Traveling in Japan without speaking any Japanese is surprisingly easy, thanks in part to many bilingual signs, an amazing train system and friendly people, but also because of one of my favourite discoveries here: auto-ramen restaurants. These are different than buying ramen from a vending machine, which, while user-friendly, is gross. No, these restaurants just make ordering food very easy to do because the entire ordering process is automated and full of helpful, helpful pictures.Rather than sitting down, looking through a menu, and giving your order to a waiter or waitress, at these restaurants the picture-filled menu is posted outside. Sometimes, in the window, there's a display full of examples of what you can order. You make your choice, insert your money into the machine next to the door, hit the button corresponding to what you want, and a ticket pops out. Want to add an order of gyoza or a beer to that? Get another ticket. You then hand your tickets to the nice person at the door, are led to your seat, and soon enough, your food arrives. Since tipping isn't customary in Japan, you just pay up front and leave when you're done.
That isn't to say this makes eating at a restaurant a cold experience void of any human interaction. There's almost always someone standing at the door ready to answer any questions you might have, and people, not robots (yet) serve you your food. Most of the time, it's an open kitchen, and the people who are making your delicious ramen are right there thanking you for ordering along with your server. But, as a traveler who doesn't speak the language, it helps avoid awkward, stilted ordering sessions and lets me use the one Japanese word I do know and that I've used more times than I can count so far on this trip: arigato.