On peripatetic navigation

Ioanna Angelidou, Tokyo

If there is one thing I do in this city is walk. Sometimes more that necessary, it’s inevitable when I try to get someplace and I end up somewhere else because I got out from the wrong train-station exit. Or I am in the wrong neighbourhood altogether. Generally I cope quite well with finding my way (much to my Japanese friends’ surprise) but the truth is that navigating Tokyo unprepared can prove quite haphazard. Generally, street names in this city are an anomaly and the address system does not provide adequate access information. The streets that do have a name (and the extended areas around them) have usually gained this in relation to whether they are main commercial thoroughfares or small and intimate streets with a character distinct enough to earn them a nickname, such as Namiki Dori in Ginza or Cat Street (Kyu Shibuya-gawa) behind Omotesando. Namiki is an avenue of facades and neon signs, Cat Street is an urban playground.

The portable electronic navigational devices seem to have been designed precisely for this city and whenever I get invited somewhere I am also provided with a little map (hand-drawn or print) of how to get there and some notes on the transportation connection. I also receive looks of amusement when I mention I do not have one of those phones that you check maps and your e-mail all the time. But actually I like wandering around helpless as it actually raises the chances of stumbling upon something unexpected, which I usually do.

Regarding the address system, the truth is that there is not one. Or rather it is not consistent, which is pretty adventurous. In fact, I would not call it an address system but a zoom in/out device. The way it works more or less is thus: there is a city (Tokyo), in the city there is a ward (one of twenty three - let’s say we are in mine, Chiyoda), in the ward there is a hub (a small network of jumbled streets - has both a name and a number), in the hub there is a block (surrounded by at least three streets - only has a number), in the block there is a building (getting close), the building has a number (even closer now). But where is it? Do I go clockwise, counter-clockwise, are the odd numbers on the right or the left? None of the above and all of the above. For example, my building is number 4. The one on my right is 5 and the one on my left is 3. It seems logical, but then the one next to 3 is not 2 but 1. I should also note that 1 is right in the middle of our block, which makes it a bit more complicated.

It is not that hard to figure out the logic of the system if you just take a look at the buildings though. 1 is post-modernist probably from the early 1980s, 3 looks like something that would have been built in the mid-1990s, mine is seven years old and 5 appears as a construction site in Google Maps street view. So it must be that buildings are numbered according to the order that have been built and indeed, it seems to pretty much work this way most of the times. I am not sure how it works over years, shouldn’t all of the buildings change their number when one is demolished and replaced by something new?

As I mentioned, my area seems to be an anomaly; 5 is on the corner and the other buildings that face the rest of the streets surrounding the block are not 6, 7 et cetera - they do not even share our other two numbers (neighbourhood and block). I suspect it is because my street is considered a major one or at least of some importance (it has a name, you see) whereas the others at the back do not. On the other corner of the block facing the main street is another building and although it looked older than 1, I assumed it was 2. But it is not, this one does not have a number. It is a school, so it has a name and this is how you find it. I still wonder where 2 might be and it troubled me for a while. I really searched for it. I walked around the block. Reached out from my window. I even climbed halfway over the fence of the school on a Sunday morning to take a look behind the tree leaves. Some Japanese gentleman stopped and politely asked if I had seen the cat. There was no cat in sight (note to self: keep an eye for that cat as well), but there was a big pond back there, more like an open pool really. I am not sure why it is there, because 1 looks more like some company headquarters than a hotel, but who knows...However, if it was constructed after the building and judging from its size it must account for 2. So I live in a city that has wards, that have neighbourhoods, that have blocks, that have buildings and all have numbers. Yet, on my block there is a building that has no number and a number that has no building. But at least it has a cat. I really like this.