West Meets East: An American in Japan | All Blogs

Addresses and Directions

By Josiah Lebowitz

When it comes to Japan, I've got a lot to talk about so to make it easier for me to choose subjects and easier for you to find the things you're most interseted in, I'm going to assign a schedule of sorts to this blog.  Here it is:
Monday: Daily Life (Thing relating to daily life in Japan such as housing, shopping, groceries, etc)
Tuesday & Wednesday: Travel Tips and Sightseeing (Travel tips and info on the best stuff to see and do in Japan.)
Thursday: Japanese Culture (Things about Japnese culture such as history, religion, holidays, mannerisms, etc.)
Friday: Food (Things about all the interesting types of food you can find in Japan.)

And now for today's daily life themed entry.

The streets of Jimbocho

Trying to find a building in Japan with nothing to go off of but its address is an interesting experience, to say the least. For an example, here’s the address of Sakura House, a Tokyo based company that specializes in renting apartments to foreigners on a month by month basis. Note that, to make this easier to follow, the address has been written in English instead of Japanese.

Nishi-Shinjuku K1 Bldg.
7-2-6, Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo

The first and second lines are simple enough, as they just list the building name and floor, but it’s the rest of the address that we’re concerned about. What you want to do now is look it in reverse order (which is how it would be written in Japanese).

1. The number beginning with 160 is the zip code and, as such, is really only of any use to postal workers.

2. Tokyo is the name of the prefecture (think state or county). If you were wondering, Tokyo prefecture is made up of the greater Tokyo city area.

3. Tokyo, like some big US cities (and all but the smallest Japanese towns) is divided into various smaller cities (like how New York City has Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the like), called ku. Shinjuku is one of Tokyo’s ku.

4. Ku are further divided up into smaller “towns”. The building we’re looking for is in the Nishi-Shinjuku section of Shinjuku (Nishi means West, though not all town names are so straightforward).

5. Finally we come to a set of numbers, 7-2-6. Notice that we haven’t found any street names or building numbers yet. That’s what these are for…sort of. Towns, like Nishi-Shinjuku, are divided up into a set of numbered sections. The 7 tells us that the building is in section 7 of Nishi-Shinjuku. Unfortunately, unless you have a fairly detailed map on hand, it can often be rather hard to figure out how the sections are laid out (though you can at least get an idea of where you are by looking at the addresses on signs and street lamps). These sections, like Nishi-Shinjuku 7, are further divided up into even smaller areas, which is what the 2 is for. So we’re looking for a building in area 2 of section 7 of Nishi-Shinjuku, which is a part of the city of Shinjuku (Shinjuku-ku) in Tokyo.

6. Finally we have the last number in that set, the 6. It’s the number of the building itself. So all we need to do is find section 7, area 2, and walk down the street to the building between buildings 5 and 7, right? Unfortunately, no. Unlike in the US, buildings in Japan are numbered based on the order in which they were constructed and area 2 could easily contain several streets. So building 6 might be next to building 5, but it could just as easily be across the street or up to several blocks away in any given direction.

The streets of Akihabara

So, after all that, the best we can do with the Japanese address is find the right general area and wander aimlessly around until we spot the appropriate building. I have no idea how the person/people who designed this system ever thought it would be a good idea. This is why most stores and businesses in Japan include directions and/or a simple map in their advertisements, as it’s much easier to navigate by landmarks than addresses.

But what if you don’t have directions? Well, if you can hop on the internet, Google Maps usually works pretty well. But that only helps if you have a smart phone (and a very expensive international data plan) or looked up the location before you left your hotel or apartment.

If you think you can handle the language barrier, you can try asking a passerby or shopkeeper. Most Japanese people are very polite and will be happy to help (though they likely won’t be able to speak much English). I’ve even had some of the people I’ve asked for directions drop what they’re doing and spend the next five or ten minutes leading me all the way to my destination. The only problem is that, unless you’re looking for a very well-known spot, it’s quite likely that even the locals won’t know where it is. And, as it’s considered rude to refuse a polite request, they’re far more likely to take a guess (and probably give you wrong directions) than just say that they don’t know.

You best bet is to look for a koban (koh-bahn), or police box. These tiny roadside police stations are very common in larger cities like Tokyo and most small towns have one or two as well. Since crime in Japan is so low, and all koban are equipped with highly detailed maps of the surrounding area, the policemen spend a large portion of their time helping lost people (both Japanese and foreigners) find their way. Language will likely still be an issue but as long as you can show them the address (written in either Japanese or English) they should be able to help. Though it may take them a little while to find your destination on their maps.

And that’s how you find, or at least try to find, addresses in Japan. As you can see, it’s far better to get directions before you leave (either from a book, ad, etc or from Google Maps) and only resort to using the address if you absolutely have to.


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