Osaka and Tokyo, Japan

June 24 and 27, 2009

Tokyo Towel. No, not a cloth to cover your nakedness as you emerged from an onsen (a public hot bath). Just an example of the Japanese quirk of rolling the hard /r/ to a loopy /l/, as in that hilarious scene in Lost in Translation involving a befuddled Bill Murray and a demanding dominatrix. In my case, I got befuddled looks because I looked Japanese but couldn’t speak Nihonggo.

Tokyo Tower

Before I got to Tokyo, I had been warned that asking for directions could be a linguistic challenge. Even the Japanese who spoke some English may be bashful in using the language. Given my on-the-fritz sense of direction and illiteracy in hiragana, throw in Tokyo’s multiple metro lines, I might as well have been blindfolded. However, if there was one thing I loved doing in a foreign city, it was walking aimlessly. And that was how you get to know a city – by getting lost.

I soon found out it was hard to get lost in the Tokyo subway. Metro station signs had romaji (Japanese writing system in Latin alphabet) translations, aside from the numerical and color codes. Not rocket science, the challenge lay in buying fare cards from vending machines and navigating the labyrinthine subway exits. To add some human interaction, I would ask people for directions anyway; all but one could speak intelligible English. Not a bad batting average for a city that gave Bill Murray a lost-puppy look.

Having Sushi with Dr. Michi Sawahata

Now a warning. The Japanese had zero penchant for saying “I don’t know” (which I thought would be a conveniently terse retort). They’d rather answer based on a general idea, not on geographic fact. Rule of thumb: Always ask for a second opinion. Better yet, just trust the signs. It happened to me. I asked a guy on the train which stop I should get off. His answer was totally off from what I had figured out. I inched away from him in the crowded train so he wouldn’t see me get off at the right stop. A fail-safe plan was to rely on your wits and be attentive to the running digital ticker tape and audio announcements.

But there were Tokyoites who could give accurate directions, and would even lead the way. From Tokyo Station, I needed to take a bus to Tokyo Tower. The vicinity map on the bus stop also had romaji so no worries. But I liked badgering people so I asked a Japanese lady. She spoke fluent English and assured me that she was getting off at the same stop. We had a tete-a-tete while waiting for the bus. It turned out she was an English teacher! Japan could definitely catch up on English education if there were more teachers who could actually use the language like her.

With my Live GPS (who turned out to be an English teacher) in Tokyo
Shinjuku Lights

That night, I needed to get to a bus station again, this time in Shinjuku. One of the two Tokyoites I was with had GPS in her cellphone so we were confident. We killed time at an izakaya (a Japanese pub) until it was just 15 minutes before my bus was to leave for Kusatsu City. A funny thing happened on the way to the bus station though. For some reason, the GPS was not specific enough. (What was the juice with GPS? My Japanese host had one in her car but we were forever going around in circles! Again, that’s another story.) We couldn’t find the station! I was alone earlier that day and I managed to find my way. Finally I was with Tokyoites with their high-tech gadgets and we were in the dark. Who knew?

Shinjuku at night was not a place you’d like to lose your way in. There were chaotic crowds of mostly tanked up young people and assault-to-the-senses neon signs. Giving up on her GPS, my host decided to ask a man on the street. Bad idea. He gave directions and even walked with us. No surprise, after a few blocks it turned out he was just as clueless as we were. We were probably farther from the station than we had been originally. We had to pick up pace and weave through the crowds and narrow side streets. Well, I did miss my bus, but luckily another one was leaving the next half hour.

Tokyoites, in my experience, were a helpful lot. Just don’t take their directions as Google Earth truth. Another complicating element was the nameless streets in Japan unless it was a major avenue. Counting blocks and committing landmarks to memory were the only way to go. You couldn’t use the constellations as neon lights outshone stars in this city. You’d be well advised to rely on your innate compass. But if you did need to ask for directions, Tokyoites were approachable and would go out of their way to help.

Kampai! With Jun Awano in a Shinjuku Izakaya
Shinsekai: Old “New World” in Osaka

Osaka was a different experience entirely. I was in Shinsekai, literally “new world” though ironically it was an old district in the city. The place was known to be dangerous, allegedly an abode of the homeless, prostitutes, and assorted lowlifes. The reputation seemed uncalled for as I never got that impression. Shinsekai looked like a quaint quarter of Osaka, akin to a Chinatown with its colorful array of restaurants, shops, and pachinko parlors. Restaurant barkers here smiled!

I was with my Japanese host, not Osakan. We were all tourists in Osaka – the blind leading the blind. We stopped in the middle of a busy pedestrian street, Tsutenkaku-minami Hondori Shotenkai, making sense of the tourist map when a man approached us and asked if we needed any help. He didn’t seem suspicious, but looked sincere. The fact that he offered help before we even asked was a testament to the friendliness of Osakans. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to go around the city alone. That could’ve given me more chances of interaction with the traditionally cheery Osakans.

Tsukenkaku in Osaka
Tsukenkaku Telescope
View from Tsukenkaku

The layout of Shinsekai should not be too difficult to navigate. Right at the center was the landmark of Osaka, the Tsutenkaku (literally the “tower reaching heaven”). It looked like a more compact version of Eiffel Tower. Its stem was adorned by the name Hitachi in lights (the corporate sponsor, of course). The tower was crowned by a huge clock and a weather forecasting neon turret – its color corresponded to the next day’s weather condition. The surrounding area was laid out in grids. North of the tower followed the Parisian-style radial grids while the south had square grids patterned after Manhattan. Pretty straightforward.

I had never felt lost in translation during my short stay in Japan. And it wasn’t with their Rs and Ls I had problems (plobrems?) but with their GPS.

Osaka from Tsukenkaku