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Saturday, June 5, 2004

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Taking the long road to nowhere


Out on the straight freeways of higher enlightenment, many an astute Japan watcher has tied the cautious, noncommittal qualities of Japanese personality to various cultural and linguistic features, such as tightknit group society and ambiguous language structure.

Yet I think there may be a far more physical reason behind traditional Japanese elusiveness. That being .EE the nation's squiggly, wriggly roadways.

For in this country there is no easy answer to the direct question of how to get from here to there. Such inquiries usually demand that the listener pause, ponder .EE and then choose from only two workable options:

They can either smile wryly and wag their head. Or they can make something up.

Because more often than not Japanese roadways defy direction-giving. They twist, they turn, they curve, they split, they re-split, they split some more, they double back and Esometimes Ethey just disappear.

While traversing any two points may be simple the way the crow flies, in Japan we wingless humans have the misfortune of having to cross such gaps according to how the crow might walk Eafter having gulped a fifth of gin. Just look at your palm. The wrinkles there make more sense than some Japanese roads.

It's no wonder, then, that folks raised here have developed a natural reticence. After all, how can you be precise and decisive when you're not sure where you are? It will render you careful, to say the least.

Making this maze of streets even more complex is the tricky fact that Japanese homes are rarely numbered in straight-line order. The street number is thus generally meaningless Eunless you know the way. And knowing the way is generally impossible Eunless you've been there before.

Want to make a taxi driver twitch? Ask him to take you somewhere by street number alone. Once the spasm has passed, odds are the man will suck his teeth, tear wildly through maps, and then radio "Mayday, Mayday" to his dispatcher. Next he will either smile wryly and ask you to leave Eor make something up.

The proper way to instruct a taxi driver is to tell him to take you to a landmark, not a number. A la:

"I'm getting married. Take me to the church and step on it."

"What church?"

"Whaddaya mean, 'What church?' The one next to the park!"

"Which park?"

"The one by the school!"

"Which school?"

"The one by the bridge!"

"Which bridge?"

"The one by the church!"

And so on.

In fact, the correct way to summon a taxi is one of the first things new residents learn here, ranking right along with the location of the nearest vending machines and how to order pizza. In my various addresses in Japan, I have come to call taxis to the gate of a nearby school, the convergence of two well-known roads, a popular coffee shop and the entrance to a public bath Eall within short walking distance of my home.

While some drivers today use car navigation systems Esystems that are also available on cellular phones Emost wayfaring pedestrians still rely on landmark-dotted maps, sort of the Rosetta Stones of overland transportation. Without one, it may be impossible to unravel the way to where you want to go. Or even how to get back. Which makes one wonder how many of Japan's homeless are really not homeless but rather just lost.

Of course, one of the main purposes of Japan's legendary police boxes is to give wandering souls street directions. At this, the men in blue are highly skilled. Indeed, almost all are razor sharp at smiling wryly or making things up.

While most Japanese adapt to their jumbled roadways, those who just can't typically move to Hokkaido, where streets are more likely to be plotted in logically numbered grids. It is also often said that residents of the pioneer north are more outspoken than other Japanese Ea simple, residual benefit perhaps of being able to find one's way around.

Meanwhile, the best way to get about in the labyrinth of Tokyo may be to close your eyes. As the following story suggests:

Some years ago, after the wedding of a former student (the church was by a bridge next to a school), I piled into a taxi with two friends, one foreign and one Japanese. Our destination was the reception hall, a famous marriage hot-spot called Chinzanso, known to almost everyone.

Everyone, that is, except our driver.

Fortunately, I had a map. The driver raised his glasses, squinted at the paper, lowered his glasses Eand then confessed.

It was his first day on the job. He had never heard of Chinzanso or anyplace else on the map.

Since neither my fellow foreigner nor I knew the way, this meant but one thing: It was time for another taxi. For the Japanese person with us was legally blind.

Blind since he was a wee lad. Blind as in he could not see a wry smile in front of his face. Blind as in he actually believed me when I said I was handsome.

His nickname was Hiro and Hiro leaned on his white cane and told the driver: "No problem. I can get you there."

And he did. Firing directions, Hiro guided the driver through turn after turn followed by zig after zag Edown this bent alleyway and up that crooked short cut Epast landmark after landmark after landmark, so that after 10 minutes where were we? Smack dab in front of Chinzanso.

"Hiro," I asked, "How could you do that? You can't see!"

"Oh it's nothing. I've come to know my way around."

"You mean you have the wiggly streets of Tokyo memorized!"

"Not quite." He smiled wryly. "I'm just real good at making things up."

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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