Ever tried finding a specific place in Japan by its address alone? It can drive you nuts. Which is the reason why virtually every shop includes a map on their website, flyers or tissue packs. Since places are not designated by street names and house numbers, it can be difficult to find your destination. But if know how the system works, it’s pretty usable.
Map courtesy of Yahoo
Let’s say you have this address: 東京都新宿区西新宿5丁目6-2. In English that’s Tokyo-to Shinjuku-ku Nishi-Shinjuku 5-chome 6-2. Addresses zoom in from large to small. It starts with Tokyo-to (東京都, Tokyo metropolis), then specifies the region Shinjuku-ku (新宿区, Shinjuku ward), then the sub-region Nishi-Shinjuku (西新宿, West Shinjuku). So far so good, you would’ve probably found the place up to here.
The clincher is the 丁目 chome part and all following numbers. A chome is a block of undetermined size, literally meaning about as much as “street as far as the eye can see”, and is usually an area between major streets or other landmarks. On the map snippet above, everything within the triangle between the major street in yellow and the river on the left is 西新宿５丁目 Nishi-Shinjuku 5-chome.
Within a chome, every block of houses (番地 banchi) is numbered. On the map above, that’s the small grey numbers. Oftentimes there’s more than one building within a banchi, and either the name of the building or, again, a number designates the exact building. This level of information is rarely shown on maps. Can you spot the approximate location of our example address on the map above? You can see it up to Nishi-Shinjuku 5-chome 6. To find the right building you’ll probably have to walk around the block once you’re there.
The problem is that there’s no system to the numbering of chomes and below. The numbers were assigned in order when the city was build, which makes them random for all practical purposes. Online map services like Google Maps or Yahoo Maps will pinpoint the address for you, but if you’re out and about you might want to invest in the Bilingual Tokyo City Atlas, which can really save your day.