Japanese place names usually include a suffix or keyword that makes it easy to tell what kind of location it is. Are you going to a Buddhist temple or a Shinto shrine? Are you going East or West? Here’s a handy key to Japanese place names for the traveler:
Temples and Shrines:
Buddhist temples will have names ending in -ji, -dera, -tera or -in. Ji and tera/dera are written using the same Kanji character, which means — guess what, Buddhist temple. The suffix -in indicates a cloistered temple, one where monks or nuns live or used to live.
Note that some of the most famous temples have a popular name different from its official Buddhist name. The famous Golden Pavilion temple, known to the world as Kinkakuji, appears as Rokuon-ji on Japanese maps, while its more sober counterpart Ginkakuji is officially named Higashiyama Jisho-ji.
Shinto shrines on the other hand are distinguished by names ending in -jinja, -jingu, -miya, -taisha or -gu. Sometimes the suffix -gongen is used, as in the Kasuga Gongen shrine of Nara. Gongen shrines house deities recognized both as Shinto kami and Buddhist boddhisatvas.
Taisha designates shrines that are ‘head shrines’ for that deity, for example the Fushimi Inari Taisha is considered the head shrine to Inari in Kyoto. Shrines designated -jingu, such as the Meiji Jingu, venerate members of the Imperial Family. Their Buddhist counterparts are monzeki temples, whose abbots used to be appointed from members of the Imperial Family.
Castles, Mountains and Rivers:
The Japanese word for castle is Shiro. However, the place name for a castle uses not shiro, but the suffix -jo. Yama, san and zan indicate a mountain, while -kawa and -gawa indicate a river. Lakes are designated with -ko. Zaka means incline, such as the Ninnen- and Zannenzaka stairways to Kiyomizudera in Kyoto.
Streets and Stops:
The suffix -mae means ‘in front of,’ and is very often used for bus stops. A ‘-mae’ bus stop is invariably just a short walk away from its namesake landmark. Eki designates train stations. Dori and michi designate the major streets. Alleys have names ending in -cho or Yokocho. Omoide Yokocho in Tokyo, for example, is considered one of the city’s best deals in dining with its profusion of humble-but-good bars and izakaya.
While Google Maps has made wayfinding easier than ever before, even in famously confusing Japan, batteries do tend to die at the most inconvenient times. There’s still one very reliable means to find your direction though, and that’s the compass; either a pocket compass, or simply using the sun. Yes, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, even in decidedly oddball Japan.
Japanese train station exits are often designated by their direction: Kita-guchi faces north, Higashi-guchi east, Nishi-guchi west, and Minami-guchi south. Where there are multiple exits, take note of the exit number you need. Compass point names are also often used for temples and mountains, such as the Nishi Hongan-ji and the Higashiyama mountains of Kyoto.