A Tour of Japanese Pop Culture, Part 5: Maneuvering without Street Signs

As mentioned in my last post, we had a difficult time locating Swallowtail, but the butler café was not the only place we had trouble finding. Much of our problems stemmed from the fact that the vast majority of Japanese streets are not marked and buildings have no address numbers. (Makes me wonder how postal workers and cabdrivers get the job done.) Complicating matters is that what looks like a street on a map might actually be a pedestrian-only footpath. So the only things I really had to navigate with were major landmarks (like train stations) and geometry, which can be pretty daunting in a landscape like Tokyo.

Because my husband rented a mobile modem for his iPhone, we attempted using the GPS features of Google and Yahoo maps, but that was a FAIL in the most epic sense of the word. Instead of getting us to our State Department friends’ townhouse, it sent us a mile in the wrong direction, smack into Roppongi’s nightclub district. So our first taste of Tokyo was being hopelessly lost at 8 AM, watching hungover salary men and office ladies bid farewell to their nighttime companions while middle schoolers passed on their way to Saturday morning classes (yes, there’s a middle school located in the middle of the Roppongi nightclubs).

GPS failed again when we were trying to locate our hotel in Kawasaki. It literally sent us in circles, the dot representing the hotel’s supposed location constantly shifting on the iPhone screen. Finally, I used the iPhone to access the hotel website, found a picture of the hotel building, and began looking around the area for a matching building (THAT worked).

Suffice to say, for those of us who depend on street signs and building numbers getting from place to place in Japan can be challenging. One way around it is to take a taxi everywhere, but that can get expensive. So here’s a couple things we learned that might help you find your Japanese destination.

1. Get a picture of the location. Even if there’s no exterior photo available, just knowing what the logo of a store or restaurant looks like might help you pinpoint it quicker.

2. Find out what floor your destination is on. Tokyo’s full of high-rises, and many buildings house multiple businesses. Knowing that your restaurant is two levels underground or on the 15th floor will help a lot.

Handy subway exit sign

3. If the place is near a train station, find out what the nearest subway exit is. Subway stations often extend several hundred meters underground, and, interestingly, their exits are numbered and well-labeled in contrast to the streets above. Some subway exits even have signs indicating major buildings and attractions in their vicinity. So if you know that your destination is near Mita Station Exit A10, you will be that much closer to your goal.

4. Landmarks. In lieu of signs, street level landmarks are your best guide. That was what our State Department friends used to guide us to their house (“Make a right at the Golf Partner store, pass two Mexican restaurants, make a left at the diva Buddha statute…)

5. And if all else fails… ask for directions. The Japanese are by and large a congenial people. Even if they can’t understand a word you’re saying, they’ll do their best to help, or at least point you in a direction where they think you can get help.

Next up, the Ghibli Museum!

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