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.
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:
- Location within municipality
- 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.
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.
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?