A Frustrating Taxi Ride in Tokyo

Mar 20th, 2009 | By | Category: Lifestyle, Tokyo and Vicinity

Put two foreigners with limited Japanese language skills into a taxi in Tokyo and frustration is almost certainly coming along for the ride!

One evening, after a relaxing dinner at a great restaurant, my husband and I decided that rather than take a bus or train back to our home we would splurge on a short taxi ride and that’s when, unbeknownst to us, frustration decided to ride shotgun on our journey and the relaxing part of the evening had ended.

Tokyo Taxi

But let me backtrack just a bit – there are a few things that you need to know about taking a taxi in Tokyo, or anywhere in Japan for that matter, when your language skills are limited. 

  • Taxi drivers in Japan generally know their way around the vicinity of where they pick you up very well but ask them to go too far astray and they are apt to get lost without an address, phone number or intersection to input into their in-car navigation system.
  • The address system in Japan is complicated and street address as you might find elsewhere in the world don’t really exist.  It’s all about landmarks and train stations when you can’t speak the language.
  • If you have a map of where you want to go – bring it with you and show the driver.

So back to my frustrating taxi tale and how you can avoid a similar experience.

Knowing full well that the taxi driver probably wouldn’t be able to find our home address, even if we could even utter it correctly in Japanese, we asked him to take us to the nearest station from which we would take the short stroll home.  So far, so good, and we were on our way.

As we headed down the street and approached our neighborhood we realized that we were going to drive right past our mansion (apartment building) and that there was no need to walk back from the station.  All we needed to do was ask the taxi driver to drop us off…in Japanese.

My husband and I quickly found out that neither of had the Japanese vocabulary to do this and my husband decided that experimentation was in order.  The Japanese tend to borrow a lot of words from English and change the pronunciation to the equivalent in their phonetic system.  Taxi becomes takushi, fakkusu is a fax machine and “‘On-za-rokku” is “on the rocks”, which is how I like my martinis’ but that’s a whole different story.  Anyway, given the number of “loan words” that end in “U” my husband suggested trying “stoppu, onegashimas” or “stop please”.  We had nothing to lose so I tried it and the result was one confused Japanese taxi driver!

It was obvious that he didn’t understand me and he replied to us in Japanese that we couldn’t understand to which we responded with blank stares. Plan B, on the fly, was to point at the curb which seemed logical at the time but resulted in the driver changing lanes – away from the curb!  At this point I said “No, no, okay, okay!” and repeated the station name.

During this attempt at conversation, I am leaning forward toward the Plexiglas partition between the driver and us so that I can hear him and try express myself, either through sign language or one word Japanese.  Somehow, the taxi driver finally gleaned what I was trying to say, I don’t know how, and stopped quite abruptly causing my head to hit the Plexiglas partition!  We saved ourselves a walk from the station but I exited the taxi with a bump on my forehead!

I looked over at my husband for sympathy only to realize that he was very amused and was trying very hard not to laugh.  It was funny to me too, but only after my bump went away…

Avoid my fate and take note of some Japanese words that will help you take a taxi effectively in Japan.  Don’t let frustration ride shotgun on your next taxi ride in Japan.

Japanese Taxi Vocabulary

  • Masugu (straight)
  • Hidari (left)
  • Migi (right)
  • Spido otoshite (slow down) Notice the “loan word” meaning speed in this phrase.
  • Magatte (turn) sono (at the)… kado (corner) or shingo o (traffic light)

And the phrase that I needed desperately, and that I will never forget, to avoid a bump on my head?

  • Koko i des (here is fine, or loosely translated “please stop”)

This is my entry into this months Japan Blog Matsuri hosted by Ryan at The Ghost Letters

Image Credit:  Flickr, Tokyo Yellow Taxi Cab

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  1. I can imagine you all in a flutter and getting no sympathy for banging your head against the plexiglass. What a silly thing to do! ?

  2. I can sympathize with you. I had the same problem in Miami…but I was speaking English.

  3. Amusing indeed. A friend of a friend was kicked out of a cab one time for getting flustered and panicking the driver. She said she ended up further away from her hotel than she had been at her original starting point.

  4. Overall the taxis are great in Japan but I’m sure glad I’m not the only one who has had such an experience :)

    Nick - at least I didn’t have to walk halfway across Nagoya ?

  5. That was pretty scary! I guess travelers should also know that taxis are a bit on the expensive side in Japan (a friend took a taxi from Kansai Int’l Airport to the other end of the bridge and paid $100 — roughly what you need for Shinkansen from Osaka to Tokyo).

    If I had been you Shane, I would’ve shouted “Tomatte kudasai!” (please stop!!), though you would’ve bumped your head anyway ? so…

  6. Excellent story, and well written - it reminds me of my stay in Japan a year ago, althought I didn’t take any cab, but heard about the fact that taxidrivers don’t know the whole city.

    I’m glad you used my picture as an illustration, it fits perfectly your note.

  7. Hao, I would have said “Tomatte kudasai!” had I had the vocabulary…but it didn’t ?

    Theo, your photo is a perfect fit for the story and it a great image alone as well - the lighting is perfect. Thanks for taking it and taking the time to stop by and comment.

  8. Aww … don’t you have twitter on your phone LOL I bet you’d have got an answer! We flapped and said koko a lot for months till my ear attuned to the navi in our car and I copied “Molly”‘s phrases which seem to work fine (most of which are in your list) I find …hoko very useful as in migi hoko or hidari hoko which apparently means left or right direction so makes the change in direction clearer (again, this is from Molly hehe)

    We actually don’t find taxis expensive here at all, at least no more than a taxi should be - I have heard two stories about foreigners being taken for long winding rides which cost almost 10,000en but that’s only two (and how malicious it was I couldn’t guess.) Staying at the Westin in Kyoto recently we taxied all over the city (we were still recovering from influenza) and never paid more than 1000en for a trip barring the 1400en from and to the shinkansen.

  9. Danielle;

    Twitter wasn’t in existence when this happened and we didn’t have keitei (cell phones) either! My language ability and confidence level have both improved in the intervening 10 or so years though…

    Long haul taxi rides are expensive in most cities and Tokyo is no exception. For short hops I rarely pay more than the Y1,400 that you mentioned.

  10. […] Shane at The Nihon Sun shares a slightly painful experience of trying to talk a Japanese taxi driver into stopping at the right place. […]

  11. I’ve had similar incidents in the past. I’ve tried the “stoppu” and other stranger combinations, and most of them didn’t work any better than body language (e.g. waving and looking panicked) to get the taxi driver to stop. The strangest I’ve experienced was with the taxi driver screaming at me looking like a tomato about to burst. I vaguely remember what I’d tried to say in Japanese to get him to drop me off, and asked a japanese friend if that made sense (just to see if the cab driver was giving me a hard time playing dumb). After my friend heard what I said, she couldn’t stop laughing for a few minutes… when she stopped laughing, she told me what I’d said actually meant, “Tell me NOW!”

    No wonder the guy was screaming at me.

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