I’m not a city girl, but I’m becoming one.
It’s been a little over two months since I’ve moved to the world’s most populated city. Tokyo makes Manhattan look like Benton, Arkansas. And it’s even more bizarre to me now that it’s sinking in that I’m not just on a vacation. This is indeed my new “home town,” for the next 3-4 years, and I still can hardly believe it.
Having already worked overseas and traveled a great deal, you would think that adjusting to life in a new country has become old-hat to me. But I don’t think anything has quite prepared me for the vastness of this concrete-jungle-where- [Asian]-dreams-are-made-of.
Massive as it may be, it functions like clockwork, and to me, that has been the most daunting part of it all. For someone with a mild-to-moderate case of A.D.D., the organization of Tokyo is overwhelming. I get easily distracted. Don’t always color within the lines. Am a bit disorganized; messy. My husband Travis can be the same way. I’ve been to some of the world’s craziest big cities: Delhi, Cairo, Sao Paolo, Istanbul. But these cities easily suit my personality; they bring me a sense of ease with their “anything goes” kind of feeling and blendability factor. I’m comfortable in these cities. There aren’t too many rules to figure out because nothing is clearly defined anyway.
Tokyo is quite the contrary. Nothing is arbitrary. Everything has a system. A rule that everyone follows. And more often than not, figuring out that system leaves me feeling (and most likely looking) like a wild Barbarian weirdo. The big white girl tripping over herself again. Luckily there are markings that aid in deciphering the conundrum. Where to stand when waiting for the train on the platform. Which side of the staircases to ascend and descend. Which side of the sidewalk to walk or ride my bike. Where to bag my groceries after I’ve purchased them. Where to place my money for the cashier–in the miniature dish, no, not sloppily on the counter!
Other rules have no markings. I’ve had to figure these out by the apprenticeship of helpful Air Force friends who have a few things figured out already, or just by pure observation. No talking or answering cell phones on the trains. No eating on the trains. Eating or drinking on-the-go is also taboo. No shaking hands, touching or hugging people, unless you accidentally fall over on them when the train comes to a stop, but then if that happens, no acknowledging it; quietly get back up and pretend like it didn’t happen.
At least once a week, I get lost deep in the bowels of the most elaborate train system in the world. Despite the iphone helps and websites dedicated to plotting the most efficient route, half of the time I’m not 100% sure whether or not I’m embarking on the most efficient train or not! And there are strange contradictions. For example, a train labled “rapid” is actually slow as molasses. Only those marked “special rapid” are guaranteed to pick up the pace.
Navigating through Tokyo sometimes feels like being in a real-life video game. There’s a jingle for everything and multiple sound effects don’t help with my distractability problem. At some train stations (and at times that I still haven’t figured out), there’s an arrival jingle that is reminiscent of a video game’s congratulations, you’ve just advanced to the next level! Some train stations have piped-in bird sound effects reverberating from big speakers. I know the Japanese do clever things to make life more pleasant, but this thoughtful attempt only confuses my brain! I always hear the birds in the early darkness, but it makes me feel like it’s 5 am and the sun is about to rise. I wonder if Japanese city kids grow up associating a bird chirping sound with the train station?
In addition to all of the loud colors and lights, there are animal cartoon characters everywhere. Baby bird characters warning you not to get your wings pinched in the train doors. Baby penguins and chicks selling udon bowls, cookies, and acne treatments. The marketing strategy of this country is simple: cute, cuddly, and makes you want to say awwwwww.
Taming this urban beast involves playing by the rules, but having a sense of humor along the way. Because without the “rures”, Japan wouldn’t be that shiny example of efficiency. The way urban sprawl can work if everyone cooperates. It’s other-worldly, but so impressive. I’m still finding my place in the machine, one loop-d-loop at a time.