The more kanji I learn to read, the less I seem to understand what they actually represent.
In Japan's main entertainment and nightlife districts, you'll see buildings with signs and banners including the kanji 無料案内所 'muryou annaijo' – free information desk. They're usually big and flashy, with lots of lights and bright colours making them easy to spot. Some are even designed to look like convenience stores. Just paste the kanji into an online image search and you'll see what I mean.
Great, you think. How useful, you think. And then you see that there's a full-sized curtain over the entrance, with a prominent sign on it saying 'you must be over 18 to enter'.
Aha. I get it now. 'Information'. Sure.
The free information centres specifically provide advice on visiting Japan's many adult entertainment venues. I think if I'd gone in there looking for tips on a good local restaurant I'd have come out more bewildered than when I went in.
Maybe I shouldn't have been that surprised. The term for the industry as a whole is 水商売 or 'mizushoubai' which literally means 'the water trade'. In Japan, you don't call a spade a spade if it's being used for grown-up purposes.
This is another 'hidden in plain sight' way in which Japanese establishments of a certain nature get around the law. If they're outwardly seen to just be offering information, then fine. No sensitive natures or young minds can be offended by that. And obviously that information is only useful to adults, so why let kids in? Never mind that you have to be 20 to legally smoke or drink.
Special rules apply for these places: 風俗案内所規制条例 'fuuzoku annaijo kisei jourei'. They're limited on where they can operate, how long they can stay open for and when.
In Kyoto, free information centres must be more than 200 metres away from schools and hospitals. According to Japanese law actual adult venues only need to be 70 metres away, and this difference even caused a court case about whether the restriction on the information centres was 'unconstitutional'. The complainant initally won his case - a decision which Osaka's High Court overturned four years later.
There are times when a real free information desk in some of these areas would've come in pretty handy. Sometimes, the best way to get the right info about Japan is to look it up on the internet first.