Diving head first into Japanese public transportation

Osaka Travel Blog

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Each major station usually has an obscene number of tracks for an even more offensive number of transfers to different lines. It’s similar to Grand Central station, but less tracks. Imagine my trouble when I ran into 4 Grand Central-sized stations for transfers just trying to get to the Aquarium in Osakako from my apartment in the Osaka University International House. Now one might say that Manhattan’s subway transportation system is confusing, which it can be during the weekends (with the awful “no downtown 6 trains anywhere” or something of that sort), but at least it’s $2 flat rate following simple colored circles to get from one stop to another. You can pretty much just trace your finger on that one MTA map to get from, let’s say, Flushing to Museum of Natural History. If memory serves me correctly, that’s 7 to 42nd and transfer to 6 uptown to 86th or something. It follows a sociofugal, fairly simple grid, uptown/downtown system. In contrast, my commute took about 2 hours with some time getting lost and trying to figure out how much money I had to pay for the different distances. I’ll number it:
1. Osaka Monorail – Shibahara Station to Kadomashi (end of line) – 510 yen
2. Transfer to Keihan train line – Kadomashi to Kyobasi – 230 yen
3. Transfer to Osaka Loop line – Kyobashi to Morinomiya – 120 yen
4. Transfer to Chuo subway line – Morinomiya to Osakako – 270 yen
To complicate things more, each line has similar uptown/downtown directions, except now I have to memorize double the number of random Japanese names to recognize the direction. Oh and don’t rush it, because you might get on one of the 4 types of express trains that stops on the same track. Now one might ask, why don’t you just follow the map, like many of the locals would to make sure they’re going the right way? One reason is the chicken scratch that I can’t tell apart from kee-kee-kah-kah and gobbildy-gook. The next is the fact that each line has a different map. They tried fitting all of the trains on a single map, but it hurts my eyes and it’s just too damn confusing. So now I have 5 maps scribbled with English phonetics packed nicely in my bag for Osaka. There will probably be 5 more maps for every city I plan to visit. If I come back with a bad shoulder, the maps are to blame.
Although not everything from this train experience was a nightmare. I have to admit that I had gotten lost quite a few times, but I resorted to my secret of weapon of looking like a tourist and asking for directions with my broken Japanese. Switching between maps and then trying to connect dots is an annoyance, but completely doable. If there are troubles with reading the map, you could just go to the help window next to all ticket counters and ask “ wa ikura des ka?” and you’ll just get the price of the ticket to buy at the little ticket booths. Keep in mind that you will still need to know which track to get on after buying the ticket, but you could ask a random person “? ::confused tourist look while pointing at a random train::” They will either nod or say a track number (usually in English).
Transportation is considerably expensive, but quite reasonable if you find a hostel or hotel close to the action (main attractions). I don’t expect anyone to spend more than $10 one-way to anywhere within the city bounds. Each train or subway line charges different amounts for the approximate distances you travel, but since these rates vary so much, the companies can just charge whatever based on speed and maybe train maintenance costs?
The stations are very clean, despite the lack of garbage receptacles. I might just be spoiled by NYC and the garbage can on every street corner. It’s interesting to note that NYC, with all those trash bins, is still so dirty. I mean, c’mon, walk a few more steps to get it into the plastic bag. It must be the mentality. Every store would be a thief’s dream. There is hardly any security and everything is just based on that trust. Even the supermarkets don’t really have barcodes or surveillance cameras anywhere. They don’t even put up fake scanners at the door to show some effort. There is just so much trust between the stores and the people. Maybe it’s the pride in the job that makes each individual to avoid the lie, cheat, and steal endless possibilities. That honor is a result of this culture’s discipline, and I have no other criticisms. I respect the society’s relationship and friendly nature.
Even the tight jeans, bleached hair, random shards of metal wearing generation answers questions with a smile and tries very hard to communicate. They always bow after everything as if they are apologizing for not accommodating me, when I am clearly the one who should be embarrassed for not speaking their language in their country. It would be as if I apologized to a German-speaking person who asked me for directions if I could only answer with pointing. I don’t think the thought of apologizing for me not being able to speak German would come to mind. If anything, I’d be angry that this arrogant guy came to America without learning at least some English.
Us Americans are such arrogant pricks. We have so much to learn from other countries regarding courtesy, etiquette, and manners. It doesn’t really make sense where all those friendly faces went in the past 200 years. We’re essentially built as a melting pot of cultures. You can’t tell me we just got the angry attitudes out of all of them and left out most of the nicer traditions. (I’ll avoid insulting Italian, British, Chinese, and Indian stereotypes in this blog – stated because I could have had it as a nice follow up supporting sentence.) It’s hard to imagine that type of community from the majority of the people living in the city.
Oh well. I’m so glad we rule the world. Haha.
~See Lemons Lost in Transportation

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Random Observation/Comment #1: The sink is too low for teeth brushing comfort.
I woke up at 7 (because of jetlag), and proceeded to roll around my bed and listen to some Japanese lessons for the next hour. The few phrases I know, I know very well, due to its frequent usage for finding directions. The responses, on the other hand, become too complex and I resort to just asking if they understand English. For the most part, people know to use simpler words like “kore” for “this one”, or just point in the general direction. I’m glad they are so helpful or else I would be stuck somewhere in a station. Unfortunately, Japanese resort to the most polite form of speaking when talking to strangers to show respect, but actually make it much more complicated to understand for the beginner to intermediate speaker. To me, it’s like hearing the difference of “To which destination do you wish to arrive, sir?” instead of “where are you going?” There are those who speak English, so it was not too difficult.
The commute to Osakako took 2 hours and 4 transfers, but I eventually made it. Besides the inability to read the signs or order food, I guess it wasn’t that bad. The trains can be mortifyingly scary at first, but the system is optimized.
When you get to the station, follow the huge ferris wheel to the aquarium. The ferris wheel is 600 yen per person, so we decided to just look at it spin a few times and take pictures in front of it. There’s probably a beautiful view of the countryside and city contrast, but I spent the money on a dozen takoyaki instead :D. Tako means octopus and yaki means fried, so think of it as Chinese fishballs made with octopus and some dough cooked with a waffle iron. The result is a heavenly bouncy texture with a taste of a seafood type of sweet in a spicy and vineagary sauce. It’s a little difficult to explain, but completely a must.
Anyway, the 2000 yen ticket was worth the 4 hours and 300 pictures I took in the aquarium. The underwater zoo was filled with so many lazy and pampered fish. They just swam in circles all day. I wonder if they know they’re being watched and that their existence is simply to swim around for our entertainment. Some of the playful animals like sea lions, penguins, dolphins, and even rays come right up to the glass to explore what I could only imagine as a blur of colors mixed with its own reflection. I think the rays are trying to eat the glass because they always have those smiley faced mouths moving along the surface. Maybe they’re just trying to say hello…
Every aquarium basically has the same thing, but this one was unique in its architecture. It was organized to make the walk spiraling down the building as an adventure explaining the sea creatures living at different depths. Because this place is such a large tourist attraction, the small blurbs about the animals in the tank were omitted since everyone just puts their nose against the glass and takes pictures. The glass panes were huge (approximately 8’ tall and varied 10-15’ wide) and the entire museum was basically a large hallway with these tanks on either side that go straight down to the bottom floor. The top is a forest and then it progresses to amphibians and fresh water fish. From there it goes to salt water and deep sea fish. And finally it ends with the jellyfish area.
The pictures do a better job of describing the details of these fish and other creatures, but there were a few noteworthy tanks. Eric captured a video of an octopus climbing across the glass, which looked incredible. The sardines were plentiful and kept swimming around in circles to make what seemed to be a fish tornado. A penguin pushed another penguin into the water, like a pirate slowly taunting a sailor walking the plank with sharp jabs of his blade. Except when the penguin does it, it’s much cuter.
All of the sea otters were lying on their backs floating in the water or pouched on some wood pieces sleeping the day away. Two of them were doing what looked like 69ing each other. I wish I had taken a video. The main tank in the center of the building has a lot of different types of rays and fish. The main attraction is this huge-ungous (or gi-normous) whale shark that’s followed around by a swarm of yellow fish. Circling close by to the whale shark are schools of these heads with very shiny heads and large jaws. They swim in circles with their mouths wide open. Their heads look like it’s covered in aluminum foil. And of course saving the best for last: sea turtles. Words do not begin to explain my obsession with turtles and pandas. They’re just so damn cool.
I had met up with the Erics and Laurie at the aquarium, so there were tons of pictures of people with fish, instead of just fish. Pictures do seem much more interesting when there are people you know in it. It takes it away from just cutting out a picture from a magazine because you have this evidence of being a part of the experience. Along with these pictures with company also comes the random conversations and little inside jokes formed in the whole process. It’s this point that makes my single traveling a bit lonesome.
When I looked around and saw all the families and friends taking pictures of each other, I was tempted to walk up to them and ask if I could join their group. It would probably be very awkward if this were attempted, especially since I wouldn’t even know how to ask if I could join them in walking around the aquarium. On the other hand, any obvious foreigners or tourists I see traveling alone give me the impression that they’re undercover spies scoping out the place with their shifty eyes and questionable intentions. If I talked to them, I might end up swimming with the fish instead of pretend swimming… with the fish. Awh Hell no – I’ll risk not being in a few pictures.
After looking at the fish through thick glass panes, we switched to seeing 3D versions of fish through large 80’s headgear in an IMAX show. Apparently the screen was the largest in the world, but for some reason I think I’ve heard that for another IMAX theater. It was extremely educational and interesting to hear the narration from none other than Jack Sparrow. He didn’t have the same flamboyant voice, but I still pictured him doing the funny hand gestures while explaining each underwater miracle of life. It was basically the explanation of the circle of underwater life, and how every little fish and animal keeps the balance. The overpopulation of any species would tip the scale too much and kill even more life.
The key feature was the very detailed footage of fish living with each other. I never knew scallops made squeaky sounds and ran away by clamping together. Poor king star fish for not catching anything the entire 45 minute film. And don’t forget the really creepy whale eye or the praying mantis shrimp poking its little head out of the hole. Don’t forget to purchase a combination IMAX and admission ticket for a 500 yen savings. There are also student discounts for the IMAX showing.
~See Lemons Wave at Fishies

photo by: yasuyo