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The streets have no name

August 16, 2008

I was invited to a barbecue earlier in O-bon week.  But not at my friend’s own house, at a relative’s place.  And having never been there before, it took some finding.

If you’ve never been to Japan before, it may surprise you to know that roads have no names, and houses have no street numbers.

OK, major roads have numbers. (Though this is not necessarily helpful.  Two different roads where I live have the same number.)  And in city centres, some major avenues have names.  But in residential areas, forget it.

A bit vague, and not terribly helpful

A bit vague, and not terribly helpful

So how do you find anyone’s house, you’re thinking?  Well, usually it involves heading in the right vague direction and phoning your friend when you arrive at some particular landmark, where your friend can come and meet you, or is already waiting.

That’s not to say that Japanese houses don’t have addresses.  Of course they do.  But they’re a convaluted and complicated code understood only by the geniuses at the Post Office.  The idea of any convenience to the general public has been entirely left out.

Each city and town is divided into smaller, named areas.  This can be difficult for a new arrival.  You won’t know most of the names, and this will inexplicably amaze most locals, who will name some place you will assume to be a faraway town, but what in fact turns out to mean “just down there, and round that corner”.

And each of these areas is divided into numbered areas.  And depending on whether we’re talking about a village or a city, we keep paring down with more numbers until we get to an individual building.  There is usually no geographical basis to these numbers (it’s more likely based on the order the buildings were built), so give up any idea of finding a place simply because you have the address.

So basically, the entire reason for this post is that by the time we arrived at this barbecue, all the best bits had been eaten or burnt, and everyone else was drunk and beyond caring.

One Comment leave one →
  1. RMilner permalink
    August 27, 2008 5:17 am

    It took me 14 years of visiting Japan to finally figure out the address system. Once you’ve cracked it, a small enough scale map will take you where you want to go, if you can read the Kanji for the town names.

    I don’t know about Kyushu, but in the Kanagawa region the local government publishes map books every year that show every single house with the owner’s name. Unfortunately the book costs about £70.

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