Lost and Found in Tokyo
by Claire Helman

"Tokyo will be so expensive," my Japanese friend murmurs. Yes it will, compared to small-city Mito, where we sit drinking green tea, sixty-five minutes from the capital by Super Hitachi train. But I have a plan.

"And you're going alone?" she worries. Why not, I think to myself? I need a solo foray.

Since arriving in Japan four months earlier, I've been busy settling into my teaching job at the university in this conservative, nationalistic city, which still reflects its agricultural base. I badly need a taste of cosmopolitan Tokyo's colour and excitement.

I'd made a day-trip there with friends so knew how to get around on the superbly organized subway. And during a jaunt to a sumo tournament, our busload of Japanese seniors and I had stopped at a small hotel in Tokyo's Akihabara district for lunch.

I showed my worried friend the business card from the hotel. Although I couldn't read much on it, the single room rate was only 9600 yen (about $120) — less than a third of what most of the hotels catering to Westerners charge. Besides, no surprises when returning to a hotel already sampled.

My friend reluctantly made the phone reservation I couldn't yet manage in Japanese. I could tell she advised the desk at the Hotel Kachou it was for a "gaijin" lady who didn't speak Japanese- as much to prepare them as to pave the way for me. She certainly didn't want the hotel staff, who probably didn't understand English, to be embarrassed when this grey-haired Westerner arrived alone with only her dictionary for support.

I had seen newspaper ads for stores in Akihabara and knew it was a commercial district, not one catering to tourists. But I was totally unprepared for its frantic atmosphere.

Getting there meant taking the Yamanota train line running through central Tokyo. Unlike the subway, the Yamanota line has no interior electronic signs in English, or flashing arrow, to indicate where you are. Nor do the stations themselves have as many signs in English as the subway does. Would I even know which one was Akihabara?

No problem. Instead of the usual commuter scene, with passengers dozing in their seats, people in my crowded car seem tense and alert, as if waiting for a race to begin. We're heading, it turns out, for Tokyo's mecca of electronic merchandise. Determined shoppers sweep me towards the exit. I fight my way through a wall of already-satiated consumers waiting to board, clutching their brand-name bags and boxes.

An arrow in the station points to Electric Town. Consumer City is more like it. A totally wired world. Tall buildings full of the latest gadgets and gizmos. By day, Akihabara, in the northeast part of Tokyo, is one of the most densely populated parts of the city. It's a commercial colossus where the image of the Japanese as quiet, polite, reserved, is suddenly transformed.

A cacophony of noise emanates from every storefront—TVs blare, CDs play, action-figures on Playstation or Dreamcast fight it out amidst alarmingly realistic sound effects. Sidewalk hawkers shout news of their latest bargains, and pretty young women with flowing hair, five-inch platforms and handkerchief-sized minis offer flyers and small packs of free tissues to the mostly male passers-by in come-hither voices.

Huge red or yellow banners flutter from buildings, announcing the names of stores or the latest sale. Atop the buildings themselves, garish neon signs of every known brand name wink seductively. We're here; we're here—Sanyo, Sony, Mitsubishi, Hitachi, Fuji. Most signs are in Roman letters, perhaps an unintentional but welcome gift to those tourists needing a marker on the confusing streets.

Permeating everything is the smell from dozens of fast-food places tucked here and there. Noodles, hamburgers, rice balls wrapped in seaweed, grilled fish on a stick. Beer, vitamin-packed soft drinks and corn soup from vending machines. As I later learn, there's no time for fine dining in Akihabara. Time only to shop or sell, sell, sell.

People stream through the streets, along store aisles, up and down escalators, browsing, bargaining, buying. Amid the milling, jostling crowds, I feel a sudden urge to buy something—anything. One look inside a large store both dazzles and numbs me. How could there possibly be so many models of cell phones, DVD players and electric toothbrushes? But this is no time to decipher the endless array and possible bargains. I have to find my hotel.

At first I'm not sure how. The tiny map printed on the card doesn't seem to correspond to anything I see around me. Then I notice some university students gathering signatures on a petition. One of them speaks to me in English. I ask for directions, saying the hotel is near the small train museum. His face lights up and he points the way. In return I add my name to the list criticizing the government for insufficient aid to victims of the Kobe earthquake.

Crossing the main street, I spot the museum around the corner and remember that the hotel, small and unobtrusive, is just another street or two away. The desk clerk bows and greets me by name. No need to tell him who I am. He points to a menu. I have a choice of breakfasts the next day according to the helpful photographs. Japanese or American. I opt for Japanese. He bows again.

I knew the room would be small. Nevertheless, I'm taken aback at this kitchenette-sized space. But it has a bed, desk with TV and straight-back chair. Also, as I learn later in the dark of night, there is a six-inch step at the entrance to the tiny bathroom. Crashing headfirst into the sink will impress the room's layout clearly in my mind!

But now I'm off for a day of just wandering, getting a feel for as much of Tokyo as possible. When I leave the hotel, I decide on a precaution. I make a careful drawing of the huge neon signs of the tops of major buildings and pinpoint the hotel in relation to them—just in case.

After a full day and evening of sightseeing, I take the second-last train back to Akihabara. The subway and rail lines shut early in Tokyo. The last trains are around midnight. At the station, I find only one exit, and it looks unfamiliar. Emerging, I enter a ghost town. Electric Town's lights have been switched off. My helpful markers have disappeared. The wide streets and sidewalks are empty and uncluttered. The place could have been deserted for days or weeks, it's so clean and tidy.

Now I notice the canals with small, elegant bridges, the intriguing shape of multi-level buildings, and the heroic-looking statues here and there. At night the darkened stores seem packed with goods mysteriously hidden away, almost entombed, as if no one was meant to discover them again.

Unlike other districts, there are no dimly lit izakayas, or neighbourhood bistros, with friendly red lanterns outside. Even the 24-hour convenience stores have given Akihabara a pass. With no living quarters around the main streets, there are no customers either. Not even a dog is roaming at this hour.

I try walking around the block to find my way back to the exit I used before. But unlike Kyoto or Sapporo, Tokyo is not laid out in a grid. Every left turn seems to force me into a right, or becomes a loop, or a dead-end. In the dark, all directions suddenly look the same. It's 11:30 p.m. and I'm lost. Well, there must be SOMEONE around.

There is. A man passes me at a street lamp. He does not look at me. "Sumimasen,"—excuse me—I call out. He eyes me in alarm. It has little to do with the time and place. Older Japanese men are often uncomfortable dealing with Western women, whereas Japanese women are nearly always friendly and helpful. I show him the card. "Kore-wa, doko deska?" I hope I'm asking him where the hotel is.

He studies it—and points in the direction I've just come from. I thank him, but after another 10 minutes or so, I realize I've run into yet another Japanese trait. People do not like to disappoint you by admitting they do not know something, or to tell you bad news such as "I never heard of this place."

Suddenly I see a light. A McDonald's has just closed, but a young woman is still cleaning up. I knock on the door but she shakes her head and holds up her crossed arms. We're closed, she's telling me. I wave the card. She opens the door a little, looks at it, points around the corner, bows, and then quickly closes the door. I set off and glance back. The light has been turned off.

It's 11:45 p.m. I pass a telephone and briefly consider calling the hotel. But what would I tell them? Besides, I realize with panic, I've left the dictionary in my suitcase. I can't even say I'm lost!

Turning yet another corner—haven't I been here before?—I spot a road crew working on the street. A guard waving a flashlight is with them. Certain that help is near, I approach with my card, repeating my few phrases again. The guard studies the card. One of the workers comes over to help. So does another. As they gaze intently at the card, complete with address and map, another truth dawns on me. Addresses are nearly useless in Japan, except, perhaps, for the mailman. The numbering does not follow in consecutive order. Rather, buildings are numbered according to the time they were built in a certain area, or their distance from a neighbourhood landmark such as a temple, Number 1 can be next to number 39. It is one of the reasons that many Japanese know only their own few neighbourhood streets precisely and why taxi-drivers must always be presented with a map showing your destination.

The guard hands me back the card, waving vaguely down another street. I know in my heart he's guessing. He and the crew return to work, and I'm left in the middle of the road. It's 12:15—and I'm exhausted. I can't believe this is happening. My legs ache. I need to pee. And I feel like an idiot.

Then, around another corner, I see a light and an open doorway. I stumble towards it.

Turns out to be a hospital. I'm in the emergency ward where the ambulance drivers sit smoking. I hand one the card. He looks at it, then takes my arm firmly. Leading me outside he walks me down the street. And suddenly I see it—my hotel. The building I must have passed nearby at least twice. With a deeply felt "Arigato, domo, domo, domo" I'm off.

I enter the hotel about 1 a.m. The desk clerk springs to attention and two other staffers appear anxiously behind him. "Ah, "(Smith)-san," they cry, relief in their voices—the huge embarrassment of losing their Western woman guest averted. I wish I could tell them the relief is mutual.

Claire Helman has worked in advertising, broadcasting, film, social work and teaching for more decades than she likes to admit. She has published The Milton-Park Affair, (Vehicule Press, 1987). She is originally from Alberta, and other points west, but came for Expo '67 and never left. Her proudest production is her daughter Rachel.