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I started counting the roads in my Tokyo atlas. I didn’t finish.

Look, it is no secret that I get lost. I walk and bike and ride long and fast and blind. I welcome it, even if not in the moment I become lost.

There is no place I have gotten more lost, more often than here in Tokyo. Maybe I have stumbled upon the answer.

What I have been struck by these one and a half months is how rarely Japanese people seem to know a damn thing about Tokyo geography. I would stop by someone and even with map in hand, they wouldn’t seem to know. It didn’t seem to be out of indifference for my being lost, either. It seemed more as a general unawareness.

Yesterday I was biking with a Japanese friend. He was showing me how to get home, leading me to Hibya dori, a large road I would recognize. He took out a detailed map of metropolitan Tokyo, found its location and wrote down directions for himself. We took off, zipping in and out of traffic, the wind in my lengthening hair.

Suddenly, he pulled over and told me something didn’t seem right. We rode over to a police officer, and he asked him for help. The officer took out his own pocket atlas to search for Hibya Dori, a major Tokyo avenue.

It took ten minutes, three maps, two atlases, two officers and my friend before they found Hibya and how to get there.

My friend apologized as we turned around and headed back the way we came. I told him how I was blown away by how complicated and needlessly windy so many Tokyo roads seemed. He laughed and told me that there was some history to that.

In Tokyo’s formable years, during the Tokugawa, a reigning family that held Tokyo for more than two centuries, leaders constructed Tokyo in such a way that conquering forces would be delayed in capturing the city. There was no direct route to the capital. I suppose it was their intention that any rival Japanese groups or invading foreign powers would be stuck looking at a map trying to find Hibya dori. I don’t know if that is true. My friend is no historian, but it sounds logical and I want an answer, so I will accept it until someone proves it wrong.I suddenly felt vindicated. My being lost was simply the result of three hundred years of strategy by powerful military rulers.

If you need to get somewhere in Philadelphia and you ask a police officer, he will tell you. Manhattan is a grid. Even in more complicated American cities, there is, no matter what you think, a sense and order to it. I can gather direction.

In Tokyo, I have found myself staring at the sun trying to orient myself. Roads twist and disappear and merge, and it is not terribly uncommon to find road signs that suggest a particular direction of a particular road is traveling in two opposing ways.

That massive mass transit system of Tokyo, too, has added to the problem. Tokyo residents might memorize some of the subway stops, but all this does is make it even less important to follow the geography of the city.

I am exhausted and lost, but pleased to understand why. I have a map and an atlas and the sun. My friend keeps a compass on his bicycle, which I thought was pretty funny. I will learn this city, just give me some time.


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