Saturday, December 03, 2005

Lost in Tokyo, most of the time

Here's what I've learned about traveling in a country where you really can't speak or read the language: you can get things mostly right most of the time, but you never get anything completely right.

I can choose a Japanese versus Italian restaurant, and I know I'll get some kind of Japanese food, but what exactly it is, I won't know until it's served, even if I pointed to a picture on a menu.

I can pantomime to the pharmacist that I need stomach medicine, and she'll sell me some, but I won't really know what I am taking (even after googling it).

I can find the Shinjuku subway station, but it may take me 45 minutes to find a store that is 2 blocks away.

Spatial confusion in Tokyo is profound. Several times I have been able to see a destination but not get to it with any sense of efficiency. Michael and I had dinner in a restaurant on the 32nd floor of a skyscraper. We could see the subway station we wanted to go to, but when we took the elevator down and tried to walk to it we still got totally lost.

The Shinjuku subway station in particular is truly a maze. It must have 24 different exits, and if you take the wrong one, you will be blocks away from where you intend to be. Today I went back to a destination for the third time. I was so close to getting it right, but I made one crucial wrong turn. I was really only 1 block away from being somewhere recognizable, but I ended up walking up, over, and around. I passed 3 different Starbucks on my path from the subway station to the store I was looking for. ("The Starbuck" has almost become a measure of urban distance to me on this trip. There is a Starbucks about every 3 blocks. Some conquerers come over the wall. Some take advantage of palace intrigue. Others come bearing delicious vanilla lattes.)

The sense of dislocation here is made even more challenging by the fact that you're really operating in three dimensions as a pedestrian. There are raised walkways, subways, and most stores have at least 8 floors. The subway is the easiest thing to navigate. Thank goodness, or I'd probably still be wandering around underground somewhere.

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