Urban bushwhacking

Posted: May 20, 2006 in Uncategorized

If there’s one thing my dad’s bloodline is known for, it’s unexpected adventure. We thrive on it. The most basic outing can potentially turn into an epic tale of harrowing survival in the face of horribly poor planning and unfounded optimism. Last night this particular genetic “feature” reared its head once again, as I found myself getting thoroughly lost in the backstreets of Tokyo.

After leaving the office for the day, I felt the strong urge to go for a run, but I’d be damned if I was going to pay the hotel the equivilant of $10 US to run on a treadmill. I decided a run through Yoyogi Park was just what I needed to enjoy the city on a slightly different level, rather than running in place staring at the wall of a hotel gym. So MP3 player in place and running shoes on my feet, I sprinted off into the streets of Tokyo.

My first and most fatal mistake was made very early on. The route to Yoyogi from my hotel is fairly straightforward and by now well-known to me, however it literally passes through the busiest intersection in the world, and I was starting off at the height of rush hour. “Running” for most of the trip would at best have been an honorary title, much the same way Paris Hilton could be called a “businesswoman” for having her own line of insect-like sunglasses and matching chihuahua sweaters. I was feeling far too energetic for this, and so I decided to take a side street to avoid the crowds and stoplights.

The US idea of street layouts, where four directions should be enough for anyone and what kind of commie would put a curve in a city street, in no way applies to Japan’s street system. Alleys perhaps the width of a very successful sumo wrestler sprout at random in every direction, and never travel in a straight line for more than ten feet. If a marathon was ever assembled on the streets of Tokyo, the entire 25 mile route could exist within two city blocks without ever covering the same ground. This fairly fundamental fact escaped me as I ran on, occasionally taking corrective turns in the direction I assumed was towards the park, but gradually became clear was anything but, and eventually it dawned on me that I had no idea where I was.

This realization is uniquely troublesome in Tokyo because there are no easily identifiable landmarks from any vantagepoint. All the tall buildings look like the tall building directly behind you, all the main thoroughfares are undergoing the same construction that week, and after a quick and dirty lesson like mine in sidestreet navigation (ie. you can’t), alleyways become threatening not because of dangerous people but because you might end up in outer Mongolia. As I meandered my way through neighborhoods and commercial districts, I would occasionally stop a citywise-looking person and ask plaintively, “Shibuya?” and point in the direction I thought it was. Inevitably, it was always the opposite direction than I was heading. However, after doing this some three times, I made another realization: Japanese people in Tokyo don’t know where they are either. Each time I asked, I would be pointed very helpfully and politely in a completely different direction. I’m convinced at this point the invention of the capsule hotel was just to house all the people that simply got tired of looking for their apartment.

Luckily I eventually found a set of grimy maps on streetcorners that gave me a direction and a familiar landmark, and with some persistance and that stubborn genetic optimism, I found myself back on familiar ground. I even made a last dash to the hotel, where I promptly showered and went out to drink heavily. At no point on the way to the restaurant did I attempt to take a shortcut or ask directions.

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