Now I know what you're thinking--"How am I supposed to remember all those complex characters?" Fear not! Check out the pic below...I have included a flash card that I made for you to screenshot or download onto your smart phone so you have an easy-access cheat sheet as you travel through Japan.
Of course, I won't just arm you with Kanji without providing some context, so this article also offers a full explanation of my cheat sheet. Without further ado...
危険 (Danger): One step up from 注意 (caution), the kanji for danger symbolizes hazards that you absolutely must avoid. So if you see a sign that says this at the trail head to a hike, turn around!
禁止 (Prohibited): The first character "禁" is the basic kanji for "prohibited," so any word you see with that should inform you that you shouldn't be doing something. For example, in a museum you may see the kanji: "撮影禁止”which means, "photos prohibited." Fortunately, these signs often include that handy strike-through red circle, but just be aware that if you see a sign with this on it, either clarify before proceeding or think twice about what you might be about to do.
立ち入り禁止 (Entry not permitted): In line with the previous Kanji, this is one of the more common instructions. This is important so you don't walk through doors you're not supposed to enter!
非常口 (Emergency Exit): Always good to know which exits are meant for emergencies, especially so you don't go tripping any alarms!
交番 (Police Box, or Koban): If you lose something or find yourself in a pickle, head to the nearest police box, or koban. While most of the big cities will also have the English characters posted spelling, "Koban," if you are outside of metropolitan areas, you may have to rely solely on this kanji to locate a police box.
消火器 (Fire Extinguisher): Obviously, the standard red fire extinguisher is pretty easy to notice, but sometimes they are hidden away in hallway cabinets and the only thing that will point them out to you is this word in kanji. As a travel safety tip, try to be aware of what fire suppression options there are wherever you may be staying.
避難場所 (Evacuation Area): If things get really bad (weather, earthquakes, etc.), head for a designation "Hinan basho," or evacuation area. Fortunately, Japanese authorities have been adding more English to these signs, but that is not always the case.
酒 (Alcohol): On the one hand, this is helpful for trying to locate alcohol in a store (look for the "酒" sign) or n a menu, but it's also helpful if you are trying to avoid drinking alcohol. Certainly you can avoid that same signage and portion of the menu, but you can also check drink and food labels where there will be"酒" followed by a percentage (e.g. 酒4.0%) to let you know if there is alcohol in the product.
辛 (Spicy): Although spicy food is starting to grow in popularity in Japan, it's not common in the everyday Japanese diet. As such, most restaurants and bento shops will indicate when food is spicy using this little kanji character. Moreover, places like Coco's Curry will give you an option for how spicy you want your food on the "辛" scale.
生 (Draft, Fresh, or Raw): This kanji is contextual. For example, if you see it in reference to Beer, it means draft (not bottled) beer. If it is next to many foods, it will mean "never frozen." If it's next to meat or seafood (see the next three kanji on the list), however, understand that it will mean "raw."
魚 (Fish・Seafood): If you see this anywhere on the menu, it means that it will contain some type of seafood.
牛 (Beef): If you see this anywhere on the menu, it means that it will contain some type of beef. [Note: if you see this kanji in reference to ice cream, don't worry, it's not beef flavored ice cream, it's 牛乳, or "milk"]
豚 (Pork): If you see this anywhere on the menu, it means that it will contain some type of pork.
円 (Yen): Most of us are used to the international symbol for Japanese currency (¥), but many stores will label their products with the traditional kanji. Fear not, they mean the same thing, but the kanji will always come after the number (e.g. 400円 instead of ¥400).
会計 (Cashier): This is important for when you need to check out. Take it from a guy who has gone to the wrong counter so many times he's lost count, looking for this kanji will save you a lot of time and confusion.
Fortunately, most train stations now have multilingual signage. If that's not the case, however, the three most important kanji are below:
各駅 (Local): This train will stop at every station.
急 (Rapid): There are a lot of variations on this kanji, but if you see this character anywhere in context of a train, it means the train will skip at least a few stations.
亭車 (Stopped): If you see this on the board at the station, it means that there has been a train stoppage. Station authorities don't use this kanji lightly, so if you see it, it means you should either be prepared to wait or to find another means to get to your destination.
賃走: Signifies that the taxi is carrying a customer. Find another cab.
支払: Means the customer is paying the fare. The cab should be free soon, so if you can wait, it will become available in a minute or two.
観光: Identifies that the taxi is being used for sightseeing. If the driver is out of the cab, it usually means he is looking for customers. If he is in the cab, it usually means he already has customers and is waiting for them to return. There is no harm in asking either way if you are interested in hiring a taxi for a sightseeing tour.
回送: Means that the taxi is not-in-service. Either the driver is on break or he is done for the day. Find another cab.
予約: Notes that the taxi is reserved. Find another cab.
空車: This means the taxi is free and available! Score!
薬 (Drugs, as in Drug Store): If you need to find some medication, it can be difficult because over-the-counter medication can only be sold at designated drug stores in Japan. As such, look for stores that have this kanji on the sign (they will always be prominently displayed).
寺 (Temple) : This denotes a Buddhist temple.
神社 (Shrine): This kanji represents a Shinto shrine.
These next kanji are important for reading signage about operating hours, understanding whether or not there are spaces available, and whether or not you can smoke:
営業中 (Open for business)
準備中 (In prep, or closed): Even though staff may be inside, the store is not yet open.
空席 (Seats available)
満席 (Seats full)
禁煙 (No smoking)
便所 (Toilet): It is important to note that if you go somewhere with this kanji, you will be able to relieve yourself, but it will almost never have a sink or other amenities.
お手洗い (Bathroom): literally translated as a place "to wash your hands," the bathroom includes toilets and standard bathroom amenities.
So there you have it...
(Cover Photo Courtesy of Flickr User Manuel Martin-Fernandez)