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Mapping Japan — what on earth could be cooler than that?

by Amy Chavez

According to a recent article in The Japan Times, more and more women are taking to map-reading these days. One reason cited in the article is the influence of the new autumn TV drama called “Sosa Chizu no Onna” (“Woman of Investigative Maps”). The starring role is played by Miki Maya, herself a map lover. So it appears that some women are discovering their closet investigative talents or at least their inner Sherlock Holmes.

I believe that another reason women are so keen on map-reading has to do with the fact that Ino Tadataka (1745-1818) is a household name in Japan. A surveyor and cartographer, Ino is responsible for coming up with the first modern map of Japan. Not an explorer, nor even a traveler, Ino retired from running his father’s sake-brewing business and, while in his 50s studied astronomy, geography and mathematics — a trifecta of studies that lead to map making.

When I first moved to Shiraishi Island in the Seto Inland Sea, one of the first things one of the locals did was point to an old traditional Japanese-style house and say, “That is where Ino Tadataka stayed in the early 1800s while he was making his map of this area of Japan.” Uh-huh.

At the time, the name was lost on me. But now, I have gained a healthy respect for this guy, who walked for 3,736 days and traveled 34,913 km over a period of 17 years — all in pursuit of measuring Japan! The result was the Dai Nihon Enkai Yochi Zenzu (Map of Japan’s Coastal Area).

Could you name the person who came up with the first modern map of your home country? What — no cartography celebs? Japan’s first map-maker is so famous there is a statue of him at the Tomioka Hachiman Shrine in Tokyo. The strapping Edo Period man is sculptured in full stride, with surveying apparatus in one hand, and his eyes looking straight ahead intent on finding the next gradient. He sports a top-knot on his head and a samurai sword in his belt. He exudes Japanese spirit and attitude: Don’t mess with cartographers!

It’s easy to understand why Ino is regarded as practically a national hero. What could be cooler than mapping, plotting and mathmetizing the surface of the earth? What could be sexier than drafting dips, holes and valleys? Discovering its rivers, oceans and streams? Documenting roads, paths and secret alleyways? And then assigning symbols, drawing diagrams and representing sets of interrelated facts by means of dots or lines on a coordinate background? There’s not much cooler than that.

Ino inspected, examined and appraised the land using linear and angular measurements to determine exact boundaries. He applied principles of geometry and trigonometry as well as collaborating with the divine — the gods of mountains, water, rocks and celestial bodies. He came up close and personal with Mount Fuji. One thing is for sure — the guy was marriageable.

Although one can imagine a lonely life of plotting points, delineating, sketching, diagramming and charting, at least he didn’t have to map convenience stores or highway exits.

That more women are taking an interest in mapping is encouraging. I daresay they could even revolutionize the map system in Japan whereas addresses are based on the old Japanese system of “clumps and hyphens.” I come from the U.S., a relatively new country, where most cities were planned in a grid pattern (think New York City, where avenues travel north and south and streets east and west). In Japan’s ancient cities, however, as the population grew outward from the center, space was filled haphazardly, leading to organization by clumps called neighborhoods, and smaller clumps within them delineated by a hyphen. Castle towns such as Okayama will have a main clump around the castle called Maru no Uchi, which is equal to our Main Street. This clumping technique is hardly useful nowadays, however, and I have to admit that even I sometimes think street names would be very handy.

Budding female cartographers could hone their skills by working in petrol stations or convenience stores, where customers constantly ask directions. Haven’t you ever noticed how often Japanese people draw maps rather than saying simply, “Go straight for two blocks and turn left.” Cartographers could also train in Japanese hardware stores where if you want something delivered, you sometimes have to draw a map to show where your house is. Since I live on a tiny island, I always have fun with this task, drawing a very detailed map that shows the distance in nautical miles, port entries, lighthouses and the ubiquitous flock of seagulls. I use colored pencils to fill in the sea, the ferry boat and the house. It’s all part of the mapology of a place. I’m sure the delivery people are very pleased.

Japan does have very detailed maps. I’ve seen maps with all the local public baths in a city, for example, or those showing the public schools, or coin laundries. The Zenrin map company offers a map of locations of driving schools. For the true map enthusiast, Zenrin has a map museum located in their head office building in Tokyo. This really could become a full-blown hobby. And when you reach your twilight years, you can map a different kind of plot so your relatives will always be able to find you, even hundreds of years later.

One thing is for sure, though — we still need good cartographers. I’m quite sure Mr. Ino would roll over in his grave if he saw any of the following “modern” maps:

1. Those on the backs of business cards. The worst kind of map, most of these show no landmarks and show only one building, as if theirs is the only company on the entire street! So much for the phrase “Can’t miss it!”

2. The Taketomi Island map in Okinawa. For such a well-known tourist destination, you would think they’d have an updated map, which is, by the way, just an A4 sheet of paper. The map leads you to one defunct ice cream store (closed for more than a year), and down several straight streets that must have decided to curve after the map was made.

3. The Shikoku pilgrimage map. I wish Ino had surveyed that one. Covering the ancient walking routes to Shikoku’s 88 temples, this popular walking map will get you lost many times over, possibly because the pages of maps alternate: Some pages run east to west while others run west to east.

While you may think that nowadays with navigation systems and GPS coordinates, we don’t need to rely on good maps, I urge you to not become too dependent on these electronic gadgets lest you lose your intuition. Like the story of the Japanese college students who, earlier this year in Australia, drove their rental car into the sea. When asked why they did such a stupid thing, they answered that the navi told them to. Budding cartographers take note.

Follow Amy Chavez on Twitter @JapanLite.