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  • Shona McCarthy

Lost In Transportation: Terror at Tokyo Station


(This particular piece is somewhat jumbled and confused, since the experience itself was so confusing. I can’t recall or contemplate it without becoming likewise muddle-headed. So, please excuse the lack of order. Since I first wrote this, all the challenges of Covid-19 have left many people feeling similarly afraid, frustrated and trapped. I hope that people can learn what I did. When you are stuck, just ask someone for help. If that doesn't work out, ask someone else. But never give up, because you can find your way out if you give yourself enough time.)

There is a distinct fatigue that fell upon me when I became trapped in Tokyo Railway Station for the first time. It wasn’t a simple tiredness of mind or body. It was a kind of existential weariness. I felt at times as though I was on fire. At other moments, I felt as though I were evaporating, and the only thing keeping me on the ground was the windless, unnatural environment that had become my prison. The constant noise. The people rushing back and forth without ceasing.

There is a distinct way that Tokyo people walk and move. It’s as though they are all in fast-forward. They rush through life, as though each moment isn’t enough and they need to chase the next or it will never come. For me it was a Kafkaesque nightmare covered in hot-sauce. I was experiencing my own concept of Hell.

(The sight that greeted me when I first entered Tokyo Station's concourse.)

I had a desperate longing, as I searched that station for somewhere to sit with little luck, to return to familiarity. The Kansai region had somehow come to feel more home than home to me by then. I tried desperately to find a way out of Tokyo Station, but at each turnstile, my Suica card would give me reproachful chimes. I had committed the sin of not understanding the Tokyo train system. My state of perdition was not being able to leave the station even for a moment of breath of fresh air. I was tempted to simply board a shinkansen back to Kyoto, but I remembered that I had already paid for my room in Tokyo and wasn’t budgeted for more time in Kyoto.

Even when a member of staff saw my struggle, with some stony-faced expression, he told me that I had to return to the gate where I had entered the station. But as it was, the memory of where I had entered the station was a faint and distant mist; lost among clattering suitcases and bustling crowds. I later learned that even finding the same gate might not have helped me. Once you’ve entered a station, you can’t exit it again unless a member of staff permits it. Finding someone who can help you in Tokyo at all is also fraught with difficulty. Unlike Kyoto and Osaka, there are no spare uniformed people watching and waiting to help people in trouble in Tokyo. Everyone in Tokyo is busy doing something important, or they’re rushing to a place where they can.

Of all the confusing, surprising, challenging experiences I faced travelling Japan alone, becoming trapped in Tokyo’s major train station was undoubtedly the most exhausting, the most painful, the most debasing. There is a woeful way the maze-like structures of all the stations seem to mock the weary traveler. There are places you can leave your suitcase for a fee, but these fill quickly, and so you may need to relentlessly weave your way to another luggage storage facility. Turnstiles tend to be open. But if something is wrong with your card or ticket, they snap shut in front of you. “Did you really think we would let you out?” they seem to say. I put my luggage in storage, believing I could then exit the station, or have a little meal at some café or restaurant in the station itself, the way one could in most major stations in the Kansai region, or in Melbourne, or Sydney. I found this wasn’t easily the case. While food is abundant in Tokyo Station, it is almost entirely in the form of cold lunch boxes. These come in a wide range of styles and prices and are generally high in quality. But you won’t be offered a place to dine. The expectation is that you would take your food and board a shinkansen with it. In all my wanderings around the many tunnels of that place I never saw a single rubbish bin. So, having finished my box lunch, I returned to the stall where I had bought it and, as patiently as I could given the circumstances, I asked the young lady behind the counter where the rubbish bins were. She had a kind, sincere nature that showed through her eyes. I saw it as she, with much confusion and some amount of fear, took my rubbish from me. Her boss seemed to assure her that she was doing the right thing, and I moved on quickly so as not to block the way of other shoppers. But I do hate that I had to do that to her. I do hate it.

(One of the many box lunch stalls I saw in Tokyo Station, March 2019.) There are information booths in Tokyo Station where you can ask for help. But then, the structure of the building is so confusing that even as you stand straight in front of one of the maps they will have on the wall, you are still unsure of how you would find anything, since the map offers you no indication of which way you are facing. Even once you find one and they offer you advice, again, the structure of the building is so confusing and confounding. It creates the sensation that you are somehow Laurence of Arabia clawing your way across the Sahara, only for some reason, you’re surrounded by other travelers who seem to be doing well, and may even regard you as deplorably weak for being so depleted.

Admittedly, it may be a matter of my own nature. I had similar problems when Melbourne first switched to the Myki system. I would become trapped in the station for reasons I didn’t understand. A rational person would imagine that they could approach staff and ask for help. But I tend to carry the rather silly expectation that I shouldn’t ever need help with such a plebeian task. I expect to be deservedly reprimanded and then instructed to figure it out myself. Do not be like me, reader, if you are considering a journey to Tokyo. Whether or not the locals will consider you an unforgivable fool for asking for help is irrelevant. The fact is that they’ve created a train station that may be one of the few remaining forms of torture permitted by the UN. No visitor should ever feel guilty for failing to endure it alone. I wish there were someone to blame for all of this. But the complexity of Tokyo’s main stations seems to be an unavoidable consequence of how densely populated Tokyo really is. In my mind, I kept trying to imagine ways the main stations could be restructured, broken down or streamlined in order to solve the problems I was having. But since I don’t understand their system or the reasons it is the way it is in the first place, I couldn’t come up with anything coherent.

Even as I imagine the station tunnels, my mind seems to disappear among the sound, the sensation. I can’t think when I’m trapped in any of Tokyo's major stations. At one point during my attempts to escape, I was so worn down, mentally, physically and emotionally, I was very tempted to simply throw myself on the floor with my eyes closed and wait for the station to be replaced with something else, or for someone to drag me somewhere else. I sensed that if I let myself lay down like that, my mind wouldn’t wander or think as it usually did. It was going to turn grey and blank like a screen in a theatre after the film has ended. I was on the edge of literally losing my mind in Tokyo Station and I didn’t have the patience to go looking for it if I did. So, I struggled onward.

My advice to any traveller who doesn’t know Japanese well is to avoid Tokyo’s major stations if possible. You might think, “Now that I know how difficult it is, I can mentally prepare myself for how awful it really will be. Then, I will be able to keep my head.” If you’re thinking this, you don’t truly understand how stressful, how gruelling, how demoralizing an experience it really is. Even if you aren’t so easily stressed as I am, if you are seeking a relaxed, fun-filled vacation in Tokyo, it makes no sense to go through any major stations.

(One of the maps I saw in Tokyo Station. I understood nearly nothing. I'm not sure whether it was because of the map or because I was panicking. March 2019.)

The smaller stations are fantastic to travel between. Over all, the Tokyo train system is fantastically clean, fast and ordered. I easily navigated to most of the smaller locations I wanted to visit. Even the major stations aren’t so bad if all you want to do is exit there. But if you want to change trains, you cannot adequately prepare yourself for the misery that awaits you there. I easily spent a third of my waking time in Tokyo simply trying to get out.

If you do use Google Maps to navigate, and it’s almost a surety that you’ll need to, you can use it to navigate to a point away from the major stations and then on to your desired location, effectively dodging them. If you’re thinking, “This would waste so much time!” I have to stop you right there, mister or missus or… xusster? The amount of time you would “waste” trying to find your way through the cacophony that is a large station in Tokyo will almost always outweigh however long you’d spend navigating your way around it. And even if this weren’t so, if you take the long rout you’ll see more and you’ll be at least moderately happy and relaxed providing you allowed enough time for such detours. But if you tangle with one of Tokyo’s main stations, you’ll end up trapped within the horrified anger, trapped within your body, trapped within the endless cement catacombs that make up those stations. However, there may be times when you might not expect a station to be so large or confusing as it turns out to be. Or it might not be such a large station, but you become trapped anyway, possibly because you entered wanting to use the bathroom and then leave, as I did in Akihabara. In such a case, just ask a member of staff, preferably near an exit, to help you get out. Akihabara Station itself is relatively simple compared to Shinjuku or Tokyo Station. It’s slightly unnerving, but sometimes, the major stations will actually be comprised of multiple smaller stations that all have the same name. Or they will appear to have the same name on Google Maps. And so, you will try and fail to tell them apart. Transferring at a major station will sometimes involve moving between these buildings, again, without the option of failure.

Google Maps frequently won’t work in Tokyo Station since some parts of it will block wifi signals, meaning it won’t help you when you are having trouble figuring out which exit is the right one. So, accepting the probability of error and accounting for it in your schedule is strongly advisable. Setting yourself a tight itinerary and then expecting yourself to keep it infallibly will only lead to hot tears of frustration.

The trains in Tokyo also seem to be much more unpredictable than those of other regions. Thanks to the precious little Japanese I knew, I figured out that the train I wanted to catch had been moved to another platform. So, I had to either go to find it, or navigate a new rout to where I needed to go. So, I went in search of the platform I needed. After half an hour of searching, I learned that my original train had returned to its usual platform. It took half and hour because in Tokyo station, platforms don’t just have names and numbers. They also seem to have subtypes or subsections that mean that even if you were meant to be on “Platform 17”, you can still end up on the wrong “Platform 17”.

(Something I found in Tokyo Station that offered me a moment of comfort. March 2019.) Also, Google Maps will often tell you to look for exits by name. What they don’t tell you is that as you exit your platform, the sign corresponding to the exit you need might not show up among the signs you see. With so many people trying to get past you, stopping to think simply isn't an option. You are better off simply taking the closest exit to you and hoping that the sign you need turns up. Each time I went through this, I was thrown into a violent panic. But what I typically found, either by design or by coincidence, that if I continued on in what seemed like the most reasonable direction to my gut, sooner or later, I would usually find the sign Google Maps told me to look for.

However, sometimes you will need to stop to take off a jacket, or search for something in your bag. A tactic I’ve adapted in Japan is that if I need to check my maps and have a drink of water, it is best to carefully dodge my way to a bollard or column and hide there till I’m ready to continue.

After all the horrors I endured, I was determined to avoid going back through Tokyo Station if at all possible for the remainder of my trip, including my return to the Kansai region. How I got back to Kyoto is a story in of itself, and so I may make a separate post about this one day.

I left Tokyo feeling disappointed in myself for being so overcome by its transport system. I wanted to master it by the time I left, but I was only there for four days. I do intend to return to Tokyo one day. But next time I will intentionally plan a day where I will force myself to remain in one of Tokyo’s main stations until I have adapted to the environment. I don’t know whether or not it will work. But, should I find myself unable, this time I will know to approach the staff and ask for help. And by that time, I won’t care what they think of me.


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