These Tokyo maps offer something Google can’t
I love maps. They tell us a ‘truth’ or at least about the human pursuit to build truths. I’m not sure what differentiates a good map from a bad map, but an interesting map changes the way we perceive the world and impacts the way we behave.
Google Maps makes the world feel like our oyster. Not only does it give us an informative and constantly updated rendition of the world, but it also plots us onto the map in the form of the blue dot tracking our GPS signal or the yellow street view icons we can visit.
In the still display of the mapped out world, we move around, alone and free to exercise our subjectivity. This perspective allows us to access the remotest of locations, and for storeowners, to liberate themselves from confinement to popular areas in the safe knowledge that regardless of wherever they are located, their fans will be able to find them. Online maps have improved our access to activities, and millions of businesses around the world have benefited from it.
Yet the kind of maps I want to introduce here are analogue, small-scaled, and yet, powerful enough to generate new value for familiar places. They offer experiences of places that Google Maps cannot.
I live in a small area in Western Tokyo called Nishiogikubo, known for its many antique shops. These are introduced by the ‘Nishiogikubo Antique Map’, which visitors can pick up for free. Indeed, it was the map that made the area famous for its antiques, not the other way round. The first map was printed in 1984 locating just nine stores in the attempt to get more customers to come their way. They weren’t all selling antiques per se (the places on the map today also include vintage, recycle, and thrift shops) but the fact that this map only showed these specific stores, and how they were introduced under one clear theme, made people associate Nishiogikubo with antiques, rousing the interest of not only potential customers, but also potential store owners.
According to the owner of Le Midi, who opened her store in 1995, a themed map like this was novel back in the day, exciting and attracting many collectors like herself to relocate and open shop in Nishiogikubo. Now there are over 60 stores listed on the map, branding and shaping the place as the ‘antique town’ we know today.
However, the contribution of maps to Nishiogikubo’s brand identity doesn’t stop there. Over the past ten years, neighborhood associations and store owners have attempted to enliven the character of the town further by introducing annual events, each with its own themed map. One of my favourites, celebrating its ninth anniversary this year, is chasampo or the ‘tea stroll’ event held over a weekend in June, whose map marks out stores that serves different kinds of tea for free. The event involved 101 stores last year. The theme of ‘tea’ allowed not just antique stores but also other places to join in, attracting a wider, more diverse audience into town. Even for locals who don’t need maps to get around, these themed maps inspire new ways of navigation, prompting new discoveries and experiences in an already familiar place.
From hand-drawn illustrations to highly designed printed maps, Tokyo is full of this kind of map-making. Roland Barthes points out in Empire of Signs that in a city where streets have no names, “the rational is merely one system among others”. Sure enough, these maps aren’t governed by just one kind of logic – they’re expressions of how a place can be experienced differently by people, its variety making it feel ever more real, more interesting, and more local.
I was surprised to discover last year that such efforts have also come to exist even in the commercial mecca of Shibuya, formerly built by the giants of Seibu and Tokyu. The ‘Oku-Shibuya Local Map for Holidays’ by Shibuya Publishing & Booksellers locates 80 stores in the Northern area of Shibuya based on recommendations by ordinary people who live, work, or simply hang out in the area. Notably, the back of the map introduces some of these people – their names, occupations and backgrounds, as well as very personal opinions of the places that are recommended – making the map feel like a collage of subjective experiences.
These maps are based on people’s memories of and hopes for the places they inhabit. When we see them, they feel populated by people, and reading them is like taking glimpses into different communities, making the city feel personal. It emboldens us to take to the streets and explore for ourselves, adding our own experiences to the place's story.
To borrow the words of Barthes again, “this city can be known only by an activity of an ethnographic kind: you must orient yourself in it not by book, by address, but by walking, by sight, by habit, by experience…”
These maps invite us on a journey to a place where our presence and need is not necessarily at the centre of the map, and where the map is not merely a tool to get us to our destination, but a collection of traces drawn out by one another’s experience. Both on the map and in the real world, we look around to find out where we are. And when we’re continuously looking outwards trying to connect the dots, our small discoveries make the journey something irreplaceable, valuable, and memorable.
- Article by Yuriko Yamaguchi