most common kanji

17 Most Common Kanji for Deciphering Tokyo Train Maps

Even if you’ve never stepped foot in Japan, I bet you’ve heard of Harajuku.

Super-fashionable district of Tokyo…

Spawned a one-woman fad of sporting Japanese girls as accessories

But how many of you could pluck it out of a Tokyo train map?

原宿 (Harajuku) is just one of a ton more place name kanji on that map.

And since your Japanese address and neighborhood is usually defined by your nearest train station (as are the names of department stores), you’re definitely going to want to familiarize yourself with the most common kanji found in these station names.

And let’s not forget—the amount of times you’re going to be missing last train will give you lots of practice staring at kanji.

Though Tokyo’s become much more accessible to English speakers with the use of bilingual signage and announcements, it’s still beneficial to get a grasp on the meaning of some kanji—not only for learning’s sake, but to help you get your bearings as well. So let’s get started!

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A Few Places You Might Already Know (and kanji you might not!)

  • 東京 (Tokyo) —Welcome to the largest city in Japan! You’ll see Tokyos first kanji below.
  • 渋谷 (Shibuya) — You’ll have seen Shibuya’s famous pedestrian crossing in almost any urban footage of Japan.
  • 新宿 (Shinjuku) — Shinjuku is one of the most important business centers in Tokyo.
  • 原宿 (Harajuku) — You’ll know Harajuku for its outlandish and experimental fashion.
  • 秋葉原 (Akihabara)Anime geek? Akihabara is the place for you!
  • 六本木 (Roppongi) — This is probably the largest concentration of foreigners you’ve seen enjoying nightlife in Tokyo.
  • 上野 (Ueno) — The wholesome family tourist spot Ueno is home to a great park for viewing cherry blossoms.

17 Most Simple and Common Kanji for Deciphering Tokyo Train Maps

The kanji below are extremely common on train maps in Japan but many also show up often in various other situations and words. Look for these kanji as you’re learning with FluentU to get plenty of context.

FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. Since each video comes with a transcript and subtitles, you’ll be able to see kanji and their translations in real time. 

Use FluentU’s annotated subtitles, interactive vocabulary lists, flashcards and more to boost your Japanese skills as you embark on your language-learning journey!

Up (上) and Down (下)

If you’ve started elementary Japanese already, then you’re already aware that the kun-yomi for these characters are うえ (ue) and した (shita). Quite simple. However, when paired with neighborhood names, the readings change to かみ (kami) and しも (shimo), and they’re used to denote the “upper” and “lower” areas of certain neighborhoods. To make this even clearer for English speakers, the name is usually hyphenated when written in romaji.

Where you’ll find them:

The hipster neighborhood of 下北沢 (Shimo-Kitazawa), located in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward.

The famous Ueno Zoo, or 上野動物園 (Ueno Doubutsuen) doesn’t follow the neighborhood rule, but is located in Ueno—a classic tourist spot.

North (北), South (南), East (東) and West (西)

These are the four cardinal directions.

The kun-yomi for them are きた (kita), みなみ (minami), ひがし (higashi) and にし (nishi).

However, the on-yomi (meaning original Chinese readings) are ホク (hoku), ナン (nan), トウ (tou) and セイ/サイ (sei/sai). Keep in mind that the on-yomi is usually for when two kanji are together. But, just like in most languages, there are usually exceptions when it comes to proper nouns.

Where you’ll find them:

Tokyo Metro’s Touzai Line (東西線 – touzai-sen), which literally means “east-west” line and Namboku Line (南北線nanboku-sen), which means “south-north” line.

西荻窪 (Nishi-Ogikubo) is located in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward. A quaint residential neighborhood of antique stores, second-hand bookshops and live houses (music venues). Similar to the aforementioned Shimo-Kitazawa, it’s very popular with college students.

Before (前)

The kun-yomi for this is まえ (mae) which means “before.” When you see this in the context of a station name, however, it means “near.” As such, when you see this suffix, you will most likely be near a famous area or landmark.

Where you’ll find it:

明治神宮前 (Meiji-jingumae) is located in Shibuya Ward, and is near Meiji Shrine where Emperor Meiji and his wife Emperor Shouken’s spirits are deified.

Another usage of 前 is 大前 (dai mae). An abbreviation of 大学前 (daigaku mae), it means “before university.” 東大前 (toudai mae), for example, is located near the prestigious University of Tokyo (東京大学 toukyou daigaku) in Bunkyo Ward.

Block (丁目)

The reading for this is ちょうめ (choume), which means “block.” Most Japanese addresses are denoted by neighborhoods and blocks, rather than street names. As such, when these blocks are numbered, they tell you your exact location in the respective neighborhood. So 一丁目 (icchoume) is Block 1, 二丁目 (nichoume) is Block 2, etc.

Where you’ll find it:

新宿三丁目 (Shinjuku-sanchoume), or Shinjuku 3, is one block away from Shinjuku-nichoume, Tokyo’s famous gay district.

青山一丁目 (Aoyama-icchoume) or Aoyama 1, is located in Tokyo’s Minato Ward and borders on the upscale neighborhoods of Omotesando, Gaienmae and Harajuku. This area serves as a hub for Tokyo’s fashion scene.

Station (駅)

As you can guess, this is a crucial kanji to memorize. It combines the radicals for “horse” (馬 – uma) and “flag” (尸 – shi), and is used as a common suffix or noun by itself. Whenever you think of “station,” think of a horse waving you in with a flag.

Where you’ll find it: Every station in Japan ever.

Lodging/Post (宿)

In an older Japan, this was an indicator of the kind of town an area was classified as. Read as じゅく (juku), this used to represent a sort of “rest stop” or a “post” on a highway. You might recognize this one as the stand-alone kanji read as やど (yado – lodge), which might help you remember it.

Where you’ll find it: The famous 原宿 (Harajuku) is on the borders of 代々木公園 (Yoyogi kouen) or Yoyogi Park.

Also, the ever-popular 新宿 (Shinjuku) is a hub for businesspeople and university students alike for a night on the town. Which brings us to…

New (新)

Though present in neighborhood names such as Shinjuku (which means “new lodging” and boasts the busiest train station in the world, by the way), “new” or しん (shin), takes on an additional meaning when used as a prefix.

If you’re in a station called “shin-somewhere,” it means that it’s a new or additional station that is able to accommodate more passengers or something even greater, like a 新幹線 (shinkansen) or “bullet train.” 新大阪 (Shin-Osaka) serves as a latter example, but as far as the former goes…

Where you’ll find it:

新浦安 (Shin-Urayasu). Located in the city of Urayasu, Chiba, this station is near the Tokyo Disneyland Resort.

Origin (本)

This kanji has two meanings and multiple readings—もと (moto), which means “origin” or “base,” and ほん (hon) which means “book.” In the case of a neighborhood, it means that this is the “original” area of a town.

Where you’ll find it: 本郷三丁目 (Hongou-sanchoume) or Hongou 3, is located in the Hongou district of Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward. A former ward during the short-lived Tokyo City era, Hongou is currently the home of the aforementioned University of Tokyo, as well as numerous universities and schools, making it a major school zone since the Meiji era.

Field/Fundamental (原)

The most common readings for this kanji are はら (hara), meaning “field” or “wilderness,” and げん (gen), meaning “original” or “fundamental.”

Fun fact: you might even see this kanji on your new friend’s driver’s license, as 原 (hara) is also a very common Japanese last name.

Where you’ll find it: You’ve probably already noticed that this one appears in 原宿 (Harajuku), but you may also find this useful when traveling to Tokyo’s most famous “nerd culture” mecca of 秋葉原 (Akihabara). Check out Akihabara for its electronic goods and other adventures.

Rice Paddy (田)

This delightfully simple kanji can be found in a lot of place names not only in Tokyo, but all around Japan. Even better, you’ll find it usually has one of the four pronunciations: た (ta), だ (da), てん (ten) or でん (den). 

Where you’ll find it: If you keep up with your Japanese politics, you may have heard of 永田町 (Nagata-chou), where you’ll find the National Diet Building as well as the Prime Minister’s house.

It’s also home to 日枝神社 (Hie Jinja) or Hie Shrine, where you’ll find people in old Japanese costumes parading through at the Sanno Festival in mid-June.

River (川)

This is the simple three-stroke kanji for “river,” the kun-yomi being かわ (kawa). When used as a suffix, the reading usually becomes がわ (gawa).

Where you’ll find it:

二子玉川 (Futako-Tamagawa) Located in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward and also known as Nikotama (an alternate reading of the first three kanji), it’s an upscale neighborhood that lies on the Tama River (多摩川Tamagawa), a natural border between Tokyo Metropolis and Kanagawa Prefecture. It’s home to Tokyo’s first-ever department store, Takashimaya, which was built in 1969.

As another example, if you’re headed outside of Tokyo, you’ll most likely pass by the major shinkansen station of 品川 (Shinagawa) on your way to awesome places like Kyoto (京都 – kyouto).

Mountain (山)

Usually read as やま (yama), but can also change to サン (san) when used as a suffix (Fuji-san, anyone?) The kanji itself is pretty straightforward, but don’t expect there to be mountains every time you see this in a station name.

Where you’ll find it:

代官山 (Daikanyama), located in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward. Similar to Futako-Tamagawa, there are many upscale boutiques and coffee shops, giving it a relaxed atmosphere. It’s also home to many embassies, such as the Royal Danish Embassy. It’s a short walk from Shibuya Station, for those who want to get away from the hustle and bustle of that area.

The JR Yamanote Line (山手線Yamanote-sen) is one of the busiest lines in the country, as it’s a loop line around the metropolis’ 23 wards, connecting to major stations such as Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ikebukuro, Ueno and Shinagawa.

Temple (寺)

The kun-yomi for “temple” is てら (tera), but when used as a suffix, the on-yomi reading is (ジ – ji). This kanji usually suggests that there’s a temple nearby or that there was a temple in the neighborhood at some point.

Where you’ll find it:

吉祥寺 (kichijouji), Kichijoji, located in Tokyo’s Musashino City. A relaxed neighborhood for both trendy moms and college students, Kichijouji is home to Inokashira Park, its complimentary zoo, and the Studio Ghibli Museum in nearby Mitaka.

高円寺 (kouenji), Koenji, located in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward. Similar to neighboring Nishi-Ogikubo, it’s a hub for second-hand clothing stores and live houses, but it’s also the birthplace of Tokyo’s punk scene.

So, there’s a basic list to get you started on understanding train station names and how you can use them to help understand your location.

Looking for more about Tokyo neighborhoods?

  • Japan Talk has got a great intro to 47 neighborhoods in one convenient list.
  • Frommer’s also has a nice quick guide to some significant spots.

 

Good luck with your travels (and studies)!

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