When we arrived in Japan, in April, to attend the wedding of my good friend, Mark, I exuded confidence as I lined up for the Narrita Express, the train that would take us right to Shinjuku. I’d forgotten the name of the hotel, but whipped out my laptop, and retrieved it. I dashed off a note to Mark, letting him know we’d arrived. Then I arranged a cell phone rental. Call me Miss Preparation.
As we stepped out of the Narrita Express, and into the bowels of Shinjuku Station, and I realized that I had no idea how to get to our hotel, or, for that matter, how to get out of the station, I slipped into panic mode. I don’t do lost well. I dreaded asking people for directions because of my perception that most Japanese people don’t want to be talked to on the street. The reluctance to encounter Gaijin, the Japanese word for stranger, has to do with a fear of losing face. It’s the reason why you might notice that someone has fallen in the street, and nobody stops to help. When you fall on your bottom in a public place, you’ve lost face, and when you can’t speak to this intruder, or don’t know the place he’s looking for, you’ve lost face. Better not to notice this lunatic gaijin in the first place.
Since I abhor being lost more than I dread asking for directions, once I get started, I tend to ask a lot of people: every half block or so, I repeat the question, despite my reluctance. When I get really desperate to get a person’s attention, I touch an arm- this is not the way to approach the Japanese, who are not used to being touched. The best way to ask for directions in Japan, when you don’t know any Japanese is to grin and extend your arms, palms facing upwards in supplication or perhaps in an indication of stupidity, as in “Don’t mind me, I’m an idiot.”
With arms outstretched, and the grin firmly in place despite the desperation you’re feeling inside, you say the name of the place you’re looking for. In my case, it was Shinjuku Park Hotel, but even the cop at the end of the block where the hotel was located didn’t know that name until he looked at the map. Mark had said that the hotel was near the big department store, so I plastered a stupid grin on my face, opened my arms and asked, “Takashimiya?” We were within a block of the hotel, and knew it, and frustration was rearing its ugly head, after 13 hours in the plane, and 90 minutes on the train, but we soldiered on.
The sweet young thing from the information desk at Tokyu Hands, in the giant Takishimaiya Department Store, told us to use the Louis Vitton exit, and told us how to get there, in English. She even gave us a map, but once we found the exit, we couldn’t find the way, and had to resume asking for directions.
I castigated myself for not knowing how to get to the hotel, or even out of the train station. I’d actually downloaded maps of the rail lines in Tokyo, but trying to decipher them gave me a headache, so I packed them in my backpack, and patted myself on the back for having them. I’d forgotten how hard it was to negotiate the beast that is the Tokyo transit system, and in particular, Shinjuku Station.
When I arrived in Japan for the first time, in September of 1993, I would have fallen into the clutches of chaos if it hadn’t been for my daughter, Bonnie- traveler extraordinaire. Even with Bonnie, however, the trip from Narrita to Narimasu, on the outskirts of Tokyo has since joined my list of most horrible travel experiences.
My daughter and I were moving to Japan, to teach English. We had a mountain of suitcases, piled on top of a flimsy luggage carrier, and I tipped them over repeatedly in the rain. When we got to Ikebukuro, the second largest terminal in Japan, we gave up. We were to change trains there, but just couldn’t deal with the suitcases during rush hour. I’d heard horror stories about white-gloved Japanese conductors shoving passengers into the trains like apples in a cider press. So we took a taxi- it was very expensive- but he delivered us to the door of the little place we were to occupy for the 3 months we had to wait to begin working.
I lived in Japan for three years. I tried, but couldn’t manage to learn Japanese- the truth is that I was embarrassed about speaking, and therefore defeated myself. I studied, and there was some learning taking place, I guess, because I found myself remembering words, understanding a bit of what people were saying this time around.
By the time we left, a week later, I’d mastered the art of negotiating the transit system, until next time, of course.