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Tokyo Back Streets

June 21st, 2007


As I have explained before, street layouts in Japan are somewhat complex, following a different system than is used in the United States. And despite the fact that relatively few people in Japan have cars, the streets tend to be full of them at any given time. Sure, it may not be as bad as you hear New York is at times, and as I ride a scooter, a lot of the frustrating traffic jams are for me more an exercise of finding a way past the stopped cars through the gaps and crevices.

As a result, driving down the main drags can be, well, a drag, if you’ll forgive the piss-poor pun. Streets are not quite so tidy as they are in the U.S. They angle, they turn, they merge, they don’t usually run parallel. So it’s not easy to find a backstreet route in the first place. But it can be even harder because of a phenomenon I like to call “the neighborhoods of no through passage.” I discovered these early on, when I tried to take shortcuts. I would drive down what looked like a promising street to cut through a mass of houses and other buildings to get to an objective that was blocked by traffic on the main roads. (Sometimes there are no gaps to ride through.) A few minutes later, I found myself dumped back out on the road I started from, having found that You Can’t Get There From Here.

In the U.S., when a neighborhood wants to cut down on traffic cutting through, they usually install speed bumps along the main roads and 4-way stop signs at every intersection. This slows people down enough to discourage those who are trying to find an alternate route. In Japan, however, they have found an alternate method: creatively designated one-way streets. Take a look at the scan below, of an area in central Tokyo:


Note all those blue arrows. They designate one-way streets. Now, starting from the big red street along the bottom, try to take any of the streets heading upwards to the top of the map, without going against any of the arrows, and without going to the yellow street on the left. Go ahead, try it. Similarly, try finding a route from the yellow street at the left all the way to the right side.

Now imagine trying it without the benefit of a map.

Pretty clever, huh? They do an excellent job of blocking you out. Oh, a route can be found, but it’s extraordinarily tricky, especially without a map to guide you. (And even then it’s still hard!) The residents probably come to know the area well enough to be able to get where they want to go easily enough, but strangers quickly become ensnared and no matter how hard they try, they can’t get to where they want to go. As a result, drivers tend to avoid taking the back streets.

And no, the streets aren’t one-way because they’re narrow. In Japan, streets that would be so narrow as to be back-alleys in the U.S. often serve as two-way streets in Japan, as I pointed out in this post. The one-way system has got to be for keeping shortcut-seekers out.

Now, the thing is, there usually is a workable backstreet route–but it’s hard to find. It takes trial and error, and some time studying maps. Or, an easier method: follow the taxis.


Taxis do this kind of thing for a living. They know all the back streets. Which is why all the photos I took of backstreets here (all are of streets between Shinjuku and Ikebukuro, which will be my route to and from work) have taxis in them. So if you want to go from point A to point B, just follow the cabs, and you’ll get there. The back streets that allow for a path from one place to the other are full of cabs, as well as the other practiced drivers who have found the routes. The back streets may be narrow and tiny, but they’re well-used.


Some of the back streets are actually quite pleasant; they wind past parks and are sometimes tree-lined. You wonder why more people don’t know about them. But then you look at the map of the area and you can see why. They’re so far buried in convoluted mazes of streets, it sometimes seems a wonder that people can find them at all.

One thing I do know: without a map, you can get lost in Tokyo really easily.


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  1. Paul
    June 22nd, 2007 at 05:51 | #1

    You left out something rather glaring… on the two-way streets, those guys are DRIVING ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD!

    Okay, seriously- I read recently that Sweden changed from driving on the left to driving on the right sometime in late 70s or 80s. Can you imagine how that transition went for the first several months? Insane.

    Also insane is the street layout in Venice, Italy- but at least there you’re not doing it by car, and there’s no one-way streets. Still, I got lost more times than I could count in just three days.

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