Friday 24 September 2010

A question of perspective

I seem to suffer these strange lulls when I stay in the same place for more than a few days. It happened in Buenos Aires, again in Texas and it's happening now in Tokyo.

Maybe it's staying in an apartment. Having a set of keys, going shopping, knowing your way home. Whenever I have stayed still for too long, I've got the feeling that I am somehow wasting time. That something, maybe me, is suffering.

Today I experienced a strange kind of nausea, at the train station. When you're travelling, everything new you have to try to make sense of, makes sense to someone. Not knowing where you are going, being unable to communicate, you just take your time and don't mind looking stupid as you attempt to work it out. Emerging from the underground into Shinjuku station is like being blindfolded, spun around in darkness and thrust into the centre of, well, Shinjuku station.

I'm looking for a particular bus terminal. I've got a guide book telling me where it is, and maps and signs everywhere. I think I know where I'm going, but a few twists and turns later and I'm losing my bearings along with my patience. I spend ten minutes trying to reconcile the map on the wall with the one in my hand, before I notice it is oriented east-west as opposed to north-south. I turn my head on its side, and things begin to make sense.

There was no sign of where I was meant to go, though there were signs for just about everything else. I resigned myself to the futility of my situation and, desperate for a new aspect, wandered north, or was it west, to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office, which has an observation deck on the 45th floor.

There's nothing like looking down on a city from a great height to put things in perspective, and I quickly begin to see through to the heart of my malaise. From each window I see the same thing: 35 million people in the largest metropolitan area in the world, stretching far beyond the horizon in every direction.

You can't take taxis in Tokyo; they're too expensive. You can't walk; it's too hot. You take the train or the subway. Which means traipsing through vast underground networks of tunnels, staircases and corridors. Fathoming exits and platforms, under the constant watch of endless vending machines and bizarre posters. And everywhere there are people. Millions and millions of them, all being squeezed through the same tiny aperture.

Rejuvenated and refreshed, I take the elevator back to the first floor and find the tourist information. With much smiling, they furnish me with a map, and I realise my guide book was wrong. I walk, happily now, to where I need to be, buy my tickets and ride the subway home, where I fall into a deep, tired sleep. When I wake up the bus tickets are next to me. In the morning they'll carry us out of here, to the countryside. I think not a day too soon.

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