Getting around

One of the first orders of business upon arrival in any foreign country is learning how to get around. There are really two components to this: mode of transportation, and route navigation. You need to know where you’re going, and how you’re going to get there. In the U.S. the most common mode of transportation is the automobile, and as a consequence of this our addresses are indexed by street. Given an address, we can usually find our destination as long as we know how to get to the street.

In Japan, however, a very different system is used to address locations. It is a rather top-down system, as the country is broken down into prefectures, which are divided into cities and municipalities, which are further divided into neighborhoods and finally into numbered blocks. There is no geographical order to the numbering system for blocks however, and most streets have no name. As a result, once you are in the neighborhood of your destination, you often must rely on landmarks to navigate. Businesses will generally give directions from the nearest train station, indicating the location of convenience stores, temples, shrines and other universally recognized landmarks.

Being aware of your surroundings and noting landmarks can be particularly important in dense neighborhoods of Tokyo where many streets look very similar. I got my first reminder of this important lesson when I set out from my hotel in Shinjuku to check in at Waseda University for the new student orientation. It was about a 45-minute walk, and I plotted my route beforehand including a stop at an ATM for cash and breakfast at McDonald’s.

It was a relatively straight shot from my hotel to the McDonald’s, and I got cash from an ATM in a 7-Eleven along the way. For breakfast I had a sausage and egg McMuffin–it’s like I never even left the states! The only difference was that my coffee was iced by default. In Japan, it is simply assumed that only a fool would drink a hot beverage during the dog days of summer. Vending machines which normally boast a nice selection of both hot and cold drinks are switched to all cold, and if you don’t like it you just have to suck it up.

The McDonald’s was located on a busy corner, and when I left I confidently stepped out in the crosswalk, sure that I was heading off toward my destination. The mean streets of Shinjuku are walled in by 6-10 story buildings, many of which are no more than a few meters wide, and all of which appear quite similar. I had the faint sense that this street looked a bit too similar to the previous one, but shrugged it off. Soon I passed another 7-Eleven, but they were common enough that it could easily have been a different one. After at least five minutes of walking, I looked ahead and saw a train overpass. Hadn’t I walked under that same overpass on the way here? As I approached it I finally saw my landmark: an oddly out-of-place stone statue that looked kind of like a Moai. I had noticed it while walking earlier, and seeing it again finally convinced me that I had just walked almost all the way back to my hotel, along the same street, without realizing it.

My landmark, an odd-looking stone statue

The high of successful navigation
The orientation session was typical and not particularly valuable, but mercifully it was over by early afternoon. I was lumped with the group of students doing homestays, and got to know some of them over the course of the orientation. Despite being an out-of-place grad student among undergraduates, I didn’t have any other plans for the day so I decided to accompany a few of them on a quest to find a data-only SIM card for their smartphones. Our first stop was an electronics store in the vicinity of Shinjuku station.

Shinjuku station is enormous, and serves the largest volume of daily passengers in the world by a large margin. There are 36 train platforms from five different operators, and over 200 different exits if you include the attached shopping arcades. We arrived by bus at street level and could see our target electronics store a few blocks away, but it had begun to rain so we descended into the underground plaza of the station and tried to navigate from there. We were like a pack of urban moles, running up the occasional stairway to pop our heads above ground and regain our bearings. After consulting a few station maps along the way, we successfully emerged directly in front of our destination.

Unfortunately, my comrades were unable to purchase the exact SIM card that they wanted, and were informed that it was available at a different store in Akihabara, on the opposite side of Tokyo. Not wanting to go another day without a cell phone, they decided to make the journey straight away, and I followed. I noticed a curious phenomenon though–as we successfully navigated from one destination to the next, my undergraduate friends steadily increased their walking pace. Their words became quick and focused, as though they had been taking espresso shots on the train. It was a feeling I am not unfamiliar with, but this was the first time I had noticed it in another person.

It’s almost like a drug, the rush we get from successfully navigating in a foreign land. You might suppose that skillfully and effectively accomplishing any daily task may give a similar feeling, but I think there is something unique about getting around. Being lost is possibly one of the most helpless and miserable feelings a person can have, especially when your communication ability is poor or nonexistent. Meanwhile everyone around you seems to know exactly where they are headed, their steps firm and directed. Being lost in a place like Shinjuku station is almost hazardous, as the currents of passengers streaming through the station flow like swift rivers, threatening to sweep you off someplace you never wanted to go.

The mean streets of Shinjuku

Too much of a hurry
Getting from one side of Tokyo to the other is completely unlike getting from one side of Seattle to the other. No matter where you are, there are usually at least three different paths to your destination, differing only by small degrees in time, cost and amount of walking. In my past experience in Japan I learned that generally it’s best just to stick to the first route you find that will get you to your destination in a reasonable amount of time. This tendency led to an interesting disagreement with my neophyte compatriots, perhaps amplified by their “navigation high”.

The simplest way across Tokyo, west to east, is probably the JR Soubu Line. I saw the sign for it as soon as we entered the station, and headed towards it while gesturing to the other guys. However, they resisted, insisting that I wait while they figured out which line would get us there the fastest. In particular, they saw an “express” line that followed the same track and would reach the same station.

I had a few thoughts about this argument. First of all, according to the timetable, it would take 18 minutes to reach Akihabara on the regular train. The express train does not use a special, faster track or anything like that, it simply skips a few smaller stops along the way. Even if it skipped every single stop between our origin and destination, it would probably save at most 7 or 8 minutes. But we are in central Tokyo, and almost every station is busy and important, so the “express” trains don’t skip very many stations. They are really intended for commuters heading out into the metropolitan expanse surrounding Tokyo, saving maybe 10 or 20 minutes on an hour-long commute.

It seemed inappropriate to debate the merits of express trains in the middle of a noisy, crowded station though so I simply said “Well, I can guarantee the express train will save at most 5 minutes, or we can just hop on this train right now and stop worrying about it.” They relented, and we were on our way. But it seemed like they really wanted to see if they could squeeze that extra few minutes out of the trip, and that got me thinking.

Why do we expend so much effort to save time in some areas of our life–commuting, eating–while wasting so much time in other areas? I’m not sure if it was their elevated mood, or our ten year difference in age, but they seemed genuinely upset, if only for a moment, at the prospect of spending more time than necessary on a train speeding through central Tokyo. For one, I think any new arrival to Japan would be fascinated by the train ride. Just staring out the window, watching the scenery rush by is uniquely satisfying to me, especially back when everything here was so new and exciting.

This method of allocating time in our day is much like a business allocates expenses, with certain activities considered non-value-added. Is there really zero value in the time we spend commuting? Perhaps this mentality arises from the American experience, where most commuting is done by car, and the act of driving prevents us from doing other more interesting and useful tasks while we move from point A to point B. In any case, I found this train ride to be quite pleasant, as it presented an opportunity to have a conversation and get to know my new friends a bit better. Truly, I would have been hard-pressed to find a significantly more valuable way to spend that time.