Many English-speaking travelers to Japan face a bit of a linguistic headache when it comes to the Japanese writing system. See, Japan doesn’t have just one alphabet … or two or even three, for that matter. No, Japan is blessed with four distinct alphabets – romaji (Roman letters, and the easiest for English speakers to grasp), hiragana (a syllabary used for words of Japanese origin), katakana (a syllabary used for foreign words) and kanji (characters borrowed from China centuries ago).
While many places do have signs in English, occasionally you’ll stumble across those pesky kanji, some over and over again. Here’s a selection (by no means comprehensive) of some of Japan’s more frequently appearing kanji characters:
In many kaiseki restaurants and even some modern shops, the signs for men and women are only labeled in kanji on the restroom doors. The kanji below on the right is what guys should look out for. If you’re using the ladies instead, keep your eyes peeled for the character on the left.
Can’t even find the toilet at all? Look for these characters, literally meaning the honorable hand washing area. (Japanese learners will note that the first and last characters here are actually hiragana.)
Circling a tourist sight and can’t seem to find this entrance? Look for the kanji on the left to show you the way. On the other hand, are you stuck in a tourist sight and want to get out? Exits are clearly marked with the kanji below on the right. (These characters are often followed by a character that loos like a square – literally meaning mouth – which completes the words “entrance” and “exit”.)
Trying to be nice and hold the elevator open for someone? Hit the button on the left to be a considerate soul. Racing to catch that train and the elevator just. won’t. close? Hit the right button to speed up the process.
There are plenty more kanji that come in handy while in Japan but I hope these few wet your interest for learning more!