The Black Art of Finding A Japanese Address

As if the total strangeness of Tokyo was not enough to confuse and disorient the Western visitor, it turns out that the streets have no names and the buildings are numbered in a random fashion that was possibly invented by a 13th century Buddhist monk. The secret of deciphering the addressing scheme appears to have died with him.

Or maybe not.

While it is almost hopeless, there are some general guidelines that can be helpful in times of lost distress. This is roughly how it works:

The fact that only the most major streets have names is not really so much of a problem when you realize that the addressing scheme is totally different from anything you’ve ever encountered before. Street names wouldn’t help much.

Here’s a sample address:

1-22-14 Jinan, Shibuya-Ku

Shibuya-Ku is the Ward (a large section of the City, Tokyo is comprised of 23 Wards). This will give you a general idea of where a given address is. If this destination is a well known attraction you can probably just take the subway to the heart of any given Ward and ask around once you get there (be prepared to do some serious walking).

In the above example, Jinan is the District within the Ward. This will give you an even more refined sense of where a given address is. The whole process is something like zeroing in on a target.

The District is further subdivided into subsections called Chome. The first number of the address is the Chome, or subsection of the District within the Ward. Surprisingly clear cut, really.

Now this is where it gets a bit complicated. The next digit represents the subsection of the Chome (usually a specific city block). The final digit is the actual building number within the Chome subsection. The problem is that the buildings are not numbered sequentially. Actually, they’re numbered in the order in which they were constructed. Given the amount of destruction and aggressive development that Tokyo has witnessed over the past 75 years, it’s extremely unlikely that any adjoining buildings in the City were built consecutively.

If this weren’t difficult enough, the first two digits (Chome and subsection) are usually written in Japanese.

Careful consideration of this addressing scheme makes it apparent that even if you know the system like a native, there is still no way to find an address on the first try. Usually you’ll spend a lot of time wandering around an area, looking at maps and wondering which direction is North.

It’s all a process of trial and error, and if it’s any consolation, the natives don’t seem to understand the system either. Ask strangers on the street for help finding an address and there’s a good chance that no two people will agree.

A couple of hints that might make things easier during your trip:

1) Maps are commonly printed on advertisements and matchbooks. Remember this important motto, “while in Japan maps are your friends”.

2) The Chome often have maps with detailed information posted randomly throughout the neighborhoods. Unfortunately many of these maps are out of date. More commonly the frame that holds these maps is empty, the Chome map having been removed by some unseen force (not stolen remember this is Tokyo). Should you encounter one of these maps they may provide you with further information you need to find your destination, but they are not entirely reliable. Proceed with caution.

3) If you are really lost, do not hesitate to stop at one of the many neighborhood police stations you will see along your travels. The police are more than willing to help and they know their districts very well.

4) Perhaps the most important advice of all — when in Tokyo wear comfortable walking shoes. You’ll need them. Nothing beats Doc Marten.

Ueno Zoo

The zoo is over one hundred years old and now houses two giant pandas (the zoo’s most popular exhibit). In addition to outdoor animal exhibits, there is also an aquarium and aviary. While the pandas tend to attract most of the attention, the king pengiuns are also worth the price of admission.

Sensoji Temple

Tokyo’s oldest temple (approx. 628 A.D., rebuilt in 1958 after being destroyed in WWII); legend states that the gold statue of the goddess Kannon was fished out of a nearby river and that the temple was built to house the statue which is reputed to still be housed in the temple; shops and colorful stalls line the street leading up to the temple and crowds throng the incense stands, asking for Kannon to grant favors

For a few yen you can do the Japanese fortune thing. Basically you pull what looks like a chopstick out of a big tin can, then you match a symbol on the chopstick to a symbol on a bank of wooden drawers. There are monks on hand to help you with the translation (actually, they hand you a translation book and you’re on your own to search for the proper translation).

My wife tried this first. We probably should have been content to save the fortune as a souvenir. When we finally found the translation, it was bad . . . very bad. Summary: Bad marriage, bad job, bad travel. That would just about cover everything, wouldn’t it?

Fortunately there is a procedure for negating bad fortunes (which is what she immediately did). You tie the fortune to a nearby tree. Or a metal structure that represents a tree (conveniently provided by those thoughtful monks).

After tying her fortune to a tree she tried again. Prognosis: Regular Fortune. Regular marriage, regular job, regular travel.

That was good enough for me. We quit while we were ahead and moved on.

Ekoin Temple

(aka the Shrine of the Rat Boy)

After visiting the Sumo stadium, follow the street lined with Sumo statues until it ends. Across the street you’ll see a wooden gate: this is the entrance too Ekoin Temple, one of the most eclectic temples in Tokyo. Legend has it this is where retiring sumo wrestlers bury their topknots.

Originally built in 1657 as a memorial to those who lost their lives in the great fire, the temple has long since transcended its original purpose.

For example, on the temple grounds, there is a memorial to lost pets. Owners buy large sticks in their pet’s memory and place them around the temple grounds. It would be incredibly sad if the grounds weren’t filled with so many stray cats who are very much alive and waiting to be fed. Generally, these felines are demanding, but friendly.

There’s a huge tower on the grounds that is said to serve as the final resting place for unidentified dead people, criminals, and those who have lost their lives in various disasters.

The “Shrine of the Rat Boy” is perhaps the biggest draw to Ekoin (at least for the cats). The Rat Boy was apparently a Robin Hood-like Japanese figure from the 19th century.

Kokugikan Stadium

Check with your hotel’s concierge or the Tokyo Journalabout the possibility of catching a sumo match while in town. You should attempt to book your tickets well in advance as they sell-out quickly.

If you are like us (unable to obtain tickets), you may have to content yourself with a walk around the stadium and the nearby sumo village. Sumo wrestlers as far as the eye can see. The crowd around the stadium treats the event like it’s the Academy Awards. Even though I didn’t have tickets, I actually found myself getting caught up in the excitement. The amazing thing is that while fans view the wrestlers as being nearly god-like, the wrestlers just seem to wander around aimlessly in the public. Sumos waiting in line for train tickets, Sumos riding a bikes home from the market. They’re really just everyday kind of guys. . . . who happen to weigh over 400 pounds and could crush you without blinking!


Shibuya is a trendy shopping district that caters to a young and upscale crowd. It’s quite a bit hipper than Ginza and the large number of restaurants, bars, and theaters in this area make it the perfect destination for a fun night on the town.

As you’re crossing the street from Shibuya station take care not to be run over while ogling the multiple huge television screens that seem to dominate the area. It’s been said that Shibuya is the home to more multi-story high TV screens than anywhere in the world.

Interesting trivia: The Tower Records in Shibuya used to be the largest record store in the world (a distinction now apparently held by the Virgin Megastore in Time Square New York). While it may no longer be the largest record store, it does feature a huge selection of music as well as a very large selection of English language books and magazines.