Posted by: Menzie | March 18, 2009

You Will Get Lost In Japan

You will get lost in Japan. I guarantee it. It’s empirical fact. I don’t care how good a sense of direction you have. You will get lost. So when it happens don’t panic. It’s no fault of your own. There simply are no street name signs in Japan.

There are no street name signs in Japan for a very good reason. With very limited exception (Kyoto being one of them) streets do not have names in Japan. They are just streets. They are just there. Like trees. Do your trees have names? I didn’t think so. In many cases where there is a street name, it may not be an actual street so much as a path along several streets. And that is just terribly confusing. How the hell do people figure out where they are going?

I’ve never been able to get a direct answer on this from anyone while in Japan. The response was generally “they just know.” They use landmarks and maps and generally become very familiar with the town or area they live in. Whenever going to somewhere nearby they are not familiar with, such as a restaurant for a company party, a little map will be drawn at the bottom of the invitation. If you aren’t a member of the Cartographer’s Guild of America before traveling abroad, this can prove to be a bit of a challenge. Luckily, Japanese hospitality extends pretty far, and many Japanese are happy to give directions to a stranger or help you with the map. The directionally challenged such as myself do best to just ask a coworker to meet them at the train station and go with them.

While I’ve never confirmed this, the understanding I have for this street nameless system is because you are not supposed to enter a city as a stranger. Either because of the Japanese hospitality ethic, or due to a fear of the foreign, it is expected that the first time you come to a new city there will be someone to greet you and show you around. With the exception of major cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto, Hokkaido, Hiroshima and Osaka, people don’t really travel to cities where they don’t know anyone. Kyoto, being the cultural capital of Japan, is the one place everyone travels to (along with Tokyo, but they barely have any named streets.) This may be why almost every street in Kyoto is named. For the most part, just be ready to wander around until you are familiar with the area. It can be fun.


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