Getting There: Keep Left, Look Right

If you mix up left and right like I often do, being confused about which way to go is a normal state of functioning. Here, everything is definitely mirror image to movement at home. Simple advice to avoid collisions – walk on the left side and before crossing the street, look to the right for oncoming traffic.Subway3

But before even putting one foot outside this apartment building, I have to take several minutes on Google maps, just to figure out where I am going and how I will get there. Now, close to 3 months later, it is taking less time and I have much less panic about going somewhere. Walking, biking and taking the subway are my main means of transport. Biking outside of any known area means putting the i-pad into the bike carrier or having it constantly on hand so I can make sure I haven’t suddenly veered off course. It has an internal GPS which thankfully, continues to function on Google maps without wi-fi connection. It also is quite handy for helping to find a new location, such as the Konan Home Center that I went looking for yesterday. I just have to remember to key in the search before leaving home.

Usually, I have a pretty good sense of direction and if I have been somewhere once, I can most often find my way back again, but Tokyo is something else. There are so many tall buildings everywhere, I cannot even use the sun to guide me (when it’s out). The streets are at the bottom of a maze that winds in every possible direction.

If I am taking the subway, I have to map out my route completely beforehand, checking different ways to get there AND remember which exit to use! (very important- the stations spread over blocks underground)  The subway system in Tokyo is fantastic. Even though it is complex and huge it is amazingly well designed and efficient. Everywhere there are English signs to help the rest of us negotiate and at every station, there are guards, many of which speak some English, all of which can point and are ready to help. Inside the stations there are lines on the floor to guide you, even if you are blind. Each subway line is colour-coded and each station is numbered, although I only ever see the name. Numbers somehow still remain invisible to me.

The one frustrating thing is that there are two major private companies that own and operate the subway. They are interconnected and everything seems pretty fluid until you move unexpectedly from one company’s route to another and you have not paid the right amount – beware, the barrier will come down and a buzzer will go off alerting the guard. This must happen to every unaware foreigner several times before it gets properly explained and understood. The day Emiko helped me to buy a Suica card (a Pasmo card is exactly the same thing from the other company) changed my subway life. No longer did I need to calculate, buy extra tickets and constantly be alert- I just passed the wicket, slapping down my Suica card like everyone else. You just fill it up as you go.

During my first few weeks in Tokyo, I kept the Tokyo Subway Route Map constantly in my hand, checking each station as the subway stopped, to make sure I was on the right line and headed the right direction. At first, just reading the names of places (thankfully) written out in the Roman alphabet was a work-out. Keeping that name in my head – a constant exercise! Yesterday, before heading to the Konan Home Center, I wrote out the subway station name several times before I got it written down correctly : Mozennakacho, and then when sitting in the subway, noting the names of the stations as we stopped, I started to look them up in the dictionary, realizing that they were really saying something, contrary to our names of stations which are usually some politician’s name…here was Tsukishima, two words put together to say Moon Island or Moon stripes either of which, I found rich and evocative.

Needless to say, when Mozennakacho arrived, it was spelt Mozen nakacho and instead of getting off, I was busy looking up mozen in the dictionary to find out what it meant!!! No luck there, but I was lucky in that I realized before I had gone too far. I  got off and back tracked.

Each day is an adventure, I remind myself. Just getting there may or may not happen and that’s ok. The Konan Home Centre looked a lot like Home Depot, but there was a special self-serve spot with tools, for cutting and preparing your packages to get them home. I purchased a huge piece of styrofoam that had to be cut down into a subway-managable size.  At home, I have to do all that in the parking lot and bring my own tools.

Many situations seem to be acknowledged and given simple time and place in a  more humane way in Tokyo. The public washroom is a prime example, about which I’ll devote an entire post. Soon, I’ll be so relaxed, I”ll be using the subway to catch up on my sleep, like everyone else!Subwaysleep