Building blindness: Getting hopelessly lost in the suburbs of Tokyo

Yesterday morning, I went out for a half-hour jog and came back three hours later. I have never gotten so lost in my entire life.

I left the house with the modest aim of getting some light exercise, exploring a little bit of the local area and coming back in time for breakfast. Because my running clothes don’t have pockets I thought I would run free and only take my key with me. Unfortunately for me it turns out that my local area is pretty interesting. About 20 minutes into my jog I found a river with a pretty path next to it. “It would be a shame if I didn’t run down this nice path,” I thought. “I’ll remember where I joined it, so I can get back easily.” Ten minutes later, the river came to a big green space with an interesting forest bit. “Well I simply have to do a lap of this!” Even after that, if I had gone back the way I came, I would probably have been ok. But no. I was enjoying my exploring and thought it was a good idea to to go back ‘the pretty way.’

My sense of direction is nothing to write home about in the UK but I do have one. If I’ve been somewhere recently I can generally find it again without too much trouble. I can even find north on a good day. But it seems that I left whatever modest navigational powers I once possessed on the plane. I can’t find anything in Tokyo without a map or a smart phone. The big problem seems to be that I can’t recall landmarks that would help me remember where I’ve been. The streets all blur into one.

I have discussed this phenomenon of losing sense of direction with fellow expats and it seems I am not alone in experiencing this ‘building blindness.’ A friend suggested that our eyes haven’t yet adjusted to Tokyo architecture and the buildings all look the same to us. I think it could also be something to do with not being able to read. To clarify – I can read hiragana and katakana without any trouble but I can only recognise around 250 kanji, which means I can’t understand around 95% of place names. I think in our own countries we log information from names of buildings and signs into our mental maps without fully realising it. In Japan however, I only perceive these potentially useful markers as squiggles.

Credit: urbankchoze
Credit: urbankchoze

I found many fascinating things on my adventure. Multiple parks, a tennis court, a shrine, a gynecologist clinic and a traditional Japanese shopping promenade blasting folk music on loud speaker. Whether I could find them again is another matter.

At first it was kind of cool being lost on a sunny morning when the suburbs of Tokyo weren’t yet fully awake – the romantic in me was enjoying the surreal, dreamy aspect of the experience. I wandered into a posh bit and saw some gorgeous traditional houses next to a graveyard and I wondered if some mysteriously beautiful woman was going to come and induct my lost little self into the occult (yes, I’ve watched my fair share of anime).

But then being lost went on. I wasn’t seeing anything I recognised. The day was getting hotter and I was tired and hungry.

Finally, the horrible moment when I could no longer kid myself: “I have no idea where I am, I don’t have a phone, my suica (Japanese train pass) or any money. I may not understand the response if I ask for directions in Japanese and I can’t read any of the signs. Sh*t.” I was also aware that my boyfriend, who was barely awake when I kissed him goodbye, might be a tad alarmed that I left for a jog at 8.30am and was not back two hours later. To add insult to injury, I was also wearing tiny little purple running shorts and a hideous headband.

Eventually, I found myself at a station about 2km away from where I live. I was squinting at the train map wondering how on earth I had ended up here and some kind gentleman asked if I needed any help. I told him where I was trying to get to and he burst out laughing. “How?” he asked. But then the absolute sweetheart walked with me for about 10 minutes and pointed me in the right direction. Japanese people in general seem to be very kind when you get lost.

Kind sir, if we ever meet again I owe you dinner. God bless you for taking the time to help a very confused and hungry British girl wondering around Tokyo completely lost.

And so I returned home to my worried boyfriend and some excellent scrambled eggs. Getting inducted into the occult by a woman in a kimono against the backdrop of a spooky traditional Japanese house can wait for the next time I get lost. Which I inevitably will.

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