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Can you use へ and に interchangeably, as in 北海道へ行く and 北海道に行く? Are there any subtle differences in the use of these two?

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7 Answers 7

up vote 28 down vote accepted
  • に emphasizes the location
  • へ emphasizes the direction
  • まで emphasizes the process or journey
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1  
+1 for mentioning まで too. –  Amanda S May 31 '11 at 21:54
    
I'm pretty sure the first two are backwards. に is the direction and へ is the definite final location. Ex: 学校に行く - I'm going to (head toward) school (but I may get sidetracked along the way). 学校へ行く - I'm going, and will end up at school and nowhere else –  istrasci Jun 1 '11 at 0:18
    
I'm pretty sure not... But if you can find a grammar somewhere that says that then post it :) –  Nate Glenn Jun 1 '11 at 1:08
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I was told まで means "until" and thus would be about the destination...? –  hippietrail Jun 1 '11 at 9:18
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Re: まで: Concurring with flamingspinach, the point indicated by まで is not necessarily the final destination: 東京駅まで電車で行って、地下鉄に乗り換えた。. Also, when showing a destination in this manner, まで is better for action verbs such as 歩く, 走る, 泳ぐ, etc. (駅まで走る rather than 駅に走る or 駅へ走る.) –  Derek Schaab Jun 6 '11 at 19:03

On a pedantic note, there is an old saying the goes like

京へ、筑紫に、坂東さ (ca 1609)

京に、つくしへ、坂東さ (ca 1496)

[Source]

which shows how each dialect used different particle to say 北海道○行く around that time. 京 is for Kyoto, 筑紫(つくし) is Kyushu and 坂東 is Kanto/Tohoku.

Being just a layperson on Japanese linguistics, I'll just stop here, but I'm sure a more learned person will have a lot to say about why the place of に and へ are different between the two quotes above, and how these regional differences came about.

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へ is also used to soften に in some cases, since it's slightly more vague. For instance, at a restaurant I saw a sign posted over a counter that used something like 「こちらへご食器をお返し下さい」.

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"こちらへ" just means "this way, this direction", that doesn't soften anything ;) just shows you a direction –  repecmps Jun 1 '11 at 10:39
    
my suspicion was that に would have been just as fitting in this example, but would also seem more direct –  Wahnfrieden Jun 3 '11 at 9:59
    
This is not relevant to the topic of the question, but お返して下さい is incorrect. It should be either お返し下さい or 返して下さい, the former being more polite. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 5 '11 at 22:43
    
you're right, my mistake. thanks –  Wahnfrieden Jun 6 '11 at 16:37

Those 2 threads asking the same question should be merged and maybe become wiki to be edited easily (particles questions are recurrent)

see also: How to use へ (-e), に (-ni), まで (made) and の方 (no-hō) with destination and direction?

To sum up and try to correct some of the answers already given:

-へ is the direction particle. You could say it focuses on the journey

-に is the destination particle. It focuses on the destination.

-まで Is a final destination particle as well but implies that you're coming from somewhere (から) and thus that there's some distance between the 2 points.

-のほう(の方) means in the direction of. It could be used in a case where you are giving direction to someone:

郵便局の方へ300メートルをあるいて、中学が右に見えます。

(walk 300m towards the post office and you will see the middle school on your right)

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2  
Not relevant to the topic of the question, but: in the last example, a more natural sentence is 郵便局の方へ300メートル歩くと、中学が右に見えます。 (1) 歩いて is unnatural in this sentence and should be 歩くと, but I cannot explain why. (2) 歩く is usually written with kanji unless it is written for foreign speakers and/or small kids who do not read kanji, in which case 郵便局 should be avoided first. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 5 '11 at 22:42

Side note to the question but relevant:

Use only へ when you want to use the grammatical construct 〜への〜.

◯ 改札口への階段はどこですか。 Where are the steps to the ticket gate?

× 改札口にの階段はどこですか。

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I've always seen に as meaning going somewhere directly without any intention of stopping, whereas へ shows that they are going that way, but if they see something interesting they may stop or make a detour.

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There is a very subtle difference between the two--with に, the destination is more important; with へ, the journey is more important. You might use に if you want to say you're going "to the store" and へ if you want to say you're going "in the direction of the store [and ending up there]."

Is there a lot of practical difference in how they are used? Not really.

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I was told "の方" (no-hō) means "in the direction of" - is this just more explicit? See my broader question: japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/275/… –  hippietrail Jun 1 '11 at 9:18

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