I am a native of Japan with good handle in written and oral Japanese, and I still get lost when traveling in Japan. It’s almost natural for foreign visitors to get lost while looking for a destination. In fact, you should expect yourself to be lost and have to untangle the direction once or twice during your visit. If you have Wi-Fi access, phone apps such as google map would help greatly, and is highly recommended to use as your guide for the maze of streets.
In recent years, there are more and more signs in English (or in roman characters) around the metropolitan areas, and it helps the visitors. I recommend that you take your time to look for directions, and keep your itineraries flexible just in case you spend more time getting lost on the streets.
The visitors are likely to be looking for landmarks such as Tokyo Tower. There are usually numerous signs available in the tourist areas pointing to the landmarks. Those landmark signs can be lifelines during your visit.
Whenever I am in Japan, and notice foreign visitors looking lost (usually helplessly gazing at a map or a sign), I make a point of speaking to them to see if they need help. If it’s complicated for me to figure out the direction, it must be even harder for someone who does not speak or read the local language. The followings are the reasons why figuring out the direction to your destination is harder to in Japan.
No Street Names
With the exception of highways (usually vehicle only toll roads) or major arteries through the city, Japanese residential streets are unnamed. You heard it right. There are no street name signs. In most cases, the Japanese road directions are given using the landmarks, such as stores, businesses or the traffic lights. For example, I give the taxi driver in my home town the direction of, “My house is near the ABC medical office in the town of XYZ. Go to the next traffic stop, and turn left at the dry cleaner with the pink exterior”. In Tokyo, most of the taxies are equipped with the GPS navigaton systems, and giving the name of the hotel or address is hopefully enough to get you there. In smaller cities like my home town in Hokkaido, I have seen lots of taxies without GPS systems. Even when they have GPS device, it takes time to input the destination data. If you know how to direct them verbally, they don’t have to take their precious time to setup the destination.
Whenever I go back to my hometown after some absence, I always hope and pray that my landmarks to direct the taxi drivers, “ABC medical office”, and “the dry cleaner with pink exterior” don’t go out of business or change locations. I may be on to an unexpected adventure if that happens…
While I’m on the topic of the street names, let me explain how the Japanese address system works in general. Depending on the locale, some exceptions apply.
Here is the address of Tokyo main post office written out in English style; 2-7-2 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, Japan. In Japanese system, we go through the address system backward; Tokyo-to, Chiyoda-ku, Marunouchi, 2 chome 7-2 which means the following;
- Tokyo-to (name of prefecture – something close to state in US. For example, the State of California)
- Chiyoda-ku (name of the special ward, or name of city/town)
- Marunouchi (district within the ward or city)
- 2 chome (city block #2)
- 7 (sub block #7 within the city block #2)
- 2 (house or building number)
If you are lucky, you may see an English sign such as “Marunouchi 2 chome” in the street corners, but most of the residential address signs are in Japanese as far as I have seen.
To make matters more complicated, sometimes the numbering system is not contiguous. You intuitively think the city sub block 1 is followed by block 2, and 3 and so on from left to right. Not so quick… I just checked my mom’s home address and their area blocks go 22, 30, 29, 28 and then 39 from left to right. I tried to find a house of an acquaintance based on the address, and I had the hardest time following the number (because you really can’t follow the number). Hopefully, the numbering system is more logical in the area you are visiting…
Buildings change all the time in Japan
In Japan, most residential structures are wooden unless they are high-rise apartments or condominiums. They are not built to last for centuries. Thus, the structures are bulldozed off and are replaced by new structures all the time. In the suburban area where the growth has been experienced in recent years, the houses are flattened and removed to make ways to the new main thoroughfares all the time. My mom lives in suburban Hakodate in Hokkaido prefecture. During the high economy growth period of 80s to the early 90s, there were so many new roads and structures built in the area. Every time I went home to visit, I looked around the area, and it looked different with new houses and structures. The growth phase had ended with the burst of the bubble in 92, and the change has slowed down quite a bit.
Still, if you visit the same area in Japan in let’s say, after one year of time, you run a risk of your favorite landmark to change its face.
One year, my mom’s city district renumbered the whole city block in the effort to make things somewhat numerical, and every house was assigned a new city bock/sub block/ street number. Well, my method of using the long standing landmarks of doctor’s office and the dry cleaner with the pink exterior withstood the street numbering change, and I still use it to this day.
Is north really north? – Japanese street maps
When you read a new map, how do you know which way is the direction of north? Most people in western culture will say, dah, the top of the map is north. Often, that’s not the case in Japan. Look at this map of Shinjuku area showing the destination of Keio Plaza hotel (one of the nice high-rise buildings in Shinjuku). The hotel is rightfully in the center of the map. Do you know which direction of this map is north? If you say the top of the map, you are wrong!!! Do you see the Yamanote line running from side to side on the bottom of the map? In Shinjuku area, the Yamanote line runs north-south, and the direction of Ikebukuro is north. So, the top of the map is the direction of West! For more information of the Yamanote line, please see my older post of “Planning a Trip to Tokyo – Understanding Yamanote Line“.
Here is the thinking behind how this map was drawn. It’s my guess, but I think it’s a good guess. In Japanese cities, you begin your search starting from the train or subway stations. For some reason, they tend to place where the search starts (the station) on the bottom of the map, and show the landmarks in the middle or the top of the map. So, there is a very good chance that “where you are” is at the bottom of the map and you need to follow the road starting from the bottom.
Two years ago, I was in an unfamiliar area of Tokyo, and needed to figure out how to get to my hotel for the first time. I saw a free standing map next to a bus stop, and decided to look for the hotel on the map. I thought I went insane from the jetlag. I couldn’t make any sense of the map. I was literally facing north, and the direction of north doesn’t look anything like how it’s drawn on the map. It took me quite a while, and quite a bit of confusion before I had an epiphany. My north was not their north! Then suddenly, everything fell into place, and the map made sense.
Preventing and dealing with being lost…
Before you visit Japan, take your time and do the research ahead of time to avoid getting lost in the cities. When you are visiting a new area, you need to have something you can orient yourself to, a reference point. In most cases, that can be the major JR stations in the city. In case of Tokyo, I recommend you to use the Yamanote loop line. Please read my older article “Planning a Trip to Tokyo – Understanding Yamanote Line” for more information. Always, always try to pay attention to your turns, so that in the worst case, you can track back to your starting point which is likely to be a JR or subway station.
However, if you realize that you are lost, the best place to ask for the direction is at JR or subway stations. JR/subway workers deal with the lost foreign visitors daily. Also, around most of the major stations, you can find a police box, a small free standing small building for policemen on the beat. The crime rate being so low in Japan, the policemen seem to spend most of their time directing the lost tourists than dealing with the crimes. At the JR/subway stations or at the police boxes, they usually have a map with popular landmarks to show the directions with minimum verbal communications.
One final note; If you get lost in Japan, and have to ask for the direction, my best bet is to find a young adult. In Japan, most people learn English in school for 6 years (3 years in Junior High, and 3 years in Senior High). The Japanese English education in school doesn’t help people to speak, but they do understand simple spoken English words if you speak to them clearly and slowly. They just can’t speak back to you in English. My guess is that younger people tend to remember the school-learned English fresh in their memory. To have them explain the direction, having a paper and a pen to write down is an excellent idea. They can write down the names in roman characters, and can draw a map if they choose to do so. It’s just that they can’t orally communicate to you. Sadly, Japanese English education is not at all effective in conversational English.
Best of luck finding your way in Japan, and I hope that you are never hopelessly lost there. But if you do get lost, these practical facts and advises can help you to untangle the maze of streets in Japan.
(The credit for the featured image of this article goes to our fellow blogger, Michael Philip Atkins. Thank you, Michael!)