I got lost but I have an excuse

Once a week, I go to Japanese school for a two hour evening lesson. Recently, my school informed me that they were consolidating their two schools into one single building, not far from where the old one was.  They gave me a map.

In theory, finding the new location should have been pretty easy.  However, what you’ve forgotten, as always, is the Japanese street addressing system.

The Japanese street addressing system

Firstly, Tokyo is a city that organically, chaotically formed.  There’s not much zoning. A hairdresser may be below an English school, which is below an apartment.  There’s nothing regular about the street layout in many places, with hidden lanes and streets at jaunty angles everywhere.

Secondly, the street number system is entirely logical or entirely illogical, depending on how you look at it.  Apart from arterial roads, most streets don’t have names.  An address will be the suburb plus a number, for example “Shinkuku 8-1-4”.  Shinjuku is the suburb, where the 8-1-4 means district 8, block 1, building 4.  Buildings aren’t numbered according to street position but build age (the oldest building is number 1 etc).  So, good luck guessing which building is the fifth oldest on the block.

For computers, this is fine.  For humans – not so much, especially as you really can’t rely on these numbers appearing anywhere in the physical world to tell you where you are.  There are sometimes vague maps on a signboard, but very few street signs.

So, how do you find a place you want to go to in Japan?  You either print out a map beforehand, look it up on your cellphone (online navigation has been popular for much longer in Japan than other places) or get verbal directions.  “Get off at Shinjuku station and you’ll see a department store.  Walk through it and leave from exit number five.  You’ll see a Family Mart convenience store.  Turn left there and it’s the building three doors down with a carpark out the front.”

Not many people own cars in Tokyo, but the train system is fantastic.  So, the normal procedure is for the person who knows where they’re going to meet everyone at the train station and lead the way.

Back to school

In the case of my school, they provided a mud map to the new location.  It was something along the lines of “Go down a street with lots of bars until you hit a Family Mart convenience store.  Turn right until you cross a bridge.  Take a left and a right and you’ll see the school’s sign.”  Although the school has a street address, people tend not to use it.  At least the street with lots of bars should be easy to spot:

Unfortunately, on the first day I was to attend the new school, I couldn’t find the map.  “I know, I’ll go to  their web site and print one off!”.  Unfortunately, the web site hadn’t been updated, and led to the school’s old location which I also hadn’t visited.

Even more unfortunately, the old site involved going down another street with lots of bars, past a Family Mart (they’re everywhere), across a bridge… to the middle of nowhere.  I called the school.

“Hi, I followed the directions on the map, but I’m obviously not there.”
“Oh, where are you?”
“I’m standing in front of a Bic Camera store.”
“There’s a Bic Camera store in Takadanobaba??”

This is when I knew things had gone badly.

Continuing to try and follow the outdated map, I eventually found the school – locked up with all the lights out.  Another phone call.  “Excuse me, do you happen to all be sitting in the dark with the doors locked?”

I retraced my steps back to the station where a nice lady from the school had kindly offered to meet me.  I was shamefacedly escorted to school only one hour late for my two hour lesson.

Consolation prize: the street leading up to the school’s new venue is full of students on the turps having a great time.  It’s a really lively place compared to the previous, more sterile, corporate area.  Here’s the experience of walking along the drag down to my school, full of bars, hostess clubs, mobile phone shops and convenience stores:


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