Visiting Japan Without Speaking Japanese: TRANSCRIPT

A discussion on the challenges of travelling to Japan without speaking the language.

I sat down for some great conversation recently with Rob Dyer of TheRealJapan.com to discuss common concerns and realities of traveling to Japan without speaking Japanese. How can you best prepare for the adventure? (Part 3 coming soon – Follow us to be notified.)
The complete transcript of PART 1 and PART 2:

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SEAN:
Hi folks, thanks for joining me here today. My name is Sean and you can check out my blog at http://www.WestCoastToFarEast.com I’m going to be joined here today by Rob Dyer who has recently written a book entitled how to travel in Japan without speaking Japanese. Hey Rob great to see you.

ROB:
Hi Sean good to see you too.

SEAN:
This is kind of our first chance to really talk to each other a little bit. I know you through your blog on the real Japan.com and you’ve a recently written book on how to travel in Japan without speaking Japanese. Maybe you could tell me a little bit about yourself.

ROB:
Sure sure, well thanks for having me on Sean. I discovered your blog actually when I was in the mountains somewhere in Japan so it’s good to finally meet you and talk to you. I started the real Japan in about 2015 and it was in response to a lot of questions that I was getting from friends and family. Initially it was just a place to start to sort of gather some thoughts and photos and so on, and then I just sort of its kind of burgeoned from there. I got interested in in Japan sort of as a young child really, and it was through the classic Godzilla movies actually that’s that’s what first drew me to Japan.

SEAN:
I can relate to that. Godzilla and I think samurai movies were probably a big big influence for me as well. I’ve had a chance to look through your book a couple times now and I think it’s really it’s really interesting stuff. Once I finally came to Japan I realized that I had built up such a wall thinking it was some kind of insurmountable thing to accomplish but once I got here I realized it was it was something that almost anybody could do. So I think it’s a great topic.

ROB:
It simply came about because it was just based on one of the one of the blog posts on the website and it was it was by far the most popular post so I just thought well hey this is interesting and I worked in publishing for many years and have written a lot for magazines and serials so I had this kind of writing desire, if you like. It’s really just responding to people who are coming to Japan largely for the first time. The thing that most people is that they they’re keen to come to Japan, you know it might be the distance, it might be the perception of the expense – but certainly the language barrier is – or the language issue should we say, is seen as a barrier. I just wanted to really say to people don’t don’t don’t worry, it’s not a barrier and here’s a few practical examples and some things to kind of reassure you. It’s not about, you know, being lazy and saying to people “don’t bother to learn Japanese” Because I’m fairly well-traveled and one of the things I always like to do is – I’m a bit old school me,  but I like I like my little guidebooks or phrase books rather, so I’ve got a small library of the Berlitz phrase books.

SEAN:
I was gonna say, are you telling people they don’t have to learn the language here, because…  (laugh)

ROB:
I’m saying to people you know, by all means learn some basics. That’s what I always encourage, at least it’s good manners if nothing else to learn some of the basics of the language.

SEAN:
A lot of is about intent. You know you don’t have to be good at the language but I think the effort goes a long way and I think that’s not just for Japan, I think that goes for almost anywhere.

ROB:
That’s my experience in most countries and and in in Japan, when you look at it from the outside for the first time, you know the combination of the sound of the language because there’s no familiarity or the sentence structure is different and so on, then obviously the kanji the characters being so different you know can seem quite daunting. But actually when you’re in the country, even though a lot of Japanese people won’t speak English very well or at all, they will be very helpful and accommodating them it’s a great country to to have such a challenge if you like.

SEAN:
Absolutely. So how long have you been spending time in Japan?

ROB:
I first came to Japan in 2000 and that was a combination.. My girlfriend at the time who’s Japanese, who’s now my wife, we had some relatives and family out there on her side of the family. But when I went out for the first time in 2000 the company I was working for had connections in Japan but never sent any representatives, so I managed to get a couple of days businesses business expenses with them, so that was that was really good and it also meant that I flew into Tokyo that first time and spent some time there on business, then transferred to Osaka by Shinkansen. So that was I had it all crammed, in all the best experiences in the first few days of my first trip to Japan. And then interestingly, and this wasn’t this wasn’t by design, but it is the nature of me of my type of travel – was I then didn’t actually go back to Tokyo for 10 years unlike most people.

SEAN:
I love the big city, but I think you know, it’s like the other side of the coin. You enjoy the big city for what it is, and enjoy the countryside for what it is. I’ve got little kids so the countryside is a lot of fun for them to go play and get dirty and all that kind of good stuff. You touched on one thing that I thought was interesting cuz I was going to ask you if you’re going to continue updating this (book), or maybe we’d see some other stuff in the future, because I noticed you had some stuff in there about you know different apps and different tools and so forth that you can use on your own your adventures in Japan.

ROB:
The first thing is it will be updated at least annually but the reality is it’s gonna be frequently updated probably four times a year at least. In fact the first edition of the book I launched initially just to my subscribers to my website and gave them a kind of an early view.

SEAN:
And that’s at “TheRealJapan.com“? That’s the primary website that you’ve launched?

ROB:
Yeah it’s The Real Japan.com and there people can just subscribe, and they can subscribe for free and part of the subscription is that they get access to a resource library there are some guides and smaller Ebooks and so on for free. This (book) was something that I wanted to launch as a “paid for” product outside of the community but I wanted them to get access to it first and frankly to get their feedback on it and so I did that as an early stage thing, and made it available to them to to buy actually very very cheaply. And that was that was a good idea because I’ve got some terrific feedback. So once I got that feedback I incorporated those suggestions and ideas and made a number of changes to the book, and then I launched it publicly. So then it went on general sale, that was around about August time this year. If you want to find the book the easiest way to find it is to use the dedicated URL for it on the internet so it’s called “HowToTravelInJapan.com” and that will take you to the book.

SEAN:
I got you. Yeah, one thing I like about the book is it it feels like it’s a lot about preparation and just kind of thinking about what are you going to do in advance, putting a little bit of a roadmap together on what you’re about to do, where you’re going to go and what you might encounter. I mean it’s just good practice all the way around.

ROB:
Yeah that’s it that’s a very good point actually because I guess I’ll refer back to my first trip back in 2000. Interestingly what I discovered was when I went and did those first couple of trips I was so over awed by Japan I was just like sort of wide-eyed everywhere whether it was the cities or the countryside the mountains or wherever it was it was all wonderful to me. But when I went out the first couple of times which was in the consecutive years, it was only when I came back and I thought “you know this is great but I’m missing things every time” I came back I thought, wait, hang on, I was in that town and I didn’t see that place or… you know that mountain resort was just half an hour down the road and I just completely forgot to check that. So I realized that I really wasn’t planning properly my trips in advance. Now that’s not something I normally do I normally do or I had done at that point, and so it was kind of a skill set that I had to have to learn to develop. But as soon as I started to do that pre-trip planning then it all unfolded and you know I was seeing so much more and getting more bang for your buck basically and for your time. So what I wanted to do with the e-book was, it’s not a conventional Travel Guide, as you say obviously there’s tips for language, but you’re right a lot of that is around preparation and preparing for the trip. So in fact it’s it’s actually kind of subtitled as an e-guide and workbook because there’s a number of exercises in the book for people to do and this is really, as you say, to kind of get their head-space right first and think about… almost put themselves in the position of “OK I’m back from the trip”, and what would I want to reflect on, and what did I enjoy what would I tell my friends and family about and make sure you build those touch points into your itinerary – and make sure you touch those bases on your trip.

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PART 2 – Transcript

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ROB:
Make sure you pre-plan and build those, you know, sort of touch points into your itinerary and make sure you touch those bases on your trip. And that only comes really I think from pre-planning. So there are a number of exercises in the book which are kind of – it’s more about psychological and you know sort of getting your head space right and your mind set what sort of experiences do you want to come away with and then design accordingly.

SEAN:
Sure. No that makes a lot of sense. I think, you know, there’s kind of one half of that’s the mental space and then there’s the logistical side of things. Right?

ROB:
Yeah. Definitely transportation plays a part in your Ebook

ROB:
Yeah

SEAN:
And you know people may not realize the overwhelming nature the Tokyo bus station or Tokyo subway I mean. I think there was one time even from out here I had planned to meet a few friends at the Tokyo bus station. And I gave them the bus #, I gave them the time of arrival and you know they basically knew where to meet me…  but of course my bus was late and I showed up and then I was basically in like a city that… you know a bus station that was felt like a city. Right? And I was walking around for a good hour where I just happened to be lucky enough – I was at one point I was in the middle of a festival which was INSIDE of the bus station with people carrying somebody around on their shoulders and I was like “This is unbelievable!”, you know you wouldn’t even believe it. But then I somehow ran into my friends which is probably a miracle in itself.

ROB
Yeah and there’s actually a piece in the book, again this is based actually on a more extensive article on the website but, um the area I know best is where my wife’s family comes from near Kobe. Which is sort of 20 minutes on the train from Osaka. So Osaka and Kobe. Kobe is like my second home and Osaka is my 3rd I guess if it goes that far. But for me in all these almost 20 years of traveling to Osaka, and in & around Osaka, the main station at Osaka is just a complete warren. It’s on multiple levels as all these things are, I mean when you go up, I think it goes up 12 stories and you can get escalators right to the very very top. Even to this day I still get lost! I was chatting to some friends who have lived in Osaka all their life, Japanese friends, and they live and work there, so it’s their everyday life, and even they said that they still come out the wrong exit at times. I mean the thing about it is these places are constantly being developed, I mean there’s always an area of these major stations that’s being refurbished or redeveloped or extended.

SEAN:
Oh yeah.

ROB:
So you know I think that’s a bit of a get out clause, but I you know it’s part of the adventure. What I normally have to do is just, if you’re ever unsure, just try and get to the surface as soon as possible and get some eyes on some physical landmarks on on the ground floor and then… That’s what I do anyway.

SEAN:
So many things in Japan to me make so much more logistical sense than the US, or some other countries, but when it comes to  streets and address (LOL). It’s something I’ve kind of trained myself to get a little bit more used to landmarks in Japan.

ROB:
I was gonna say that’s a very good point, and again the book touches on this when using taxis. It’s always good to have the address written down, in kanji, and ideally even a map. I mean I’m I’m from I’m from England and in the UK taxi drivers have to do this incredibly detailed extensive and complicated test called “The Knowledge”. They have to test it on getting from location A to location B, avoiding certain routes or roads or all these sorts of avenues to go there. So they know these places inside out and they’re incredibly knowledgeable. In Japan it’s almost like, almost a bit like the Uber generation where the drivers are, they’re really good at what they do and they’re nice people, and the rest of it and great customer service, but even in a small town you can say a destination and they probably won’t always know it. So it’s always good to have the ward or the area that the location you’re headed to is in, to give them some sort of pointers to begin with. But as I say it’s good to have the address written down and have it written down in Japanese because most most cab drivers in in Japan won’t be speaking any English.

SEAN:
If I was gonna write a foreword or a summary of the whole travel experience I would say don’t be afraid of getting lost. I mean to me some of those, you know, experiences of getting a little bit turned around or having to ask people for directions… I mean you know those “people experiences” are probably some of your most memorable experiences. So don’t fear it because there are worse places to get lost than in Japan. People are generally helpful.

ROB:
That’s exactly my mindset Sean. We’re on the totally the same page there and again the book talks about booking  your major accommodation and travel, sort of anchor points if you like, if you’re working on a specific itinerary and you have a certain number days you need to cover the ground on. But exactly that. Get the major points covered and then absolutely build in time to just wonder. I mean I know some people prefer to be very specific and know every day what they’re doing on the hour and if that’s the way they choose to do it fine, but for me and I think you’re right and this is true not of just just traveling in Japan but of all the countries I’ve traveled in it is don’t overplan.

SEAN:
Sure.  Give yourself a little bit of time to get lost if you can. you know.

ROB:
Yeah absolutely. And that’s it and it’s just going just a little bit off the beaten path and just spending half an hour or a couple of hours drifting. Don’t research everything to the N’th degree. That’s part of the joy of travel still. I mean you can find out pretty much anything about most places these days with the internet. But you kind of lose the essence of travel for me if you over research it and it’s just those moments of chance that I think really do reward. And you’re right certainly, particularly in Japan, some of the most rewarding moments and experiences I’ve had has just been when we’ve been wandering. And especially when you get up into the countryside and in the mountains, and you might find a town where people might be going there because there’s a shrine or a temple that’s the draw, but then you kind of go there, and the other thing I try to encourage is to travel out of season. You just get far fewer tourists and travelers so you’re seeing all the same things that they’re seeing but in a completely different view. The good thing about Japan is if you do look at the seasons they’re quite defined. So you can avoid the rainy season and you can avoid the wort, and the snow if you don’t want snow but you can have that glorious sunshine and it might be autumn or winter but you’ve got clear blue skies bright sunshine and empty streets and you’re just strolling those streets you know just naturally as you go. And okay maybe some of the stores might be closed because it’s lower season but then you’ll just come across a tiny little place… We were up in the mountains of Yoshino in Nara prefecture earlier this year and we were just wandering around, and again it was very low season, it was snowing actually, when we were there it was absolutely beautiful. There’s some videos on my YouTube channel of some of the some of the street walking we were doing there. We found this tiny little restaurant, and so we just stopped there had some ramen it was fantastic. They had big glass windows and it overlooked this huge valley below and it was kind of just snowing and it was absolutely perfect and picturesque. And there was just like one other Japanese couple who were there. That’s the only people we saw all day. Trips and experiences like that are some of the best and you don’t want to plan for those you just want to let them happen.

SEAN:
Absolutely. That’s why I always think that if I were doing it for the first time I would definitely want to hit some of the major cities so that I could experience that bustling city life but also to give myself a chance to kind of get off the beaten path and have some of those close, more intimate encounters with people. To have that moment where you have a connection with somebody, is really important in a trip.

ROB:
One of the things on my website I say when I’m sort of introducing what I think of as the Real Japan, is kind of just those moments of chance encounters, exactly is the thing I’m encouraging. It’s not saying there’s anything inauthentic or about Tokyo or Kyoto or Hiroshima, they absolutely… That IS the real Japan to the T. All I’m saying is don’t just all the tourist trap things, you know, the sightseeing bits go you know there’s loads of tiny little kind of villages within Tokyo. Tokyo is vast. There’s loads of little places you can walk around that you know most tourists will never go to. Within the cities themselves there’s loads and loads of little pockets of places and micro villages that you can check out that you know really are just special.

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Check back for PART 3 of 3, coming soon.
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