First Views

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Temple University Japan Campus.

I suppose when I first heard that name to myself I was envisioning something not too different from home. I’ve known a lot about Japan, at least I envisioned it to be plenty but most of my notions just came from popular media and vague research rather then personal experience. In all honest respects, I knew nothing. And what I was preparing myself for ended up being grander and yet, more mundane then I could have expected.

Even in the cities back in America, the schools tend to consist of a few key elements all conveniently located within a reasonable walking distance. So when I first heard the words ‘commute’ I didn’t know what to think. I live in the suburbs, so high school I suppose was a commute as mine didn’t even have a bus system, but driving ten minutes through easy to navigate streets is nothing like a 45 minute train ride underneath a bustling city. And school wasn’t just classrooms located in a couple of shared high-rises, it was a quad, a cafeteria, dorms, perhaps athletic fields and a fitness center, plenty of little goodies to make it seem like you’re living an American idea of  ‘a full life’. Perhaps we’re just a bit too picky about our needs, or in more honest words we’re just too lazy to walk more then ten feet. Even the city goers find themselves almost pampered.

So here I am, barely into the Kitazono dorms and it’s time for our first day of Orientation at the school. When I looked at a map the path to the station seemed manageable. It wasn’t until we were led along that I began to feel the distance strain on my heels in this endless complaint of ‘how much farther’. And the first span on the train was another complaint of ‘how much longer’. Coming from a suburban area, never having lived in the city, and having little in the way of patience or physical endurance I soon discovered the greatest task that lay ahead of me was not class, but commuting. And I was determined to overcome any feeling of being defeated.

I made my weekend plans after our standard orientation (some things about college never change). There were several neighborhoods that careened to the top of my ‘must visit’ list: Shibuya, Ikebukuro, and Akihabara. I had three full days under my command, that’s enough for anyone to at least get a glimpse at what was waiting for me. I pulled a few comrades along for the ride and made it a point to be our guide. If I didn’t do these things myself now I would have trouble later. Turns out that the trains themselves are easy to navigate, and the subway system, while confusing in the different lines (especially adding in the JR Trains) was a pretty logical system. And Pas-mo cards made life all the easier, since buying different tickets to take different trains were a little too much strain.

As it turned out my problem didn’t lie in the trains, it was the stations. The most confusing part of the exploration was figuring out which exit we needed to take to make our way onto the right streets. With the school and dorms, the stations have two, maybe three exits that all lead to relatively the same area. But Ikebukuro and Shibuya? It was an underground maze of the highest difficulty, and even in a small station like Nakano where there were only two exits I ended up picking the right one, thought it was the wrong one and went back in the station, circling around another twenty minutes before realizing my mistake. While street maps are helpful and I took several screenshots with my phone to get us going the right direction, too much of the city of Tokyo looks the same. Without landmarks finding ones way through the various high-rises and small little shops is a challenge and looking for one specific store isn’t about just paying attention to the signs, but no it could be on the fifth floor of a larger building rather than occupy the entire thing. Coming from a suburban lifestyle I was almost babied with the idea that ‘one building = one store’. As it turns out, it wasn’t just Tokyo I’d have to get used to, but the city lifestyle, which had always either scared or unnerved me in the past.

In New York I always felt uncomfortable. In Chicago I always felt impatient and delayed. But strangely enough the only feeling I’ve received so far in Tokyo is a sense of misdirection, something that’s easy to train with more time and practice. Tokyo leaves me with much less a sense of fear in the unknown but an amazement for it. Spending time getting lost is the best way to understand the intricate workings of the city. In my trip to Nakano I discovered a long street that was nothing but shops and was covered above like a row in any other mall. While in Shibuya I was amazed by the grand Shibuya crossing and how traffic stops in every direction as the streets fill with people, all who already have a sense of where they were going. While the city is foreign and strange to me, the people here are so accustomed to it that they barely bat an eye.

Hopefully after a few weeks I’ll be able to do the same. At least for the areas frequently traveled.

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