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.

Japan National Tourist Organization

The JNTO is incredibly helpful and responsive to travelers. We contacted them at the very last minute to get rail passes — they were able to assist us immediately, directing us to a local affiliate who arranged for our rail passes. They also provided us with a huge package of travel information which arrived via post from Japan within a week. Contact them for maps, brochures, assistance in making reservations, rail passes, and to answer various questions. Contact them via telephone or email. If you contact the JNTO by e-mail, be sure to include your postal address. Link to the JNTO website is below; we recommend visiting the site as it provides useful information on a variety of topics as well as contact information for the various offices.

Once in Tokyo, you can visit the JNTO-operated Tourist Information Centers. The TIC are located in Terminal 2 of Narita or at 3-5-1 Marunouchi, 1st Basement Floor, Chiyoda-ku, 03-3201-3331 (located near Tokyo Station). Here you can acquire maps and assistance. Office hours are 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. – noon on Saturdays.

Other services for tourists include Japan Travel-Phone — a phone service that offers travel advice and information in English. The Tokyo number is 03-303-4400; outside of Tokyo, you can dial 0120-222-800 or 0088-222-800. There is a per minute charge (¥10).

Visa Requirements

Visa Requirements

American, Canadian, and New Zealander tourists can stay in Japan for up to 90 days without requiring a visa (a valid passport is, of course, required). Americans cannot work for money while in Japan, and tourists must leave after 90 days. Australians must possess a passport and three-month entry visa. United Kingdom citizens may stay for 180 days without a visa.

Visitors who require visas to stay stay longer must contact the nearest immigration bureau; it’s a good idea to contact your local consulate or embassy before leaving for Japan to clarify visa requirements as regulations are subject to change.

All tourists are required to carry their passport at all times. Those driving in Japan need to possess an international driver’s license.

Student Discounts

Students can receive discounts at museums and other places (although these discounts are often limited to Japanese students). Your school can help you obtain an International Student ID card; show the card at the admissions windows — it never hurts to try.

How Many Yen Make A Dollar, And Other Resources For The Budget Traveler

Tokyo Disney LandOne of our favorite resources is the Japanese National Tourist Organization. Not only is the website one of the best guides to traveling in Japan, but it also offers special deals for tourist. Including a great bargain for budget travelers. Not only can you figure out prices, but you can also find discounts on tourist attractions and transportation.

Before leaving home, check out the JNTO’s deals on rail passes — we had ours Fed Ex’d when we discovered, three days before leaving, how much time and money we would save by buying the pass in advance.

Another key deal for budget travelers are “Welcome Cards”:

Welcome to Japan! There is an exceptional variety of truly interesting cultural heritage sites and sightseeing attractions in Japan, and shopping and dining out are experiences not to be missed. In order to make your visit to Japan as exciting and worthwhile as possible, some special cards have been created for your use in a number of cities and areas. These cards come with a guidebook for overseas visitors to Japan to enable you to get discounts and special services at art galleries, museums, sightseeing attractions, shopping areas, restaurants and transportation facilities. Although called the Welcome Card, there are also places where you can receive discounts by presenting a website page printout instead of a card. Welcome Cards are our way of saying thanks and extending our greeting to you as our overseas travelers who have made your long trip to Japan.

The cards and web deals are good for a variety of places throughout Japan (see accompanying map) and cover cultural events, food, hotels, and transportation.

Health Care and Insurance

No special inoculations are needed to enter Japan. American prescriptions are not honored in Japan, so it is wise to have them filled at home. For safety’s sake, pack all prescription drugs in your carry-on luggage, and bring a doctor’s note describing your conditions and the medications you are taking — this will save time at customs. If you’re carrying syringes, be absolutely sure you have your prescription and a doctor’s note.

Because Japan has very strict laws regarding importing drugs, certain medications may not be allowed. These include codeine and certain cold medications (such as Sudafed). You may only bring a one-month’s supply of medications into the country.

Before traveling, always verify your health insurance coverage relative to your destination (health care in Japan is expensive). Also, verify that possessions such as cameras are covered by home or other insurance. Travel insurance is something to consider if your current plan doesn’t cover your trip.

Japan has a national medical care system. Travelers who are not part of the system are expected to pay for services when rendered or to prove payment will be forthcoming. If a medical emergency arises, we suggest you contact the U.S. Embassy first for guidance.


Japanese electrical outlets are 100 volts. Electrical current varies depending on where you are in Japan. Eastern Japan is typically 50 Herz, while Western Japan is 60 Herz. The outlets are designed for two prongs. Generally, American-made electronics (110/60) will have no problems with the Japanese electrical systems, though you might want to consider bringing a converter if you have sensitive or expensive equipment. European items will generally require conversion (although some hotels can accommodate European electronic items).

If you buy electronics in Japan, verify that the items are made for use with other electrical systems.

Duty Free/Consumption Tax

Japan assesses a consumption tax on items. As a tourist, you can be exempted from paying this tax if the item purchased is destined to be used outside of Japan. You will need to present your passport when making the purchase at designated “tax free” shops. The clerk will provide the appropriate paperwork for the customs officer. Only items purchased at tax free shops are exempted from the consumption tax.

Swords, guns, and certain computers require additional export licenses if they are being sent out of Japan.

Customs Restrictions

As with any country, there are restrictions regarding what what items can be brought into Japan. When you arrive at Narita, you will be given the option of taking the “green” route or the “red” route. The green route, or express customs line, is reserved for arrivals who do no have anything to declare or are carrying goods which can be admitted free of customs charges. The red route is for all other passengers. Save yourself the agony and don’t try to skip the red line unless you’re sure you can.

Here are some general guidelines regarding what can be brought into Japan. As customs regulations are subject to change, it is wise to verify information before you travel. We’ve linked to the Narita Airport Customs page below.

    • Alcohol. You may bring three bottles of approximately 760 cc each into the country. 
    • Cigarettes. You may bring a maximum of 500 grams of tobacco into Japan. If you’re counting, this works out to about 400 cigarettes or 100 cigars. 
    • Currency. There is no limit on the amount of currency which can be brought into Japan. However, if your cash exceeds ¥1,000,000, it must be declared. 
    • Perfume. Two ounces is allowed. 
    • Personal Items. You can bring clothing and other items designated for your personal use. Cameras and other portable equipment may be brought into the country, provided it is for your own use. 
    • Other Items. You can bring other items, such as gifts, as long as the total value does not exceed ¥200,000. Individual items whose value is less than ¥10,000 are not counted toward the ¥200,000 limit. 

Do not attempt to carry drugs into the country — penalties are swift and harsh. Certain cold medicines, like Sudafed, are subject to restriction. Local mores regarding pornography prohibit the importation of materials from outside Japan. Leave the guns at home, and don’t bring items that infringe upon someone’s trademark or copyright.

Plants and animals are restricted. Do your research before attempting to import them into Japan.

Climate and Weather

Japan has four distinct seasons, similar to those on the east coast of the United States. Summer begins in June and introduces the rainy season; typhoon season comes in late August and September — carry an umbrella during these periods. Expect that some days will be hot and humid.

Autumn is the perfect time to visit as the days are cooler and the changing season is reflected in the trees. Winter is cold, with some potential for snow in Tokyo — more Northern areas receive a more traditional snowfall. Spring, of course, heralds the arrival of cherry blossoms and perfect weather for tourists.

With an exception of winter months, heavy clothing is generally not required. During autumn and spring months, anticipate some temperature fluctuations by bringing clothing that can be layered.