I get lost in my own city all the time.

Even though I’ve basically lived in the same place for more than 20 years, it’s still easy to get turned around, misdirected, and just generally confused. As a native, it’s kind of embarrassing.

So you can imagine that finding my way around in Japan is ten times as bad. But during the month we spent in Japan earlier this year, I learned a lot about navigating Japan and finding my way around.

Let’s assume that you’re in Japan and that you have phone service. You may think that because you have a phone with an internet connection, you’re invincible. GPS will deliver you to your destination without any problems.

We used Google Maps a lot (a lot) in Japan, but it wasn’t a cure-all. Even with a map of the world in your hands, there are still a few problems.

Japanese Addresses Are Different

A lot of people don’t realize this, but addresses work diffrently in countries around the world. Because of that, the format of Japanese addresses doesn’t always make sense to foreigners.

Fortunately, we wrote about how the Japanese address system works a few years back; but for those who missed it, here’s a quick recap:

You know streets? Those things that cars drive down and have names? You can basically forget about them in Japan.


Photo by Moira Clunie

Streets pretty critical in the American address system (they’re sometimes even called “street addresses”), but the Japanese system instead relies on areas.

Japanese addresses break down in this order:

  1. Prefecture
  2. Municipality
  3. Location within municipality
  4. District
  5. Block
  6. House number

Note that a street name isn’t anywhere in that list. That can be kind of a culture shock to people used to something different.

Even once you understand the Japanese address system, there are other oddities and obstacles to getting around.

Unreliable Maps

You might want to know the phone number to the place you’re going to, since a lot of Japanese GPS systems accept phone numbers in addition to addresses, and a phone number can be much easier to remember.

Don’t count on always being able to rely on your GPS, either. While some (like Google Maps) are pretty reliable, others are really undependable.


Apple Maps has been even worse in Japan than the rest of the world (although it’s been getting better), and if you’re old-fashioned and have a dedicated GPS (instead of a phone), you can forget about it.

Most dedicated GPS from the US and other countries just don’t have Japanese map information built in. You might be able to download the maps you need, but it’s probably not built-in.

Helpful Tools

It might sound like I’m trying to make it sound like it’s hard to get around in Japan, but it’s really not! Public transportation is obviously world-class in much of the country, and people are almost always friendly and willing to help you out.

Plus, there are lots of guides out there (like this one from Surviving in Japan) made specifically for foreigners visiting Japan.

And if you’re looking for a maps app to help you out, there are more and more Japanese-made apps popping up by the day (thanks in part to the failure of Apple Maps).

With those tools, your own smarts and intuition, and some hard work, it can be simple to get wherever you want to go in Japan.

Now where the hell was I going again?

  • dennmart

    When I traveled to Japan by myself I didn’t have any issues getting around with Google Maps, even in smaller, remote areas like Koya-san (when I had Internet connectivity, mind you). I never had to stop and ask where an area was.

    The “issue” I did encounter constantly was that Google Maps often gave me directions to places that crossed through small residential areas, through streets no wider than a small Japanese car, where there were absolutely no labels or streets anywhere. I would have to look at the maps and find things like rivers or train tracks to know I was moving in the right direction. I also found it a little weird that I was constantly getting stares by local residents, like “What the hell is this 6’3″, 250-pound gaijin doing around here?”. Also, I sometimes would be walking the same direction as some women, and my presence around there freaked them out because they instantly doubled their walking speed once they saw me.

    In all, it wasn’t really an issue because eventually I found my destination. I actually enjoyed it more, since I was taking “the road less traveled”. I found a few smaller restaurants and izakayas along the way, with lots of curious people to talk to, that I would have never been able to visit had I not taken these roads. It was one of the better experiences in my time over there.

  • MrsSpooky

    These posts are SO valuable for me, especially since I am going to Japan in October (ticket’s purchased, now saving money like mad). I still have to get my rail pass, but I do have a rather short list of things I want to see in Tokyo, plus want to get to Osaka for maybe a day, and possibly Kyoto. I won’t see everything in one trip, but that’s a great excuse to go back maybe next year. :) You’re helping me to arm myself with the information I need to get around reasonably efficiently. :) I’m going by myself too, so this should be interesting as well as fun. :)

  • David

    I’m a geography dork living in Kansai. Over my years here in Japan I’ve come to learn that you need to reverse your understanding of place and addresses to understand how Japanese society goes about cataloging and categorizing places. There are two basic differences that once you get your head around them make navigation in Japan much easier.

    1) In the USA your address starts with your house number then grows from there. Small to big: house number -> street -> city -> county -> state -> country. In Japan it’s the opposite. It goes from big to small: country 国 -> prefecture 都道府県 -> county 郡 -> city 市 -> ward 区 -> neighborhood 町 -> Then a number or even a building name then a number. Of course some of those are optional but I included them to help show the flow.

    2) Japanese spatial thinking is based in areas rather than being linear as in western countries. The place you’re looking for wont be along this line, but within a given area. 2D vs. 1D. Those areas seem haphazard to the western, and in particular American viewpoint, because they are based on 2,000 years of history in some places and they aren’t changing anytime soon.

    When giving directions in Japan people rely on points, typically the names of intersections or landmarks. Thankfully most major intersections are signed in kanji and romanji. Landmarks are typically major chain stores, schools or parks that are easily found. Instead of saying go down Apple Street and turn left at Peach Street, they say walk down this street to Apple Park and turn left there. This is a problem when teaching how to give directions in English because the accepted standard in each language culture is different. Many textbooks here fail to understand this to my disappointment.

    Shobunsha publishes a set of “Railway Mapple” atlases geared towards train otaku available in most larger bookstores in Japan. They are very easy to read and have a lot of furigana in them. I recommend anyone living or traveling in Japan to get one for their area of interest along with a small pocket map if you live in a major city.

    A bonus tip to remember is that maps found on walls in stations for example don’t place north at the top as is common in American maps. If you are looking at a map posted on a wall the top of the map is the direction in front of you. Make sure to look for the direction guide to find north to get your bearings. For the first year living here I found that carrying a small 100 shop keychain compass helped getting out large train stations with many exits.

    Hope this helps. Happy exploring!

  • Chris Veerabadran

    “Now where the hell was I going again?” You need a mind app also :-) Thanks for the address system information in Japan.

  • David Edwin Goble

    I found in Tokyo I relied on those maps at main intersections a lot. As I didn’t have a portable device with GPS. Without those I would have been in trouble.

  • Zach Walz

    One thing I never figured out: is there a way to find out which district you’re in or block you’re on? And aside from looking at a map, is there an easy way to figure out how what the surrounding blocks are?

  • MaireP

    I use the heck out of google’s street view before I go anywhere. It hasn’t let me down yet, though I pay more attention to what the buildings look like over which businesses are in them. Businesses change/move way too often in Tokyo.

  • Jesse Cadd

    We bought the Japanese GPS Navico app for iPhone and it was worth every penny (quite spendy at around $80). No yearly subscription fees, regular updates and it’s never steered us wrong. When Google Maps finally released their update, we tried it out, but for car navigation I prefer Navico. Bonus: It’s all Japanese, so helps with immersion (maybe). For public transit and walking I actually like Google Maps on the iPhone best. However the bus times seem to be wildly off for some reason, but we usually take trains. I have friends who variously swear by Jorudan or Hyperdia, but for my money Google Maps is adequate. However…I noticed when researching our upcoming summer volunteer work trip ( FTW!) to an obscure town in Hokkaido, I noticed Google maps doesn’t have transit information for that area, so maybe for far flung places Jorudan or Hyperdia would be better.

  • Josh

    I got around Japan with maps and a compass because I’m old school like that. Actually, it worked out pretty well. I had an easier time finding my way in Japan than in my home town >__>

  • Hashi

    It helps a lot. Thanks for the awesome comment!

  • Raymond Chuang

    Here’s how to guarantee accurate maps in Japan: make sure the map data comes from ZENRIN, the largest digital mapping company in that country. ZENRIN mapping data is used by Google Maps for its maps of Japan and for the Japanese Mapion web site.

  • Jason

    Last October while in Osaka, I had a surprisingly positive experience with Apple Maps. It was able to quickly direct me to the nearest Sukiya restaurant.

  • zoomingjapan

    I often travel around with my car, using a car navi here in Japan, but the annoying thing is that even with that I’m losing my way! It’s frustrating! ^^;

  • linguarum

    Driving in Japan with the steering wheel on the left? :-)

  • Chester

    Skip Osaka, go to Nara. Osaka is just a city – if you want to go clubbing or whatever, I mean, yeah, hit Osaka, I guess (I never really bothered with that). Don’t “possibly” visit Kyoto. Visit Kyoto. Skip Osaka and go to Nara, which is quiet, beautiful, and lives up to the Japanese stereotype of being “peaceful.” Go to the main temples and the deer park – see the Daibutsu. Take a train out of town to visit the ancient imperial tombs. You can literally just walk around Nara, it’s not a sprawling metropolis. Head out to Horyu-ji – there’s a restaurant called “Chuckle Party” near the train station. Go there and marvel at the fact that you are in Japan, at a restaurant called “Chuckle Party” not two blocks away from one of the oldest temples in the whole world.

    Then, if you’re feeling adventurous, go south to Wakayama, cross over to Tokushima by the ferry, and visit Kochi, the best part of Japan. Go over to Niyodogawa Town and see literally an entire town clinging to a cliff side (ever seen a high school attached to a cliff? It’s fucking epic). Meet a nice local girl (Kochi women aren’t all giggles and plaid skirts like you see in anime – they’re much more independent-minded and tend to meet Western men in the middle in terms of gender roles and willingness to give and take – which means they are the best possible people to date and marry – I know, because I did that), get married, settle down, have some babies, never go home again, live off of yuzu, become an old man, die.

    That’s your new travel plan. Get on it.

  • Chester

    I just noticed your username is “MrsSpooky.” So instead of marrying a local Kochi woman, becoming an old man and dying here’s what you do – become a feisty local Kochi woman, live off of yuzu, never, ever, ever date a local Kochi man (they are the fucking worst; also, Osaka men are the fucking worst), become an old woman, do whatever the fuck you want because you are an old woman in Kochi and old women in Kochi do whatever the fuck they want, live forever because Kochi women straight up do not die.

    Also, still go to Chuckle Party. That’s not dependent on your gender.

  • MrsSpooky

    I shall make it so! Printing this out. I’m not a clubber (I’m a tad beyond the clubbing age :), I just have a good friend with family in Osaka. I would love the places you mention! Ok, I now have an itinerary. there are places I want to see in Tokyo, but I want to see those places too. :)

  • MrsSpooky

    ROFL Chester!!! I AM intrigued! xD I am considering what to do about accomodations – I may just pack lightly and arrive in Tokyo, spend a day or two, then head to Nara and try to see Kochi, then head back to Tokyo for my flight out. Do hotels have laundry facilities? Or offer it as a service there like I’ve seen them do in the States? That’s key. I’ll be bringing my iPad and probably a laptop too (if I knew I could get internet at the hotels). I like the idea of being an old woman and being able to do whatever the fuck I wanted. I’m almost there as it is and I still have to behave. xD

  • Steven Morris

    Incidentally a lot of streets are numbered in Japan. Unfortunately most people don’t use all but the numbered names of the most frequently used streets.

    Similarly, the streets here will twist and curve all over the place making driving a hassle when you’re trying to get a to a specific location nearby.

    Intersection names, where I live, aren’t necessarily legible from a vehicle, or at vehicular speeds. They’re also not illuminated during the night.
    It is hard to get around in Japan. I don’t think that’s even subjective. That’s why cars pretty much come standard with navigation. That’s why you have to give delivery companies your phone number. That’s why there are so many police boxes. I’m sure there are more indications of this if one was to delve deeper.

    Luckily Japanese English education spends a lot of time on “giving directions” (the same way one would need to give directions in Japan in Japanese) and the average Japanese people are kind enough to help someone out when they look lost.

    Relying on one’s intuition to get around in Japan doesn’t work for the average Japanese a lot of the time. How’s that going to work for a visitor/non-Japanese who is accustomed to their own country’s system?

  • chester

    Um, some honest info is this: don’t take your laptop. There are public terminals in enough places (i.e., your hotel) that you won’t need anything more than your laptop. An iPad is more than enough. You won’t find wi-fi nearly anywhere, but whatever. Make sure you ALWAYS have your passport, as cops can legally demand it at any time. Osaka cops are especially known to be useless, corrupt and crooked, so just be careful there, ok? They may not be actually dangerous, but Osaka cops are total dicks.

    For hotels, there is a hotel chain I and a few friends use in the area called Toyoko Inn – I don’t remember if they have laundry service, but I know their staff usually speaks English. Otherwise, you might want to check out a ryokan-style inn or even something called shukubo, which is when you stay at either an actual temple or a temple-run hotel.

    If you are a woman traveling alone, do honestly be careful with yourself. Don’t think that Japan is universally a safe place – Osaka especially you want to hold on to your purse, and never, ever hesitate to take the ladies-only car on the trains.

  • Adam Piskel

    When I went to Tokyo the first time, I went down to a convenience store near my hotel and bought a little travel map book. Best purchase that pretty much made my vacation as easy as could be.

  • MrsSpooky

    My wanting to take the laptop has more to do with photo management than anything else. I can bring extra cards for storage because I plan on taking a lot of pictures (and my cameras are digital). I’d like to pack as few clothes as possible because I am stressing about dragging luggage on those crowded trains and yes, the ladies-only cars is on my list of things I have to do.

    I’ve been to NYC by myself and I know once I hit Tokyo I will be in a “lone woman in NYC” mindset. I know there is crime there and I imagine most of what there is of it might be aimed at foreigners. I hate carrying purses, so I plan on wearing cargo pants with pockets that button closed. I want to get a holster for my passport so I can wear it inside the waistband of my pants. I’m very paranoid about pickpockets. Never been hit by one and I don’t intend to start now. :)

    I’m frankly not that interested in the big cities. I definitely want to see Tokyo and want to see Tokyo Tower and is it Akihibara where the otaku hang out? Need to see that too. Beyond that I’m flexible. Nara and Kyoto sound awesome, and Kochi too.

    I’m not a big eater so I don’t know how much I’m going to eat while there but I AM planning on sampling some of the dishes.

    Thanks so much for the advice! Been thinking about it all night and will start googling for more info on how to get there. As long as my rail pass will cover (the bulk of) the fare, I should be good.

  • Zach Walz

    I took my laptop to edit and upload photos everyday, and I was glad I did. Otherwise it becomes a pain to try and manage hundreds or thousands of photos at the end of your trip, when you just want to rest.

    If you’re not interested in seeing big cities, definitely make your way to Kyoto. I’m of the same frame of mind (actually hate NYC) and LOVED Kyoto. We stayed at this place, and it was right next to the Kiyomizu Temple–pretty cheap, AMAZING location, more traditional, more B&B like than hotel like, if you like that sort of thing:

    Also, I would recommend checking out Hiroshima if you get a chance and stopping by Miyajima if you go.

    Are you getting a week long JR pass? That allows you so much flexibility that I would definitely recommend it. We got it, and we always got tickets when we wanted–and we went once during a huge holiday season (Golden Week).

  • MrsSpooky

    I would love that! How is the room security? I have to ask because getting my laptop and/or iPad ripped off is one of my worries about taking them anywhere. I do want to see Hiroshima and Nagasaki if I can manage it. I’m only going to be there for a week. And I will have a weeklong JR pass – does that cover any of the shinkansen lines? I haven’t looked that deeply into that yet but I know there is a line that isn’t covered.

  • Zach Walz

    Oh! And re: Tokyo, if you’re there on a Sunday morning head over to the Meiji Shrine (which you should see anyway). Right in front of the entrance are harajuku dressers/cosplayers, which is something you can tell your friends about, snap some pictures, check your box and be done with (it’s honestly not that amazing, but make for some cool pictures). BUT you don’t feel like you wasted your time getting there because Meiji is so beautiful and you should be seeing it anyway!

  • Viet

    If you are lucky, you might run into pairs of really expensive Red camera 3D set-ups.. Oh, and also couples getting married in their traditional wedding garbs. But the cameras!

  • MrsSpooky

    I love cosplayers! Ok, on the list! :)

  • Chester

    A week is a short time to do all that. I was being facetious about Kochi – it’s nice. SUPER nice, but it’s much, much better to LIVE here as an ALT than to just visit for a few days. In fact, being here without knowing anyone would be kind of boring, since all the interesting stuff here is “secret” – unless, I mean, you’re REALLY into Anpanman and Kaiyodo action figures (and meeting Miyawaki-sama may very well be worth the trip out here; the man is amazing).

    If you’re just here for a week, you really need to prioritize and get things figured out. The temples are closed at five, even in the major cities. Japan isn’t a country where you can leisurely show up whenever you want and stroll around town. As beautiful as Kyoto and Nara are, your time there will be spent rushing from one temple to another – most trips to these cities usually end at about 4:40, when you and your friend realize that it is physically impossible for you to make it to your next destination on time. You’re going to be saying “fuck it” a lot as you try to visit every single place, but realize at 4:30, nope, you can’t. The day is over and you missed your chance. You’re probably going to max about four or five locations per day – and if you don’t speak Japanese and spend time getting lost, you might only be able to visit two or three places per day. Plan now and decide which three are the ones you want to see.

    Also remember, with a rail pass, you can hop on a train at 5:00, after the last temple closes, and head over to Kyoto or Osaka or Nara for dinner, and hop back to your hotel when you’re done. The Kansai area, everything is about an hour’s train ride from everything else, and you can really do a LOT there. It’s really just…it’s awesome. Wake up in Osaka, hop on the train to Nara, hit Kyoto for dinner, and back to Osaka for bed. That is the way to live.

    Hiroshima is well worth it, and Miyajima is wonderful. Miyajima itself, though, is a whole day’s trip (climb the mountain; there are monkeys).

  • MrsSpooky

    Yes, it’s way too short a time, but after the airfare, expenses are a big consideration. :) I won’t see everything this trip, but I’m flexible. I am planning on going back sometime, might even book one of those tours, you know? I want to see Tokyo, but I want to see other places too – maybe make a note of things and go back sometime next year or the year after and see what I didn’t get to the first time. Next time, I probably won’t fly into Tokyo.

  • MrsSpooky

    And yes, I tend to say “fuck it” a lot, followed by “next time” xD

  • Chester

    I sound facetious, but one of the serious considerations that you may not think about ahead of time is just how early the major attractions close here. EVERYTHING is closed at five. The restaurants, obviously, stay open later – but in a place like Nara or Kochi, you might even see THOSE shut down as early as nine. If you stay at a ryokan, you might have a curfew as early as 10.

    Oh, and ATMs. Don’t get an expat in Japan started on ATMs.

  • MrsSpooky

    I heard that about ATMs, but I think it was on said that Plus and Cirrus network ATMs can usually be found at 7-Elevens (not sure how plentiful THOSE are). I do plan on having all my cash on hand – or getting traveler’s checks before I leave. It’s a day or two after payday that I’m going, so I’m not going to plan on having to use one. How is it using traveler’s checks there? Or MUST I have everything in cash?

  • Melissa

    Sorry to butt in on the thread. I love hearing about other’s future travel plans!

    It’s been 5 years since we visited Japan (our trip then was 2.5 weeks), so things have probably improved regarding ATMs (though maybe not based on what Chester said above), but still, even back then, we didn’t find it horrendously difficult to get cash while there. Sure, it’s not nearly as convenient as many other countries we’ve been to where just about any ATM works, but with a little planning ahead, you’ll be fine. Just make sure to know where the 7-Elevens (everywhere), Citbanks (rare-ish), and post offices (enough around) are near where you’ll be (or be prepared if a particular location won’t have any), expect that even some of those might not work, and don’t get down to zero cash.

    You’ll likely get the best rate if you wait until you land in Japan and use the ATMs in the airport to get cash. Don’t know about traveler’s checks (I think the last time we took some with us on travel was ’07?), but we always travel with some USD or Euros as backup (though rarely have had to use them… think underdeveloped places like Laos/Nepal/Bolivia/etc), and have done fine with just an ATM card. I believe Japan is still very much a cash society.

    Also, I’ll third (?) Hiroshima+Miyajima, but you won’t have time this trip. In the Kansai area, Nara has already been mentioned (love the deer!), and Arashiyama was also nice (aside from the bamboo, there are monkeys at the top of a short hike (and on the way up)… don’t look them directly in the eye, and careful they don’t pee on you from above).

    Oh, and don’t even think about tours. The best way to travel is independently!

    Anyways, you’ll have a blast!

  • MrsSpooky

    Oh, you’re not butting in! Not at all! I’m just sorry I hijacked the comment section for this posting, it’s just so massively useful for me it isn’t even funny. :) Thanks much for your input! Really.

    My ATM card from my credit union is on the Cirrus and Plus networks, which says is ubiquitous at the 7-Elevens there. If that’s the case, then I’m golden. My plan is to exchange dollars for yen before I leave and carry cash. I hate purses if I’m doing a lot of exploring, so I’ll be wearing cargo pants – especially for my passport and cash. I said before I’m not a big eater, so I expect that most of my expenses will be with transportation and probably souvenirs. I may be staying with someone while there, which will save a lot in lodging, but I do want to see if I can get a night at an onsen ryokan.

    I know I’m not going to be able to see everything, but I am planning on going back. Whatever I don’t get to this trip I want to do at a later date. I think next time I won’t fly into Tokyo (the folks I know there live in Tokyo). I am kind of freaking out about getting my luggage on a train. I’ll get over it of course, but still. UGH! LOL

  • David

    You’re welcome. :D

  • David

    Try looking on the sides of houses on the corner of a street. There is typically a tall skinny metal sign listing the cho 町 and the number. Sometimes they have little small maps on the bottom, but mostly not. Some do have romanji, but that is entirely dependent on the city.

    Here’s a rusty example of one from Kyoto:

    Many neighborhoods have signboards with local maps showing the cho 町 you are in. They sometimes lack a “you are here” (genzaichi in Japanese 現在地) dot however.

  • David

    Just to offer a differing opinion, Osaka is awesome. Never had to deal with the cops there, but then again I’m not one for getting into trouble. There is some crime in the city, but it’s nothing like Rome, London, Los Angeles, or Vancouver for example. Don’t get me wrong, going to Nara is a totally good thing to do, I go there a few times a year. If you want to get even more rural check out Asuka-mura which you can tour on a rental bicycle. Just don’t miss out on the retro fun that is Shinsekai (The area around Osaka’s tower, Tsutenkaku). You can do that after a day in Nara. Remember you’ll be walking A LOT so wear comfy shoes think of all the calories you’re burning off so you can eat more kushikatsu!

  • MrsSpooky

    I was thinking of Osaka tower when I said I wanted to go there. :) Seen pictures and it looks gorgeous! I just wish I was staying longer than a week, who knows when I’ll be able to go back, you know? And I am planning on doing a LOT of walking – it’s actually my exercise of choice next to swimming. I want to see all those places, but so little time. I think once in Osaka I’ll be pretty close to the other places you guys were mentioning, so it shouldn’t be too difficult. In fact, there is a possibility I’ll be spending most of my time in Japan in Osaka area. I’ve got time to make up an itinerary and I appreciate the advice. That will help me narrow things down a lot.

  • Zach Walz

    Wow, that’s really helpful (and your photo is beautiful)! Thanks so much for sharing.

  • shibainu

    Tokyo was designed by Ieyasu, the first shogun of house of Tokugawa in 1612. He built the castle in the center, now, Imperial Palace.He made road pattern as spiral shape for defense.If you try to take the castle you cannot help take a round-about way.This causes a lot of trouble to countryside born Japanese.they don’t know where he is standing on Tokyo street.All roads are blocked by buildings.They asks a taxi driver to go north,He replies that going north means arriving south in the end.However Kyoto was designed by the emperor Kanmu in 794.He designated road pattern as grid.You are not puzzled by roads in Kyoto.Ieyasu’s aim was to puzzle the enemy’s soldiers.But centuries later city planning built alien straight roads especially after earthquakes and US bombing.Anyway, strategically you had to be puzzled by Tokyo roads.

  • Paulo

    Thanks for the information, very much appreciated..