I'm looking forward to seeing some new episodes of the LOST! pretty soon. The popular US TV show is shown on AXN, a Japanese cable TV channel. However, I will have to avoid reading English language blog posts about the show, because it won't appear on my screen until some time after the secrets have all been unraveled for North American audiences.

While I'm waiting, I will get my daily fix of bafflement and confusion from the streets of Tokyo…

It's a common misconception that Tokyo is an unplanned city. The truth is a little more complicated: In common with many Japanese castle towns, the streets of Tokyo were originally laid out with the express intention of creating confusion for invading armies. Although Tokyo was largely destroyed by the earthquake of 1923 and again by incendiary bombing in the second world war, the city was rebuilt each time along similar lines to before … Just because you know someone's address doesn't mean that you will be able to find them.

It is small wonder, then that Japanese companies invariably provide a map to their offices on their corporate web sites. The best sites provide a clear, easily printable map, with notes on the best exits to use at the nearest subway stations – and a reminder of the company's telephone number immediately below the map.

The people who designed those maps have a crystal clear scenario in mind – A visitor makes an appointment with a company employee, who sends him a link to the map. The customer prints a copy of the map and puts it in his pocket. He takes the subway to the nearest station, emerges from the nearest exit… and then gets completely lost. But it's all fine because he can find the phone number on the map, telephone the receptionist and get directions.

But there are a few things that always confuse me about Japanese maps – The first and most frustrating is that North is rarely at the top of the map.

The reason for this phenomenon might be historical too — In the feudal days (16th to 19th century), maps of Tokyo would center on the castle. The labels on the surrounding houses were aligned as if they were spokes that radiated out from the castle. So, if you wanted to read the writing on the other side of the map, you could either rotate the map 180 degrees, or try to read the characters upside down.

These days, it seems common to orient maps so that the direction that the observer is facing is at the top of the map. For example, here are the maps that you will find on street corners near Forrester's Tokyo office:

Here is the map on the East side of the street. You have to face West to read it. So West is at the top:



… And here is the map on the West side of the street. You have to face East to read it. So East is top:



Fortunately, these maps provide a compass rose (the black circle which indicates North), so you can confirm the orientation of the map and compare it with whatever you have in your tourist guide. Many Tokyo maps provide no such hint.

Even after living in Tokyo for eight years (and in Japan for about 14 years), I find this difficult to deal with. There are some standards that are just too deeply ingrained in me – and one of them is that maps should show North at the top.

Whenever I mention this to my Japanese friends, they look at me as if I were from another planet. They don't seem to see the benefits that a standard map orientation would deliver. *(But I don't think that they find it very easy to use the existing maps either).

In part 2 of this series, I'll show some examples of difficult to use subway schematics.