Handrawn city map

Japanese Maps a Unique Challenge

The New York Times has a piece pointing out that the new iOS 6 cartography woes that Apple is experiencing are amplified in Japan which presents it’s own unique mapping challenges. Mainly because they are trying to jam a global mapping paradigm into Japan which has its own challenges.

… cities like Tokyo are changing fast: its 80,000 restaurants, for example, open and close at a rapid rate amid cutthroat competition. Navitime, another map app that has benefited from Apple’s map problems, updates its data every eight hours, and replaces a third of its seven million data points every year.

The photo up top is a common site in Tokyo outside of most every train station or at the top of every subway exit. The city is changing so quickly that hand drawn maps, often annotated with side notes, are the best indicator of the what is where for the dis-oriented visitor. The back of most Japanese business cards are often helpfully annotated with carefully drawn maps giving directions to the establishment’s location with instructions like, “veer 30 degrees left and head past the large Coca-Cola billboard and take the next left at the noodle shop.” Navigating the back streets of Tokyo is more akin to orienteering through the woods than walking the streets of a well organized city.

But the real kicker for anyone trying to enter the Japanese market is that Japanese love maps and mapping services have gone to great lengths to provide the most detailed maps they can offer. Navitime, mentioned in the NY Times article, provides maps that tell you how to get from one place to another when it’s raining and you don’t have an umbrella (through office towers, underpasses, by shopfronts with awnings). Below is a screenshot from one vendor showing different ways from point A to point B. The route on the right is how to get there if you have a baby carriage.

The Western mind boggles at the complexity of the Japanese mapping services. Fundamental aspects of mapping break down in Japan. In Japan, they label the addresses by blocks, not street names. As Derek Sivers says in the Ted video below,

“Blocks don’t have names, streets have names. Blocks are just the unnamed spaces in between streets.”

Think different Apple. Think different.


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