Planning a visit to Tokyo? Lucky you! It’s one of the most exciting, bustling, non-stop cities I’ve had the pleasure of living in. It’s also astounding that for such a large city (about 12 million people in Tokyo proper), it’s so easy to navigate, clean, and super safe.
People often wonder about what it will be like to get around Tokyo if you don’t speak Japanese. In some ways, it can be a challenge. I mean, have you SEEN the Tokyo subway map?
But seriously, the public transportation system is great (once you get used to it).
I highly recommend using a site like Jorudan to help you plan your routes. There are often multiple ways to get from point A to point B, but not all routes are created equal. Some stations are HUGE and you’d be much better off taking the train another stop or two and transferring at a smaller station instead.
Most stations have signs in English, and many of the major lines also provide verbal and visual announcements in English, too.
The only slight problem you might encounter is that sometimes the station maps are only in Japanese. (Especially at smaller stations on non-major lines.) This can make it a challenge if you don’t know the kanji (Chinese characters) for the station you’re trying to get to. Luckily you can usually find small paper maps that have the station names in English. Once you find one of those, I highly recommend treating it like a prized possession and guarding it with your life!
Another issue that I encountered in my early days in Tokyo was wrapping my head around all the different transportation lines. In addition to the Tokyo Metro (subway) and the JR lines, there are private lines like the Tokyu line, Odakyu line, and the Keio line (to name just a few!).
The good news is that if you’re staying in a central neighborhood and visiting well-known tourist destinations, you probably won’t need to worry about this too much. And if you get a Suica or Pasmo card, you can just load it with money and go between most of the lines without buying a separate ticket.
I’ve talked a lot about transportation so far, but what if you’re walking around and trying to find a particular restaurant, shop, or museum?
In my experience, this is one of the most challenging aspects of finding your way around Tokyo. Written addresses are really not that helpful, mainly because most streets don’t have names and the numbers don’t follow a sequential pattern. So you might see building 2 next to building 101 next to building 58—all on a street with no name!
Why is everything so confusing? My favorite theory is that this is done intentionally.
Japan is a notoriously crowded country, and people’s personal space is constantly invaded on the train, in elevators, and in public. So people find whatever ways they can to create solace and privacy.
This is why, for example, many people conceal whatever book they’re reading with a paper cover, place reflective stickers over their cell phone screens, and use the “otohime” (sound princess) feature in public toilets (I’ll definitely need to come back to that in a future post!).
Basically, the only way you can find a Japanese residence is if someone escorts you there. Many businesses have detailed maps which they’ll send to customers once they make an appointment.
One of my first memories of Tokyo was when I was attempting to find the Cyberdog store in Harajuku (which has since closed). I wandered around those back streets in Harajuku for hours trying to find the store. I had the address, which I’d show to anyone I could find, and none of the other shoppers had any idea where it was. Finally, one of the shop assistants at another store called them for me and was able to point me most of the way there. When I finally found the store, it was SUCH an accomplishment!
I learned that the best way to find things in Tokyo is to just wander around and make spontaneous discoveries (rather than to try to find specific places).
When I left Japan in 2011, Google Maps was not really prevalent (or comprehensive) but in the years since then, it’s become much more common. This means that the days of wandering around forever and relying on detailed maps from your host may be coming to a close.
I hope that you won’t rely exclusively on Google maps, though. Let yourself wander around a bit and get lost. You never know what you’ll discover.
So will you be able to get around Tokyo if you don’t speak Japanese? Yes. And you will most likely find much more than you ever imagined.