2013 ends in a little over 48 hours and I haven’t finished blogging about week one in Japan! Sorry for the delay. I have a little explanation blurb at the bottom of this entry, but for those who don’t want to hear excuses about my lack of updates, please enjoy the post!
Lost in Nakano
The day after the barbecue at Ono’s, Noriko had to work so I was on my own. It was Monday and the start of a new week, so it was fitting that I was venturing out into Tokyo for the first time by myself. With the free portable wifi-router that came with my apartment rental, I could use my phone to navigate and search for information so I wasn’t too worried about getting really lost. Also, the Japanese address system is different than anything in the United States, so my focus wasn’t on figuring out a place’s street but rather determining the subarea-block-building numbers. For example, I was staying in Tokyo’s Nakano ward, in the 51st block of the 2nd subdivision of Yayoichi district.
Equipped with my portable wifi and my phone, I headed out. I had no real destination for the day, so my plan was to get acclimated with Tokyo streets and metro system. My goal was to navigate by landmarks and buildings, the same way that I do in San Francisco. My apartment was located on what I think was a side street for a more major road, so from the map it appeared to be a fairly straightforward route to the nearest train station, Nakano-shinbashi. Once I got on the main road, however, I realised that I was getting way too distracted to pay attention to the map I had studied earlier. Less than a minute away from my apartment door was a 100-yen store (similar to the $1 stores we have in the US) called “Lawson 100.” Lawson is a konbini chain, but this was a special dollar store version of the regular Lawson. Looking back, it was awesome to stay so close to a dollar store because it greatly cut my food costs for breakfast and snacks down—I could easily get breakfast and a drink for around ¥400/$4.00 USD.
Once I turned right at the Lawson, I headed down the street towards the train station. I knew I had to turn left again at a different konbini (a non-dollar store Lawson) eventually, but I wasn’t sure what it looked like. I was assuming it would have コンビに(konbini) written somewhere on the sign, but most konbini are such huge brands that they’re recognised by their storefront design alone. I managed to find the konbini after stopping and checking my Google Maps app every few minutes, but once I was on the street where the train station was supposed to be, I started to get a little worried. Google Maps said it would take about 10 minutes to walk from my apartment to the train station and it had already been about 15 minutes. I knew I was walking at a leisurely rate and had been slowed down by checking my phone so often, but I also felt like I should be somewhere near the station entrance by then. Since it was Monday morning after the rush hour commute, there wasn’t a mad rush of commuters on the street heading in a direction that would indicate the entrance. It was mostly housewives and elderly people running errands. For some reason I was still feeling unconfident about my Japanese (I was starting to regret my lack of practice/study before the trip) so I didn’t want to bother anyone and ask them for help. I kept walking, but finally I checked my phone again after several minutes and I realised that the wifi router had a delayed signal and the GPS was not entirely accurate dependent on wifi alone. Viewing my map, I saw that I had passed the train station already!
Nihongo ga hanasemasu! / I can speak Japanese!
I crossed the street and headed back the way I came, but I could not see the train station. In hindsight I can’t believe I passed by it twice, but I suppose I wasn’t sure what type of building or sign I should have been looking for. Finally, I realised nearly half an hour had passed and I was still not at the train station that was only 10 minutes away. I moved to an alley entrance and looked around, weighing my options on who I could approach and ask for help. I didn’t want to bother anyone who was running an errand or looked busy working, so my hope was to ask a police officer or someone like that. Glancing around, I saw an elderly man in a bight blue uniform standing in front of some scaffolding. From his outfit, I thought could be an officer of some kind. He looked a little too old to be a cop, but then again I wasn’t sure what a Tokyo police uniform looked like so maybe he wasn’t even a cop. I decided he was my best bet, so I mustered up all of my “I can speak Japanese” confidence and approached him, still feeling nervous that I was about to butcher a simple Japanese question.
“Sumimasen… ano, Nakano-shinbashi eki wa doko desu ka? (Excuse me, but where is Nakano-shinbashi train station?)” I asked, my voice way too high. The old man looked confused for a second, and my immediate thought was “Oh man, he is probably like ‘what the hell is this gaikokujin(foreigner) girl saying right now?'” Then he smiled warmly and replied back in rapid fire Japanese. I was taken aback by how fast he was speaking since before my trip, most of my Japanese friends and teachers knew I was a student of Japanese and would speak to me fairly slowly. But I guess I didn’t seem like a student or it didn’t cross his mind because his reply was at regular speed. He basically said something like “<fast Japanese>ushiro…<more fast Japanese>asoko desu. (behind you… over there)” and then gestured behind me and across the street, in the direction from where I had just walked. I thanked him and bowed, which he returned with a bow and another smile. Now that he had pointed out the station, I wasn’t embarrassed by speaking Japanese—I was more embarrassed that I asked for the train station and it was right behind me. As I was walking, I realised that his initial reaction to my question wasn’t confusion. I think more than anything he was surprised I didn’t see the station that was so close by!
Although this may sound self-congratulatory, moments like this during my trip taught me that my Japanese is actually better than I though it was. I have been studying Japanese for almost 7 years now and this year was my first time being in Japan. That simple act of asking for help greatly increased my confidence for the rest of the trip. During my stay there I definitely had several moments where I butchered a phrase or didn’t understand what a friend was saying; there were also moments where someone seemed a little surprised when I spoke Japanese (outside of the touristy areas like Shibuya or Shinjuku anyway). No one ever told me “Can you speak English instead?” Every single person I met during my trip was happy to communicate in Japanese and a few people who tried to speak to me in English ended up asking me “Nihongo ga wakirimasu ka? (Do you understand Japanese?)” and seemed a little relieved when I said “Nihongo ga ii desu! (Japanese is fine!)”. Getting lost and having to speak Japanese like that helped me realise that, although I am by no means fluent (yet!), I can communicate in Japanese and I don’t sound like an idiot when I speak the language. I may not sound like a native speaker (yet!) but this trip was the first time I felt like I am at an intermediate level.
So I haven’t updated my blog in months because work has been hellish up until recently, making me very busy and leaving me very tired. Another reason these entries are taking so long is because I’m so wordy. I am mostly writing these entries for myself; I am trying to capture each moment of my trip so I don’t forget. My memory is generally horrible and I often can’t remember what I did weeks ago, let alone months ago. But that said, in case anyone else is interested in my posts, I don’t want to write rambling epics that no one else is able to read. So my current goal is that I am going to try to eloquently finish this blog series by January 5th 2014 but I make no promises. Seeing as it took me 4 months to post this entry, even I am skeptical of me finishing on time! But please stay tuned!