Teaching In Socks


watashi to tokyo
July 2, 2009, 4:13 pm
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Godzilla broke my building (oh dear)

it came like that

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Tokyo made me realize how much I missed the challenge of urban orienteering. Ako is great and picturesque but there are a limited number of streets to get lost on. While  I have never been much of an avid hiker living in  London and New York exposed me to the joy of trying to get from Point A to Point B in a vast urban landscape. It’s part puzzle and part mission and doing it well is essential to fitting in and feeling the personality of the city.

Each city has it nuances. New York–with the exception of the West Village–has it’s logical grid layout which is undermined by it’s disorientingly tall high-rises. London  considered a grid layout after the fire, then decided against it leaving modern day inhabitants with a labyrinth of alleys, roundabouts, and serpentine thoroughfares.

Above ground, I found many similarities between London and Tokyo. They are two cities with the foundation in the 15th century ideal of urban planning; However, both suffered massive destruction in the middle of the century and have had opportunity to rebuild and incorporate the technology of the age. Tokyo, perhaps out of necessity or cultural habit, has done so more aggressively than London.  While I was able to memorize the key points of the Tube and Subway maps in a matter of days, in Tokyo I could get around, but at times I resorted to actually asking someone (twice for the record, how embarrassing).

London also adopted a ring of greenery to surround the city and prohibit unchecked expansion of the city– if Tokyo has also taken this approach, I didn’t notice it. Tokyo spans across 50 miles at some points, has reclaimed land from the sea, and seemingly melts into other surrounding cities.

The most unique thing I noticed about Tokyo was how it expands vertically both above and below. From the street, if you’re trying to get from one building to another, it’s often not difficult. The horizon is often visible, and the inspired architectural design of the cities buildings allows one to distinguish quick landmarks. But often you are in a spot looking for a movie theater or cafe on the 5th floor of bulding, or for a shop inside a shopping center connected to a train station. For exmaple, I knew how to enter the Shinjuku JR station from the south exit, and I knew how to leave the station from the west exit (which was a bit more conveniant from the hotel).  However, if you asked me to enter the station hrough the West exit, I’d spend hours looking for it–and finding the entrance to any of the four department stores connected to the station was almost always pure luck.

This doesn’t even begin to take into account the system of tunnels connectting buldings and train stations. I tried the tunnel system once, from the station to City Hall (really to my hotel that was sort of across the street from City Hall), and then panicked after about ten blocks of blind guessing and picking turns on a hunch. The ability to navigate these tunnels–even though they are filled with signage– clearly separates the tourist from the locals.

And that’s the thing, there is lots of helpful color-coded English sigange. Everywhere. In spite of which, you’ll still get lost at times, only to find yourself staring at another sign or another building, trying to grab your bearings. Which is why it’s always easy to spot the tourist, no matter how they dress or talk, they’re always looking up with their mouth open.

it eats toursists

it eats toursists

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1 Comment so far
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I like the phrase “Urban Orienteering.” I enjoy doing that as well…

Many years ago I was staying with some relatives in Tokyo for about 6 weeks. The problem was I was young (high school age) and had basically no money. So I spent most of my days walking on foot around Tokyo. I saw a lot of things I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Comment by Brian Doom




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