Finding your way around cities in Japan

Some first-time visitors to Japan have worries about finding their way around. This may be because of language, the size of the cities, or just general unfamiliarity with Japan. It is possible to get around in Japan, even for the first-time independent traveller. There are a few simple actions you can take to make your travels easier.

Key things to know

The Japanese address system differs from that used in western countries. Instead of street names and numbers, there are numbered blocks with individual buildings numbered within these. The numbering is not linear, but assigned in order of the buildings being built, meaning that individual buildings can be tricky to find.

What this means is that Japanese businesses will give information on their location relative to local landmarks. Look for this information on hotel and tourist attraction websites. It’s generally found under the heading access, and it may include details such as the best exit to take from the nearest subway stations, or directions such as “turn left at the 7-Eleven”.

Here’s an example of directions to a hotel (click on the subway station) and directions to a museum. It’s useful to check for access information for your hotels and other places that you want to go to, and note this information down. It also helps to have addresses written in Japanese, particularly for your hotel or anywhere you might be taking a taxi to.

Useful tools

There are some useful tools that will help make navigating large cities easier.

First of all, having good maps is essential. If you prefer digital tools, then Google Maps or an offline map app such as CityMaps2Go or Maps.me might be your preferred option. These will show your current location and may have options to mark and save the places you are planning to visit. Google Maps will also suggest routes to your destination by car, public transport or walking.

Paper maps can also be very useful, particularly for specific local areas. These are available from tourist information offices or hotels, and often there is an English version. Because they are designed for tourists, they highlight where local sights are. These can sometimes get a bit lost in a larger, more general map. JNTO produces a series of Practical Travel Guides which provide maps and itineraries for popular tourist areas.

There are various route-finding tools that are useful too, in addition to Google Maps. Hyperdia and Jorudan both have English versions and cover subways within cities, as well as long distance trains. Hyperdia Jorudan has useful features to limit to JR Pass and Tokyo Subway Pass routes.

English at stations and other places

There are English signs on trains and in stations and there may be announcements in English as well, depending on the operating company. The lines are named and colour-coded to distinguish them from other lines. If you are a regular user of public transport in your own town, you will find using subways and commuter trains in Japan to be fairly easy. The public transport system in cities such as Tokyo and Osaka may be bigger than you are used to, but how it works will be pretty similar

Station exits are usually identified by letters and numbers, so it’s useful if you’ve found out in advance which exit to use by looking at Access details as described above. There are also often maps and signs by exits showing what streets, buildings and attractions are near that exit. If you’re uncertain about where to go, look for these maps and signs. If these don’t help, go ask the station staff. They may not speak English well or at all, but if you point to the place you are going to on your map, they will point to the right exit.

Some train stations are large and complex, which can be daunting. If there is a station that you are particularly worried about getting lost in, for example Shinjuku station which is the busiest station in the world, it is worthwhile searching for videos on Youtube, with search terms such as “NEX to Shinjuku East exit”. This can also be a useful way to check out transfers between stations, for example at Ueno going from the Keisei Skyliner to the Ginza line for Asakusa, some useful videos can be found with “Keisei Ueno to Ginza line”.

You won’t want to do this for absolutely every station or connection, but it can be reassuring to preview the route you’ll be taking when you arrive in Japan. In many of these videos, you will see English language signs directing you where to go.

English in other places

At tourist attractions and on streets in areas popular with tourists, you may see multi-lingual signs indicating where to go. This is not as frequent or consistent as the signage provided for trains, and it pays to be prepared with maps and access directions if you are going to smaller places.

Finally, relax and don’t get stressed out by fears of getting lost. Millions of tourists visit Japan each year and manage just fine. I’ve provided some photos of various signs to give you an idea of what you are likely to see as you travel around.

Do you have any questions about getting around Japan? Please feel free to contact me.

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For further information, the ebook Japan Just for You is a practical step-by-step guide to planning your trip to Japan, starting with developing your own personal trip concept. It’s now available on Apple, Amazon and Kobo, and other stores.