View of Minato-ku, Tokyo, Japan. Image from ShutterStock.

One of the first things you will no doubt notice when coming to Japan is that most of the streets don’t have names, the building numbers don’t go in any kind of order, and you can’t possibly imagine a time before your cabbie had access to GPS. Welcome to the Japanese address registration system. It’s a doozy.

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Knowing how the system works doesn’t matter much if you’re just hitting the tourist sites, but it’s really important if you plan to drive here.

Combined with some of tiniest, most labyrinthine “driving through-streets” I have ever seen—let alone driven on—not having any idea where you’re going in Japan can ultimately be very dangerous. But it can also be very rewarding as your tiny Japanese or European city car trundles down streets so old, they take you back in time to the occupation period after World War II or even back to the Edo period before Japan opened to the West.

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There are so many local nuances to Japanese addresses that all the bizarre little details are nearly impossible to explain briefly, from Kyoto’s “above or below” system of “vernacular geography” to Ishikawa’s use of Katakana iroha designators to Niigata’s choice to toss out chome (neighborhood section) and use jikkan instead. Told you it’s confusing.

So, I’m simply going to give some examples of common (and quite made-up) addresses.

If you live in a suburban area, you might end up with an address that looks a lot like this:

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360-0080, Saitama-ken, Konosu-shi, Kitagawa-ku, Sumiyoshi 3 Chome 3-5, Kuruma Mansion #105

Or, in Japanese:

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360-0080 埼玉県鴻巣市北川区住吉三丁目3番地5号車マンション105室

And that doesn’t look like it means anything on first glance, even if you’re fluent in Japanese. So let’s break this down.

The first number is, of course, the postal code, or a ZIP code, for our American readers. Then you have the ken (県), or prefecture. Japan has 47 prefectures, and almost all of them are ken. However, there are four special areas that are not ken.

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The northern most island of Hokkaido is a do (道), or “circuit” (yes, that kind of circuit, race fans, it means “road”). Osaka and Kyoto are “urban prefectures” or fu (府), and finally Tokyo is a to (都), which means “capital” because... Tokyo is the capital.

To further confuse you, the kyo in Tokyo is the same as the kyo in Kyoto, and the to at the end of Tokyo-to is the same as the to in Kyoto. And that’s literally just the first part of the address after the postal code!

Next we have a couple of options. If we are outside of Tokyo, as we are in the above case (since we’re in Saitama), we have a city. In this case, Konosu City. If it’s a particularly large city, and for our pretend case, let’s say Konosu is, then we would have a “ward” or “borough” called a ku (区). In Tokyo, however, the ku is called a City, because of course it is.

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In this case, though, Kitagawa is the ku. If the city’s not big enough, it will skip down to neighborhood directly. In this case, the neighborhood is Sumiyoshi. Then you break the neighborhood down into sections with chome (丁目). 3 Chome means “third section.”

Then this is where it gets weird and really confusing. Your neighborhood section is broken up into “blocks.” Except, not really. In truth, the section is broken up into registered land parcels. Yes. Those are called banchi (番地), and they are ordered by registration not location. So in a given area, you might be on “block” 52, but be next to “block” 45, and across the street might be “block” 55. They’ll generally be in the same area, and fairly close together, but not in any kind of order.

And the fun doesn’t stop there, because then, your “building number” is in fact a registered division of an existing registered land parcel, and not actually a number for the building at all.

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And like the “block,” it’s in order of division registration and not location. So not only are the blocks all “out of order,” so too are the buildings on each block.

Kuruma Mansion is the name of the apartment building (it means “Car Apartments,” since a “Mansion” in Japanese is really just like a condominium apartment complex), with the apartment number being 105.

Rural areas aren’t much better. We could live out in the middle of nowhere, and not a city, and if we did, we might live in a county or gun (郡), such as Hiki-gun in Saitama or Sawa-gun in Gunma. If we did live in a county, we would live in either a machi (町) (town) or a mura (村) (village).

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There are many places that have machi or mura at the end of them which are not administrative districts, just place names. That further confuses the issue. You can even have places like Tamamura-machi in Sawa-gun in Gunma-ken, where you ignore the mura, the administrative district is the machi. Then it would go down to neighborhood, block number, and building number, plus apartment number if necessary, following the same registration and division system as stated above.

So, if you’re looking for an address in Japan? Get a data plan for your smart phone and use GPS, or ask people for really obvious directions.

Otherwise, good luck. You’re gonna need it.