THROUGH THE FIRE: Navigating Tokyo



Lately, I’ve been living a life on the road — very unusual for a well-rooted home body like me. In fact, I even kept my suitcase out between back-to-back trips to Heart Mountain to where I write from now in Tokyo.

Adjusting to a month in a small cowboy town close to the border of Montana and Wyoming was difficult, but coming to Japan only the second time in my life has been — well, you could say understatedly — challenging.

Once again, I’m traveling on my own — without the comfort of a friend, partner or tour guide to help in times of confusion and sheer desperation.

Don’t get me wrong, traveling alone has its liberating advantages: I get to selfishly decide every move in my daily schedule, or non-schedule. This has been particularly helpful in Japan since adjusting to the extreme time difference has had me wide awake at one in the morning to watch CNN, one of the only English channels here. With liberal free time, I get to decide what tourist sites to check out, where and what to eat, and when I’d rather just close the curtains and go to sleep.

I imagined that since I was here less than two short years ago, it would be easier to get around, but just before I left, I took one look at the Tokyo subway map and threw myself into a panic.

Instructions in English (thankfully) on a map for runners around the Imperial Palace.

Instructions in English (thankfully) on a map for runners around the Imperial Palace.

Excepting the area of Shinjuku, where I previously stayed, all the names seemed more foreign than ever. I remembered that after a few days here in 2014, I finally accustomed myself to the intricately complicated, multi-colored map that totally made sense once I’d navigated the subway lines a few times.

However, after a few years away, all those unpronounceable Japanese subway stops once again were strange and mysterious to this gaijin. Names like Akasaka-mitsuke, Kokkai-gijidomae, Uchisaiwaicho and Akabanebashi were impossible to pronounce, much less to find on a busy map and remember.

Walking the streets hasn’t been much better. One day, trusty map in hand, I headed out to run in the area just around my hotel. I turned a block in the wrong direction the minute I walked out the hotel entrance (of which there were several, much to my dismay). Discovering my mistake, I was able to turn around, then proceeded to try to find a nearby park clearly marked on the map.

After stopping several times to adjust my bearings, I was relieved to see a couple of guys in shorts running up the street, and immediately followed them to what turned out to be the park.

Suddenly confident, I decided to take a turn they didn’t, and then spent over two hours going in every conceivable direction to try to figure out how to get back to my hotel. In my confusion, I asked every friendly face I saw to help me with directions, but in every case no one spoke English. As I pointed to the map to show a security man where I wanted to go, he looked at me in dismay and said, “Tooi desu” (It’s far).

Oh yes, there is the language barrier. One of the reasons it took me so long to visit Japan — the land of my ancestors — was because I didn’t speak the language, and I figured that because I looked Japanese, everyone in Japan would naturally assume I was a native. Fortunately, the last time I was here, I was with a group of friends, including my mate, who were mostly white so that assumption didn’t prove to be true. When they saw the white guy I was with, they immediately figured I was American.

That changed when I came here alone. From the hotel desk clerk to the restaurant host to the museum greeter, everyone has spoken nonstop to me in Japanese. I thought that perhaps my American-ness would show, but it doesn’t. The only thing that stops them from going on and on is my feeble interjection of “wakarimasen” at the first opportunity.

Luckily, almost all directional signs are in both English and Japanese, especially helpful since rules in Japan are to be strictly followed —or else.

I’m trying hard to be patient as I continue to navigate around Tokyo. Instead of panicking I’ve managed to pick up a few pointers along the way. For example, once you get off the subway train, the direction in which you walk is as important as knowing the subway line you’ve just been on. It’s important to look at the well-marked maps just as you step off the train.

I also carry a handy mobile wifi with me so that if all else fails, I can use my iPhone to google map my location and point me in the right direction. Still, I feel ridiculously awkward when leaving the hotel heavily armed with map books, mobile devices (two phones and a wifi unit), subway maps and dictionary. Forgetting even one of those things could be catastrophic.

My misadventures have also included losing a prepaid subway pass in the turnstile when the paper ticket refused to pop out of the entry machine after I used it the first time. It wasn’t the $25 I lost that upset me; it was the fact that now I had to negotiate how much to spend on a ticket every time I entered a station, which could be up to as many as eight times a day.

Understanding the value of a prepaid Pasmo card was another lesson I learned along the way that has simplified my tourist life. I found out that you could use this handy prepaid card everywhere — even in taxis and convenience stores.

I continue to pat myself on the back whenever I learn something new, and now that I’m not quite as sleep-deprived, it has definitely gotten easier to get around. Even though I sometimes feel I’m jumping out of a plane without a parachute, I tell myself how brave I am — at my age — to embark on this sometimes lonely journey in the first place.

But for now, I just have to figure out where to go to exchange my train ticket to Hiroshima. Wish me luck.


Sharon Yamato writes from Tokyo and can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.




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