This will probably be the first of many posts on this topic. In a beginners class for Japanese they start by teaching you the standard polite forms of verbs, which is fine if you want to say something polite to someone, but doesn't always help if you need to know what people are saying to you. In fact, the only people who use this polite language with me are some women and people working in shops and restaurants. In some cases, service workers will use even more obsequious forms that I do not fully understand.
Today, I was looking for a nearby post office (yuubinkyoku, 郵便局) and decided to just ride around and ask people and see where that got me. I asked all kinds of different people. At first, it was almost impossible for me to tell what the old men were saying to me. Eventually, I realized this was because they were using the plain verb forms, which I still do not know very well. According to my textbooks, the direct use of this form is reserved for friends, family and one's social inferiors - such as children. In fact, however, this form is in fairly common use. Most of the men seemed annoyed at my presence and two simply dismissed me with a waive of their hand and the exclamation that they did not know or care. The younger people and women, on the other hand, were generally polite and helpful. Or at least, I thought they were. Nevertheless, I was not able to find a post office in this way.
On three different occasions, I was sure I was told to go forward three lights and take a left. But there were always further instructions, such as go down, or up or around. I spent almost 45 minutes doing this before I decided to just go to a post office that was not that near, but was at least known to me.
The vast majority of mobile communication here is done via email sent to and from one's cell. I've taking to writing bits of these in Japanese. This is actually much simpler than it sounds because the phone has all kinds of auto-complete features built into it. So for example, if I can only remember the first few syllables of a verb form, the phone will offer me a list in which I can easily see the form I want. It also has Kanji conversion, so again it's usually enough just remember the first few syllables, or to just hunt around for a bit until I see the right character. The only draw back to this is that people will generally respond to Japanese in Japanese. On the one hand, they always correct my Japanese, which is helpful, but this and the rest of their response is usually full of a bunch of Kanji that I don't know.