Using GPS to navigate Japan

Maybe you already own a Garmin or TomTom GPS navigator that has served you reliably all over the world. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just download Japan maps for it? Unfortunately, neither Garmin nor TomTom — the two […]

Maybe you already own a Garmin or TomTom GPS navigator that has served you reliably all over the world. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just download Japan maps for it? Unfortunately, neither Garmin nor TomTom — the two most popular U.S. sat-nav companies — make car navigation maps for Japan.

You can buy a Japanese sat-nav that will speak to you in English. The BX and the Auto Hobby Shop sell them. The most popular ones allow you to search by phone number. Users love that feature. (But they say you have to be careful that the phone number you have is actually linked to the location you’re trying to visit, rather than to a central office or a cell phone.)

You can also buy apps that will turn an iPhone or an iPod Touch into a GPS navigator. I have a friend who swears by Gogo Japan. It’s $49 — steep for an app, but he says it’s better than his stand-alone navigator. (It works without mobile Internet, so this may be a use for your U.S. cell phone that won’t work on a Japanese carrier.) It also allows you to search by phone number.

I opted for a third approach.  An outfit called Up Up Down that sells maps of Japan that will work on an American version of a Garmin navigator. You can download maps from their website. They only work for Garmin navigators, not any other brand. They cost about $250, so they’re not cheap, but they cover all of Japan, they’re in English and they work well most of the time. (Mine, though, has the annoying habit of telling me I have to exit expressways every few miles, even when I expect to be on the same road for hours.) As far as I know, this is the only company that makes Japan maps for an American Garmin. If you know of other third-party maps, please put it in the comment section below and tell us what kind of navigator they work on.
One caveat: You can’t search the Up Up Down map by address the way you would in the States. The Japanese address system is entirely different. (Read about that here.) You can search by pre-programmed Points of Interest or by a creating a Favorite to get back to a spot you’ve already located.

The most versatile search, though, is by GPS coordinates. Plug them into your navigator, your iPhone or Googlemaps on your computer and you can direct yourself to the exact entrance of the parking lot. Just be aware that there are different formats. Here, for example, are three different ways to describe the location of Fussa Gate:

35°N 44′ 32″, 139°E 20′ 17″  (Degrees, minutes, seconds.)

35°N 44.5440, 139°E 20.2859  (Degree, minutes.decimals)

35.7424, 139.3381  (Degrees.decimals)

In this guide, we’re opting for the third format because we think it’s simplest: Degrees and decimals thereof. If you use a navigator, make sure to change to this format in the settings. You can map a spot just entering the coordinates — i.e. “35.7424, 139.3381″ — in Google Maps. (You may not need to use North or East. That’s implied by the positive number. If it was Southern or Western Hemisphere, it’d have a minus sign in front. Also, the exact number of digits after the decimal point is unimportant. Your navigator requires five digits after the decimal but you only have four? Just add zeros at the end. “35.55” is the same as “35.5500”.)
Want to find the coordinates of any spot on Earth? If you can find it on Google Maps, you can get the coordinates. Just right-click on the map (or option-click if using a Mac) and select “What’s here?” The coordinates will automatically pop up in the search box. Need to convert to another format? Here’s a converter.
One last warning: The roads on the base are probably “non-routable” for your navigator. The device may come up with a route for you, but it will likely be a crazy one. Wait until you reach the gate to press “Find Route.” Likewise, do not set your on-base home as “Home” on your navigator. Sure, it’ll show your location on the map just fine, but it will likely build an insane route to it. Liz Ruskin, 2012.




6 thoughts on “Using GPS to navigate Japan
  1. We bought a Garmin for Japan at a local Yellow Hat store and love it. We can enter the GPS coordinates or a phone number. Works great. It is just like our Garmin from the states, same interface and it is all in English.

    1. Sarah, we are looking to buy a Japan Garmin unit where we can enter the phone number as well. Can you let us know where you found the Yellow Hat store? We will be in Sapporo and hoping to find store there, but can’t seem to find any English information on store locations.

      Thank you!

      1. Hi Cindy – there are Yellow Hats all over as it turns out… very common store. Check out their webpage to find a location: You’ll need to run it through a translator. I’m not sure where you’ll find one in Sapporo. Hope this helps.

        1. Thank you so much Sarah. I did visit their site but the translator doesnt work that well LOL! Will look out for one in Sapporo in any case. And a very Happy New Year to you.

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