Monday, August 21, 2006

Sort of Lost in Tokyo

I don’t know how anyone comes to Japan without knowing any Japanese. The transportation system seems to be purposely opaque, and it makes me long for Prague’s red, yellow, and green lines. My goal was to get from Ueno station to Tokyo station, which is only two stops apart on the Yamanote line. Once at Tokyo station, I buy a ticket for the Shinkansen (Japanese cross-country bullet train), and ride it until the end of the line, which is Hakata Station in Fukuoka. It’s so incredibly simple sounding. As it turns out, Japan is hard, even when you’ve shipped your enormous luggage ahead of you.

I found Ueno station, but it’s huge, sort of multi-level, and spans a few blocks. The various entrances have signs that indicate different lines, but I couldn’t find the Yamanote line anywhere. I wandered around the station for a while until I found a giant subway map spanning an entire wall. Underneath the map, there was a row of computerized ticket machines that everyone was hurriedly tapping things into then scurrying away. The map made no sense to me. It was just a tangle of black lines with little dots and kanji that I couldn’t read. I knew the kanji for where I was going, and where I currently was, but somehow I couldn’t locate either, and didn’t really know what I was supposed to be getting from this map, anyway. As I stared at the map, an older man in a subway employee uniform walked up to me.
“[Hello. Where are you going?]”
My first instinct was to cautiously back away from the man (I’m so weird), but I realized that I was about a minute away from asking for help, anyway, and this man had just offered it. “[I want to go until Tokyo station.]”
“[That costs one hundred _____ yen.]”
I repeated the amount to myself, though I would forget it after my next question. “[Yamanote line? Where?]”
“[That’s over there, on the left side.]” He gestured to one of the ticket entrances. I thanked him, then tentatively approached one of the machines. Although the man had been very helpful, he hadn’t solved the mystery of the machines. I felt like one of those technologically challenged old women at the Cub Foods self-checkout lane. With the rows of lighted buttons in front of me, I gathered that I chose my own fare amount, which was determined by where my stop was on the map, but the man had already told me the amount. Unfortunately, all I remembered was that it was one hundred something. So I played it safe and typed in one hundred ninety, and headed toward the Yamanote line, which was only labeled as such once I went through the gate, where I encountered multiple tracks and somehow picked the correct one.

I bought my Shinkansen ticket at Tokyo station from an actual person, but this didn’t help me find the correct train. I just kind of wandered around the area for a while looking at my ticket and trying to determine how it told me where I was supposed to go. I eventually figured it out, and as I stood on the platform, in the line to enter the non-reserved seating car number 3, I was finally at ease. But that only lasted for about a minute. As I was waiting, a large Saudi man dressed entirely in white came up to me and said, “Where you going?” I told him Fukuoka.
“Is that where you stationed?”
“This train no go to Fukuoka. This train go to Kokura. My friend go to Kokura. My friend, he make same mistake.” His friend was a younger man who was standing in the line several people back, looking on nervously.
Once again, my confidence had disappeared. I began studying my ticket again, and comparing it to the sign in front of me. “But…it says 18.”
“You go wrong train because you no speak English good, you no speak Japanese, like my friend.”
Hey, man, you don’t even know me. We had to settle what was turning out to be a dispute over my lack of linguistic ability. I turned to the man behind me and asked in my best Japanese accent, “[Excuse me, does this train go to Hakata?]” The man not only confirmed this, but my accent must have been so good that he also rattled off a lot of other things in Japanese I couldn’t understand. Surprisingly, the Saudi man jumped in and exchanged words with the man in Japanese. Then he turned back to me and said. “My friend go to Kokura. He no speak English, he no speak Japanese. You help him.”
What? He was just telling me I can’t speak English or Japanese, then he wanted my help? We started boarding the train, so that was the last I heard from him. The younger Saudi man sat near me, and was nervous during the entire ride, which for him was almost five hours. Every time the train stopped, he asked either me or someone near him if the stop was Kokura. He didn’t really listen to me, or maybe didn’t understand. He seemed to understand simple Japanese better than simple English. I felt sorry for him. He was so much worse off than me, but he made it.

The train ride was interesting. Somehow I ended up in the smoking car. At first I didn’t think it would be so bad, since smoke doesn’t bother me that much, but I guess I didn’t realize that people who choose to be in the smoking car do so to chain-smoke throughout the entire ride. Seriously, a couple people sitting near me never stopped smoking. Breathing was difficult. I also learned that much like the Greyhound or the Amtrak in America, the non-reserved smoking car was a big draw for people I will refer to as J-trash. The guy sitting across from me was wearing big gold chains and dark glasses and blatantly ignored the rule, “Please use mobile phones gently and switch to silent mode while inside the car.” His phone was ringing constantly (as were several others in the car), and he definitely wasn’t using it gently. I wonder what kind of business he was in that he had to be on his phone all the time. Anyway, the plus side was that I got to see all of the Japanese countryside between Tokyo and northern Kyushu, and it was fucking gorgeous. I met Colin in Hakata, and we took another train here, where I’ve mostly been doing a whole lot of nothing. But that will all be covered at a later date. Hopefully my future entries won’t be so boring, but I’m not making any promises.


Blogger Carol said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

3:40 AM  
Blogger Carol said...

Hi Honey! This entry may have been boring to you, but it was fastenating to me. I really felt like I was there with you, and then was glad that I wasn't, because that would definately have made you anxious...or rather more anxious. You're right about that. Hard to take care of yourself and your mother. Thank Colin for putting a link to your blog on his blog. Lots of love, and keep writing! Mom

3:41 AM  
Blogger GLE said...

Your story kind of reminded me of my train ride from Prague to Hamburg. However, yours is about ten times more terrifying for me to think of. Then again, you do speak Japanese and I was the worlds biggest idiot with Czech and German. But hey, look where we are today. Safely off our trains.

11:28 AM  

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