Train Navigation, the Gaijin Journey
When I studied abroad in Osaka, Japan last year, I did more than a mere student. Beyond the hours of homework, beyond the cringing memories of butchering my Japanese, beyond the new perspective achieved from my overall experience in a foreign culture, I gained a significant skill that may prove to be beneficial again in my lifetime.
I became a ninja.
Yes, I have trained in the stealth arts of jumping, marking paths, dodging human traffic, and re-tracking your path to victory. And by path, I mean train routes. By jumping, I mean hurdling through the doors right as they closed behind me. By dodging, I mean figuring out where it is least congested during rush hour.
Japan is tightly networked by trains. Ranging from local to national companies, you can pretty much go wherever you wish within Japan by hopping the train. Navigation proves to be a bit of a challenge if you’ve never utilized a complex train system in a metropolitan area. Some of you, I’m sure, are familiar with such systems in Europe or perhaps have lived in cities in the US that have a similar system. But as complex or simple they may be for you, more than likely you were able to read the stops. In the case of Japan, this is where the difficulty really mounted. With my inexperienced in trains as well, I had a challenge ahead of me in my training.
The very moment I set foot on Japanese soil, it was very overwhelming. I remember constantly asking myself “what am I doing?” as I tried to understand the custom officials. I couldn’t read, I could barely speak the language, the weather was much more humid, “universal” signs were different; it was an overload. For the first few days, I clung like a lost, bug-eyed puppy to my host family. I still remember my first morning with the Kuzuos, my host family. Humbled and timid, I shyly made my way to the kitchen and sat down for my first breakfast with them. Toshiki Kuzuo, the patriarch of the house (and who reminded me SO much of my grandfather, only Japanese instead of Irish) observed the shy American student nibbling her food with gleeful silence, a genuine smile stretching the wrinkles on his face. As 8am approached, he stood up and looked down at me with that same smile. “Ja, ikimashou ka?” (Well, shall we go?). He got up and I followed. I grabbed my bag and met him at the door, where we both put our shoes on. He opens it and leads me out, down the steps of the apartment building we lived in and to the bus stop to the train station.
For the first two days, host families would show the student the way to the university. Jetlagged, illiterate and barely grasping the language, I trailed behind my host father very timidly. I took mental notes of certain places I passed by (graveyard right before my stop), only to completely forget them as we made transfers and took random turns down narrow streets. Arrival at the familiar scene of a university campus did little to help the disorientation.
Almost a year later, things were much, MUCH different. I was navigating that very line with my eyes closed (literally in some cases—I could catch a power nap and wake up just in time to get off my stop). I had reached the point where on some lines I could just listen and not have to look at any maps. I had also mastered the task of decoding the crisscrossing nightmare of the Osaka subway lines and the Tokyo mainline. From fresh grasshopper to wise guru, I had gained incredible experience. Not only am I now able to play “tour guide” for those visiting or offer advice for future exchange students, but I had also improved my ability to read Japanese kanji, learned useful vocabulary (and their conjugation), and got comprehension practice by listening to school children conversing. Who would’ve thought commuting would also provide language practice?
Looking back, I could not believe that I was not able to move through the train system like a local in a foreign country with little English. I almost cringe at how timid I was back in the day when trailing behind my host father, wondering how the heck was this old man able to cruise so smoothly in a jungle of transfers and underground crowds at stations. But I remind myself: we all start somewhere. Even the mightiest of ninja was once a student.