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.