An address in Japan often looks something like this:
福岡県 (Fukuokaken, Fukuoka Prefecture)
福岡市 (Fukuokashi, Fukuoka City)
中央区 (Chuuouku, Central Ward)
大名二丁目九番地五番 (Daimyou nichoume kyuubanchi goban)
(For those interested, this is the school address.)
First, addresses are generally written in the reverse order of English, from most vague location to most precise.
1) First comes the zip code. 7-digit zip codes have been used in Japan since 1968, but they are still not mandatory, and many people leave them off when writing addresses on envelopes.
2) Next is the prefecture, followed by the city (or, in rural areas, the 郡 (gun, district).
3) Next is the ward. Each city or town is divided into several of these wards, and they are often named based on their position. For example, Fukuoka has a 中央区, 西区 (Nishiku, West Ward), 東区 (Higashiku, East Ward), and 南区 (Minamiku, South Ward), among others.
4) Finally comes the specific address part. This breaks down like this:
大名 – the area name
２丁目 – Each area is divided into several chou, or districts, which are usually numbered by their distance from the center of the area. However, the numbering can be quite random at times. These generally cover an area of several blocks each.
９番地 – Each chou is divided into several banchi, which are again often quite random. These generally correspond to a single block in a city.
５番 – Each banchi is divided into multiple bans. This number specifies the individual building you are looking for.
The first major point, then, is that addresses don’t include street names! While most streets don’t have a name, a few of the major ones do. Even buildings beside these streets, however, still have addresses that use the “areas” system above.
So, if you have an address and are looking for the actual location, how do you get there? Well, assuming you can get to the right ward, and find the area, the first thing to do is look for a white map board by the side of the road. These are placed in prominent spots, and show you all the addresses in the area, often with store or building names as well. Plot a route from that map to where you’re going.
Next, most buildings have a small plaque on the outside showing their address, though usually just the numbers, e.g. “2-9-5”. So, if you find “2-9-something”, you know you’re on the right block. If you find 2-8, you know it should be nearby.
In the end, though, a large part of it is trial and error. The biggest issue of course is driving: when you’re in a car, you can’t read the maps or the number plates on buildings, so it can be very hard to find the exact place! Your correspondent remembers circling areas of the city many times trying to find a host family’s house…
And finally, the local news: recognising that this is a problem, more and more cities in Japan are introducing street naming. In November, Fukuoka (partly) joined that list: a local community group, “We Love Tenjin”, gave names to all the streets in Daimyou, and put up signs! As the Daimyou area has many restaurants and shops, people often arrange to meet there, but it can be very hard to explain the location without a street name. Now, people can simply use the street names to find their way about. Unfortunately, no plan is perfect, and a lot of the street names they chose are quite complex. They say they chose names based on the history of the area, which means they are quite difficult for people who don’t know the history to easily remember. They might have been better off following New York’s example, and just going with numbers…