After being here nearly a year, I’m proud to say I’ve never gotten on the (completely) wrong train, nor have I ever missed my intended station. Yes; I have boarded locals that I thought were rapids, and I did once buy tickets for a 7am bullet train when I meant to get them for 7pm. But for the most part, I think I do pretty well navigating the train system.
It’s when I get off the train that I start to have problems. If the numbering system in Japan seems arbitrary: it’s because it basically is. Cities are broken down into wards, wards into neighborhoods, and then numbers with far too many dashes are assigned to the buildings (in the old days, buildings were numbers in the order they were built, because that makes sense). As for streets, good luck finding one with a name. In Tokyo, there’s a street supposedly named “Meiji-dori” that runs parallel to the train tracks from Shibuya through Harajuku to Shinjuku. It’s on the tourist maps and even on some of the posted maps around the stations, but asking someone at the combini “which way is Meiji-dori” pretty much only gets a blank stare. This is the case in many big cities that purportedly have a named street. But I suppose it’s just as well to not name streets since they seem to twist, turn, merge, and end with no warning.
So what’s a foreigner in Japan to do? My first suggestion is to take a deep breath and accept that Japan is hard to navigate and no map or even good sense of direction will make it easy.
Did you do that? Okay.
Next, never attempt to just try and find a place. This includes trying to find a place with a Lonely Planet guidebook map. LPs maps are pretty much crap; they really only give you a sense of the general area you should go. Also, downtown areas in Japan have a tendency of looking all the same, even having the same stores! I was meeting some friends in Shinjuku, and the directions they gave me were “Down the street from Isetan and OIOI” but I was one block over: where there was also an Isetan and OIOI!
Which is another thing to remember: don’t split up with friends, unless you’re both absolutely sure where you’ll met up again. Even within department stores, it can be a bad idea to split up since escalators have a tendency of not being close together from floor to floor.
Now, since I just told you to never try to just find a place, this means you have to ask for directions. Utilize information booths in large stations, they are your friends! They might speak English and even if they don’t, they’ll probably have an English information brochure and maybe even an English language map. They also can tell you if the place your looking for has closed up shop (this seems to happen a lot with no warning). Make sure to ask which station exit to use since many stations have gates at the exits and therefore make it hard to pass through if you exit on the wrong side.
If you’re not near an info booth, a combini might be your next best bet. If you have the address of the place you’re looking for, they should have a map of the area handy. It’s important to ask what is around your destination. Don’t just ask what next to it, ask what’s across the street, cady-corner, and what’s just past it so you know if you went too far.
Now when you’re on your way, with your map and directions, keep you eyes peeled! Do not underestimate how “tucked away” the place you’re looking for may be. I’ve been to many-a-places with a tiny sign about 3 feet high as it’s only indication that it exists. If you’re in a major downtown area where the buildings have long vertical signs telling you what shops are there, remember they’re not necessarily in order. I once went to a restaurant where the sign for it was the 4th one up. This would indicate to me that it was on the 4th floor, but it was actually in the basement!
Get a map, find a buddy, get clear directions and be very aware and you might find your destination! Maybe.
I actually wrote this whole post because I wanted to share a link. It’s a website called “多摩地区そして日本各地の画像集” which Babelfish translates into “Picture collection of Tama area and every place in Japan“. If you’re going to a town for the first time, you can look here and get a little familiar with the place. Note: You do need to know the kanji of whatever town you’re looking for for this site.