This has been the most useful phrase we've learned in Japan so far. Yamaguchi City (Yamaguchi-shi) in the Yamaguchi Prefecture (Yamaguchi-ken) is thought of as "rural" or inaka, so several people have taken English in school, but don't speak it very well. Brian and I are learning Japanese as fast as we can, but hey, we still major novices.
Yesterday we did a small tour of the town and went to the Arcade, or open air shopping mall. We're often greeted with Sumimasen! which in this case means, "Excuse me, may I help you?" It can also mean, "I'm sorry," "Excuse me," "Pardon," etc etc. If you ever come to Japan, learn this word!!!
We're currently doing books on tape with the Pimsleur method, which so far has actually been really really helpful. We'll also start taking Japanese lessons (at $1 a pop!) a couple times a week, and I can't wait.
The most frustrating experience so far has been buying train tickets and finding the right platform. Brian has already raved about the Shinkansen (bullet trains), and riding it was amazing, but oooooh-weeeeee, trying to figure out where to go took us about 45 minutes. We got inside the station and found the automatic ticket machines, but none of them had fares for Shin-Yamaguchi. We finally realized the automated machines only sold tickets for the equivalent of a CTA train. Shinkansen tickets were sold in a little office nearby. So we lugged all our bags over there and stood around waiting before we realized we had to take a ticket. 7 minutes later I was standing at the counter, sweating with nervousness and embarassment, stupidly saying, "Shin-Yamaguchi" over and over. We didn't have enough Yen, and had to pay with a credit card (the Shinkansen from Osaka to Yamaguchi costs about $115), but finally had our tickets.
Next, we maneuvered our way through the busy busy station. We knew how to read Yamaguchi (Yama-mountain + guchi-mouth [of the]= 山口), but the only other thing we could read on our ticket was the number 21. We figured this was the platform (there at 25 platforms in that station I think), and hauled our stuff over there. Luckily there were escalators!
Hmm..... after 10 minutes of standing around, we decided we needed help. All the employees of the train wear full uniforms that resemble cops, but with nice white gloves and hats. Too bad we didn't get any pictures of them. Anyway, I walked up to one guy, said, "Sumimasen!" and proceeded to point to my ticket. He pointed to the next track over and said "Twenty," pointing down and then up again, indicating we needed to go down and up to the next platform (or else magically fly across the seriously electric tracks).
We hauled our stuff down the escalators, and up a couple flights of stairs and finally make it to the other platform, and are greeted with a friendly sign in both Japanese and English that tells us we're in the right place. Woo-hoo! From there on out, it was a piece of cake.