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Saturday, June 12, 2010

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Not just driving — walking in Japan is hectic


People say driving in Japan is hectic. OK, I agree.

I used to have a car. I used to get locked into James Jones-style traffic jams ("From Here to Eternity"). I used to get elbowed to the shoulder by monster trucks. I use to get cut off by faith-riding motorbikes, scooters, and even bicyclists, the faith part being that they simply believed I would not hit them — so they crossed straight in front.

I used to struggle with communication with Japanese drivers, and ended up relying on gestures, especially one particular gesture. (And it communicated!)

But a dozen years back I gave up my car and all its attached hassles. No more wrestling with traffic. No more hunting for that pot-of-gold parking spot. No more hoisting over buckets of yen for auto-checks, insurance and gas.

I traded my wheels for a pair of walking shoes. It remains a wise decision, but — as I have learned — there is this caveat . . .

Walking here is hectic too.

While I do not use gestures to communicate with other pedestrians, I find I sometimes want to. More than that, there still remains a communication struggle with the vehicular world.

For I find — as a pedestrian — I rank at the absolute bottom of the street traffic pyramid. I step aside for everything.

Above me rank tiny "K-car" compacts. Above them zip full-sized autos, topped by SUVs and vans. Next then run buses and trucks, rambling in sizes from large to larger. And over those rush trains. In Japan everything stops for a train, which only respect foul weather and earthquakes — acts of God.

Anything on two wheels then wiggles in and about all of these, sort of like bugs.

We pedestrians dodge / wait for them all. Our choices being: Step aside and let the bully pass; Or plow ahead and become roadkill. This second selection isn't very popular.

Funny, but when I had a car I used to growl over pedestrians plugging my access to roads. Without a car, no longer do I growl; I scream. Because road-hogging vehicles nudge me into bushes, gutters and walls.

Can it be helped? We all must share that labyrinth of streets and absence of walkways that is Japanese suburbia. Of course, we pedestrians only share what the cars and others let us share. Mostly we just genuflect to higher authority.

Which might come squealing around any odd-fashioned corner at any given second. You don't really walk with your feet here. You walk with your ears. For sharp hearing will alert the careful pedestrian as to what lies around the bend. That sometimes being a hasty driver zombie-ed into his own little world, a world where speed limits and pedestrians do not exist.

Yet, the farther one traipses from the webwork of neighborhood streets and on toward the major thoroughfares, the challenge shifts from vehicles to other pedestrians.

Pedestrians do not squeal. Most of them anyway. So ears are of no help. To avoid being bumped or cut off you have to rely on your eyes.

But much of the pedestrian horde appears to be blind. Or only focused on their own destinations. Many march on impervious to the fact that between them and their goals walk other people.

If we were in cars instead of shoes, we would probably all be dead. Inclement weather and the resulting restriction brought by umbrellas only makes this worse. Yet, nowadays umbrellas are the lesser concern.

Take, for example, a blustery Tokyo night this past February, with snowflakes in the air and ice coating the roads.

I turned the corner up a steep hill to find a young lady barreling right at me. Her vision was blocked by her umbrella, her footing limited by her high heels, and her movement restricted by a delivery truck on her right. She zoomed at me, umbrella down, and we avoided collision only because I flattened against the wall.

To see her click on past, oblivious to me, the truck, the icy road or anything. She had eyes for only one thing — her cell phone and the text message at which she was thumbing. In the dark! With the glow from her phone being her only light.

Peel your eyes for phone-gawking pedestrians — as they crisscross walkways or skip down stairs — for they will not be on the lookout for you.

Even odder are those hoofers who read books as they walk. One recently cut me off in the middle of a busy intersection, no less. He lowered his book just long enough to flash me a "How dare you!" glance of indignation.

I only wish it would have been longer. And then the traffic would have fallen upon him. Sometimes it is good to know your place in the pyramid.

So hectic it is. Enough to make me go back to my car?

Nah. Shoes are still cheaper than gas.



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