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Holiday Japanese: At the Airport: Getting to Your Gate

Shureimon Gate

Continuing in our series of holiday Japanese articles, we introduce some more handy words and phrases to make your trip to Japan even easier - and even more memorable and enjoyable.

Many first-time travellers to Japan worry about a perceived language barrier. However, the truth is that is not only completely possible to travel the length and breadth of Japan without knowing any Japanese whatsoever, but that millions of visitors each year actually do!
Most Japanese people speak or understand at least some English, since all secondary school students study it for at least six years, and many working adults take English conversation classes in their spare time. While being completely fluent and articulate in English is not widespread, most people you meet will probably recognise quite a lot of English words, as Japanese has incorporated a lot of English loanwords into its vocabulary over the years.
While communication is nearly always possible, for those times when a combination of basic English, gestures, and hand-drawn diagrams just don’t cut the mustard, knowing some basic Japanese phrases can be very useful. Aside from which, memorizing even just a few words of Japanese will be hugely appreciated by the Japanese people you meet on your trip, often leading to heart-warming encounters that will stay with you a lifetime.
Beginning in the previous newsletter, we started introducing some handy words and phrases to make your trip to Japan even easier and therefore even more enjoyable. If you also read our first installment, you’ll now be well-equipped to navigate your way to the right part of the right airport, check in your luggage, and get the seat you want. This time we’ll continue our journey on towards our plane to Japan and cover some useful Japanese words and expressions for how to get to your gate, navigate the queues at passport control, and breeze through your duty-free shopping with ease.

 At the Airport: Getting to Your Gate

View from Shuri Castle
As everyone who’s ever flown internationally will know, even after checking in there are still several more steps standing between you and getting relaxed and settled into your seat on that plane. Some of them might include the following:
  • Security hoan kensa
  • Passport control shutsunyūkoku kanri
  • Immigration imin
  • Quarantine ken-eki
  • Customs zeikan
  • Duty-free menzei
After you’ve checked in, you next port of call will usually be to get through “Security”. This is known as “hoan kensa” in Japanese, although it’s also commonly referred to as “sekyuritī kensa”, “sekyuritī chekku” or just “sekyuritī”. A word about vowels - if you see a line over a vowel, it indicates it’s a long vowel, so just pronounce it for longer. An example in English would be the ‘a’ in ‘apple’ (a, short) compared to the ‘a’ in ‘father’ (ā, long).
We’re sure you know the drill by now - remove any cumbersome clothing, metallic items, electronic devices and liquids and put them in the tray for the x-ray machine, then glide through the arch-shaped metal detector, praying you don’t set it off. Here’s a list of a few common items that you might get asked if you’re carrying if you’re unlucky enough to accidentally set them off:
  • Belt beruto
  • Key kagi
  • Mobile phone keitai denwa
  • Coat/jacket uwagi
  • Shoes kutsu
  • Computer paskon
  • Liquids ekitai
  • Battery/batteries denchi
  • Knife naifu
  • Scissors hasami
  • Lighter raitā
Once you’re through, get dressed, grab your belongings and head through Passport Control, called “shutsunyūkoku kanri” in Japanese. Despite the giant electronic screens hanging from every ceiling in many departure lounges, especially in larger airports it can still be challenging to figure out which your gate is and how to get there. In that case it’s often better to ask the well-informed ground staff. 
Let’s say you’re catching JL7083 to Tokyo Haneda Airport. In Japanese, the suffix for “flight number” is “-bin”, so “flight number JL7083” is “JL7083-bin” (we’ll cover numbers later!). When travelling in Japan, two extremely useful words are “shuppatsu”, meaning “departure”, and “tōchaku”, meaning “arrival”, and another is “basho”, meaning “place”.  
  • Flight no. -bin
  • Departure shuppatsu
  • Arrival tōchaku
  • Place basho
In our first holiday Japanese we covered how to ask where something is:
  • Where is…? [noun]-wa doko-dess-ka?
Joining together a couple of new words we’ve just learned, “departures” are “shuppatsu-bin” and “arrivals” are “tōchaku-bin”.
  • Departures shuppatsu-bin
  • Arrivals  tōchaku-bin
So for example you can ask: 
  • Where are flight departures? Shuppatsu-bin-wa doko dess-ka?  
And going back to that all-important gate number, you can now ask:
  • Where does flight number JL7083 depart from? JL7083-bin-no shuppatsu basho-wa doko dess-ka?
If that’s a bit long-winded for you, alternatively you could simply say:
  • Which gate does flight number JL7083 depart from? JL7083-bin-no gēto-wa doko dess-ka?
In the answer, the number of the gate will be followed by “-ban”, a suffix meaning “number”, so listen out for it carefully! For example, “It’s gate no. 5” would be “5-ban gēto dess.”
In Japanese, “boarding gate” is “tojō gēto” or just “gēto”. “Tojō” is the word for “boarding”, so for example “boarding pass” is “tojō-ken”. We have actually already met the suffix “-ken”, meaning “ticket”, in a couple of other words in our previous holiday Japanese, such as “passport” (ryo-ken) and air ticket (kōkū-ken). 
  • Boarding gate (tojō) gēto
  • Boarding pass tojō-ken
  • Ticket (suffix) -ken
  • Number (suffix) ban
You might have noticed by now that Japanese often uses suffixes where English uses prefixes. For example, in English we would say “flight no. 7083”, but in Japanese the order of the words is reversed, so it is “JL7083 + flight number” (“JL7083-bin”). And in English we would say “gate no. 5”, but in Japanese it is “5 + gate number” (“5-ban gēto”). This is one of those quirky differences between English and Japanese, so it pays dividends to pay attention to word order when speaking.
Everybody has their own different ways of killing time at the airport, whether it is running errands, reading a book, catching up on emails and phonecalls, or taking a nap on a well-placed airport bench. Depending on your airport habits, here are some other things or places you might want to ask for in the airport or on your way to the gate. Once you’re there, all that’s left to do is sit back, relax, and wait for your boarding to be announced.
  • Shuttle bus shattor bass
  • Duty-free shop menzei-ten
  • Foreign currency exchange ryōgae
  • Cafe kafe
  • Kiosk baiten
  • Vending machine jidōhanbaiki (or just jihanki)
  • Toilet toire (pronounced toy-ray)
Finally, we promised you those numbers. Below are Japanese ordinal numbers 1 to 10. The numbers 4, 7 and 9 and all numbers ending in them have alternative pronunciations which are interchangeable (although there are sometimes preferences based on local dialect, etc.) 
1 ichi
2 ni
3 san
4 shi/yon
5 go
6 roku
7 shichi/nana
8 hachi
9 ku/kyū
10 jū
For any readers who still retain traumatic memories of struggling to memorize numbers up to 100 in French at school, you’ll be pleased to hear that ordinal numbers in Japanese (at least up to 10,000) are much simpler - just put them next to each other and read how you would expect. So for example, “eleven” is “jū-ichi”, “fifteen” is “jū-go”, “twenty” is “ni-jū”, “thirty” is “san-jū” and so on. 
The official currency of Japan is called the Yen (in Japanese, it drops the ‘y’ and is called “en”). Coins are issued in six denominations of 1, 5, 10, 50, 100 and 500 Yen. One interesting feature of Japanese Yen coins is that due to the large differences in size, weight and style, they are said to be very easy for people with visual impairments to tell apart. 
Notes, meanwhile, are commonly issued in three denominations of 1000, 2000, 5000, and 10,000. A special 2000 Yen note was issued only once in 2000 to commemorate the millennium and the 26th G8 summit, held in Okinawa, Japan. It features the Shureimon gate, a 16th century gate at Shuri Castle in Okinawa’s capital Naha. While 2000 Yen notes are still in circulation and are legal tender, they are rarely seen in public, so if you’re lucky enough to get one slipped in with your Yen currency for Japan, you may want to keep it as a memento rather than spend it! 
2000 Yen note
If you fancy giving yourself a quick quiz on Japanese numbers, why not practice by trying to figure out how to pronounce the different amounts of the Japanese coins and banknotes before scrolling down (no peeking!)? 
50 go-jū
100 hyaku
500 go-hyaku
1000 sen
2000 ni-sen
5000 go-sen
10,000 ichiman
And if you really want a challenge, try figuring out how to pronounce that flight number we mentioned earlier: JL7083. Unfortunately, there are no prizes for getting it right - other than the satisfaction of knowing that you have mastered a large Japanese number and would have been able to board your flight!