any question you like my contacting me on my Facebook or Twitter pages 🙂

How have you dealt with uncomfortable situations with people you don’t quite get a good feeling from?

I’m very lucky because I have only not felt safe twice during my travels. The first time was in Colombo in my last night in Sri Lanka. I arrived late after hours on the bus and I was going to go Negombo on the bus so that I was near to the airport the next day. As soon as I got off the bus I got a really bad feeling. I was surrounded by men so decided to get straight in a tuk tuk and head for a luxury hostel that had been recommended to me by a fellow traveller. Unsurprisingly the tuk tuk driver ‘couldn’t find’ the hostel so tried to take me somewhere else instead. I stayed in the tuk tuk and told him that I wasn’t going to get out until I was at the hostel. Luckily enough he was suddenly able to find it….

The second time I didn’t feel safe was in Kuala Lumpor. I hated that city. I was out on my own taking photos of a church when a man approached me and started talking to me. I was in quite an isolated area so I just said ‘no thanks’ or something and started walking off. I turned around after a block or so to find that he was still following me! I walked faster and then walked in to the reception of a random hotel to try and stop him from following me. Luckily this did the trick. I just didn’t feel safe in KL, it’s a dirty and chaotic city and it has scores of people sleeping rough in the street. More that I have ever seen in my travels!

So overall I’ve been very lucky. If I meet someone who seems ‘dodgy’ I just use common sense and try to get away, with a smile. You soon become aware of who is trying to trick you out of money and who is genuine when you travel.

 

 

Did you feel safe staying in your ‘rustic’ bungalow in Koh Chang?

At first I didn’t, the door didn’t close properly and a small child could easily break in. I then realised that I am in Koh Chang and I should trust people. All around me were fellow travellers staying in the other huts so it would be hard for someone to actually break in. After that I did feel quite safe and really enjoyed staying in the huts, until I got dengue fever…

Whats it like travelling on your own?

I liken travelling on my own to being on a rollercoaster, sometimes I have loads of friends and sometimes I’m completely alone and it seems like everyone else is travelling in a couple…. Luckily i’m the type of person who enjoys my own company immensely. I love exploring new places alone because there’s no one else saying ‘oh we should go there’ or ‘oh I don’t want to eat that’. It’s complete freedom.

I have also found that travelling alone has made me a lot more confident. I can now walk up to people and start a conversation and I feel a lot less shy. There’s lots of solo travellers too which can make it easier!

The only time that I wished that I was travelling with someone was when I had dengue fever. Other than that I feel a sense of accomplishment doing everything by myself! I rarely feel homesick now.

Surprisingly I still meet a lot of travellers who are surprised that I’m travelling alone. Many say that it’s not safe for a women to travel alone which is quite a sexist view. Overall I feel safer on my travels than I did in England, that sure says a lot!

 

How do you decide that it’s time to move on?

Usually I move on when I am bored or when I meet other people to travel with.  I spend over a week in Singapore which was far too long in hindsight but I really needed that taste of Western civilisation after Sri Lanka. I was enjoying eating Western food again after a month of rice and curry! Little did I know that Malaysia was also extremely modern!

I stayed in Koh Chang for so long because I made some amazing friends. Good friends are worth staying for!

Please let me know via email, Facebook or twitter is you have any more questions for me! I update my Facebook page daily and it’s the best place to follow my travels!