Figuring out how to read unfamiliar place names in Japanese can be difficult at the best of times. In Tokyo, at least, the kanji readings are fairly straightforward.

With an intermediate knowledge of Japanese, you can take a guess at how to read 目黒 (Meguro), 中部 (Chūbu) and 池袋 (Ikebukuro), for example.

Head to the northern land of 北海道 (Hokkaidō), however, and you might have more difficulty. When I saw 女満別 (Memanbetsu), 札幌 (Sapporo) and 函館 (Hakodate) for the first time, I had absolutely no idea how to read these city names. That’s not because new readings have been assigned to them, it’s because you rarely see these kanji paired together — if you’ve even seen them at all. At best, I might have been able to take an incorrect stab at 女満別 as “jo-man-betsu.”