Love and Travel – Express Yourself

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There is nothing quite akin to the sensation you get when, while traveling in a foreign country and you realize that you just got on the wrong train.

We weren’t on the wrong train. Just on the wrong version of the right train.

1385710_10153328273420593_107071201_nThere are a lot of transportation mistakes you will make when you go traveling, and all of them include risk and at least a little nervousness, but the sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach as you speed forward into the unknown is a special feeling for me. It’s funny to think of our hearts and stomachs “sinking,” since we know they don’t really move, but in that moment the expression makes perfect sense. I once had an acting partner who couldn’t comprehend that emotions could be felt in one’s stomach. Trying to explain it to her was like trying to make a blind person experience déjà vu.

Tokyo’s subway system is vast, complex and not the most English friendly place on Earth. It is also very efficient. If you need to get from one side of Tokyo to the other, very fast, there is  a train for that. It’s called a “Rapid.” A rapid line runs along the same line as the “local” but doesn’t make all the stops.

The up-side of working with this actress is how keenly aware I became of all the emotions I can feel in my stomach. If something’s wrong with your body or your mind, your stomach is almost guaranteed to let you know about it. If you are a disbeliever like my acting buddy, just spend a little time in a Thai tuk-tuk and you will understand.

I thought the tuk-tuks were a blast. Tuk-tuks are the only way to make traffic congestion interesting.

Tokyo's train system looks like this if you replaced all the people with trains...

Tokyo’s train system looks like this if you replaced all the people with trains…

Transportation is stressful, and often times the initial response is to over-react, expecting the worst. Don’t do this. You will really, really want to, it takes a lot of effort to remain stoic in the face of possible disaster, but if you want your partner to respect and continue to travel with you, this is the tao you must cultivate.

Which brings me to our first day in Tokyo and using the excellent subway system there. Andrew and I have used metros and subways all around Europe and the States. From Athens, to Vienna, to the Tube, and even the Venetian water-taxis, we thought we had mastered it all.

The Tokyo subway and train system has to be looked at in a non-linear way to really make sense of it. Getting from point A to point B might involve actually back tracking a few stops rather than going forward to the next connection because the transfer is closer to the final destination from there. Maybe the transfer subway station is exceptionally large making a transfer there unpalatable. When you are a tourist, most of this knowledge is unavailable to you.

9e5be4e8871a13affdad28bf9cbc5351

The equation required to navigate from Ikebukuro to Ebisu

As long as you find the right line going the right direction, all you have to do is listen for your stop, or count if you can’t understand the language. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Or so we thought…dun dun dun. That ominous sound is to set the mood for the day we met our nemesis, the Tokyo express.

There are very few subway and train systems that are so easy as just knowing the direction and listening for your stop.

We’d been using the Tokyo subway all afternoon to visit different neighborhoods, no problems. So we hopped on the pink line to head north for a couple of stations where we could transfer to the green.IMG_0603

The Tokyo system map looks like someone drew it while looking at the paper through a prism.

I should probably mention that it was our first week in Japan and we had absolutely no language skills whatsoever. Even if you learn to speak Japanese, reading it is a whole other matter. Some Japanese trains have English read-outs and some don’t, it just depends on how new that particular train car is. We hopped on the next pink line train, intending to count two stops.

a metaphor: how we saw kanji characters for the first time....

a metaphor: how we saw kanji characters for the first time….

It requires constant vigilance when using a new subway or train system to not get thoroughly lost. You might call it OCD but I check the train maps in every car and platform against my map and my planned travel route. Still there are somethings that one cannot account for.

After a couple minutes of high-speed travel with no indication of slowing, my stomach began to alert me to the growing panic bubbling there. My acting lessons had also taught me the art of maintaining a straight face, but as I made eye contact with Andrew I knew he could see the fear in my eyes as they slowly widened in confusion.

Our eyes momentarily locked in an “Oh shit!” moment as we realized that we still weren’t stopping. We watched out the windows of the train as we passed at least five stations with no hint of slowing.

My reaction was more of a, “Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. The letters are red… red is different. Why didn’t I notice that at first?”

I was suddenly living out the boat scene from “Willy Wonka,” waiting for the walls to become a light show of crawling insects. It was the uncertainty that was truly terrifying. It became clear we were on an express train of some sort, but how long was it going to last? Had we unknowingly stepped on a train bound for the suburbs, an hour outside of Tokyo city? How much would it cost to get back?

We could have ended up some where out there...

We could have ended up some where out there…

While neither of us is prone to over reaction, a Charles Marlow vis a vis Heart of Darkness comparison isn’t far off if you end up in the wrong manga shop… We obviously had to get off at the next station and then take the next train the other direction.

The human brain is wonderful, a million negative thoughts can occur in a matter of seconds. The important thing to do when this happens is first to ask, what can I do about it? If the answer is nothing, short of pulling the train’s emergency levers (which I wouldn’t recommend) then all those thoughts can wait. They are irrelevant. As the adage goes, you have to cross the bridge when you get there, or get off the train when you get there…

I hate metaphorical bridges. Jeff Bridges though… He’s awesome. Same with suspension bridges. I like those.

Luckily, the train stopped after another couple stations, forcing us to backtrack only about five stops. Also lucky, it wasn’t anyone’s fault, so finger pointing wasn’t even an option. Just another lesson learned the harder way, but you can bet we haven’t ended up on an express train since then!

It was definitely Shana’s fault.

3 comments on “Love and Travel – Express Yourself

  1. lmjapan says:

    Coming from a place like Los Angeles where trains and subways are not a way of life, I found Tokyo’s transportation system very daunting on my first couple of visits. I was too scared to go on anything but the Yamanote Line because at least that went in a circle!

    • Andrew says:

      Funny for us, it was the opposite in Ōsaka. The circle line confused us to no end because we could never figure out which direction it was coming from!

      • lmjapan says:

        Oh don’t get me wrong, I could never tell in the beginning either. I remember getting on the clockwise train at Shinjuku when I wanted to go to Shibuya lol.

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