(Part One here)
Within a couple of days of my trip to Ise, I checked out of my apartment in Nagoya and boarded the shinkansen to Yokohama (south of Tokyo). I was returning to a favorite and familiar place and was full of energy edged with a bit of trepidation. Many months over the last two years of living in Japan have taught me that if a plan seems easy, then I better be extra-aware because there’s likely to be a hitch, and it usually involves getting from Point A to Point B.
My mission for the day was to make my connecting trains in Yokohama to Kawasaki City, where I would go to the Leopalace office to pick up my keys for my new apartment, and go to the apartment, only a few trains stops away. My PC had sent me clear instructions, a letter in Japanese for the Leopalace office staff with maps to the office and to the apartment. I was also told that if I wanted someone to meet me to help do all of this, they would certainly send an escort. This is the norm for new and returning teachers. Westgate staff meets us at the airport and hands us off from one staff person to another until we’re set up in our new apartment.
In my case, someone would have met me at the train station and gone with me through the process of getting the keys and finding my new apartment had I accepted the offer. But I felt, and maybe my support at Westgate also believed (or at least wanted to give me the option), that this was something I could do on my own since this was now my fifth apartment I was moving into and I knew the drill. So I declined the offer and took up the challenge. We agreed that I could call if I needed help.
The trouble started in Yokohama. For me, it’s the most challenging station and I consider it a personal victory if I get where I want to be in one go. As per the usual, I was immediately confused when I exited the ticket gate, and wasn’t exactly consoled when I asked a station attendant for directions to my connecting line. With a look of puzzlement and then astonishment, he repeated “Nambu? Ah, Nambu?!”, sucked air through his teeth a bit, shuffled things on his desk, consulted the map on the wall and then gave me the correct directions.
I should mention here that I was carrying a lot of baggage. (Literally, not figuratively!) Because I was staying in Japan for several more weeks, I had things I normally would have donated, but still needed in my new place. So, embarrassingly, I had a small roller bag, a daypack, two full shopping bags and my purse.
Also, assuming incorrectly this was going to be a smooth ordeal, I had made plans to meet a friend later in the afternoon, so I was feeling the time pressure. (We eventually connected and canceled our date, but it was my only chance to see her before she left Japan, so I was distraught about that.)
I arrived at Musashi-mizonkuchi Station, near the place where I was to pick up my keys. With map in hand, I headed in the direction of the Leopalace office. The streets near this station angle off in diagonals from the adjacent bus terminal, and those diagonals criss-cross with other streets. Also, few roads in Japan have street signs and those that do are usually in Japanese. So I had that going for me. Leopalace is a large chain of apartments and the one that Westgate uses to house their teachers. The flyers that are occasionally put in our mailboxes have “Leopalace” in English, if not the rest of the text, and that’s what I was looking for in my search. Oh, grasshopper, have you learned nothing yet?
After meandering around the mishmash of narrow streets, scrutinizing every English word I saw and definitely looking like the novice I was feeling, I started accosting innocent passers-by, showing them my map and asking if they knew the location. The fourth person I asked confidently directed me down and around the block. Finally. With many arigatos and half-bows, I propelled myself to a place that was not the Leopalace office, but the… Royale Palace. A pachinko (gambling) arcade. Sigh.
The next person got it a little closer. He and his colleague were outside of a restaurant handing out flyers. When I showed him my map and asked my question, he conferred with his partner and told me to follow him.
And this is another charming thing about Japan: often when you ask someone for directions and they know, they will stop whatever they’re doing and take you to the place. Maybe because it’s easier than trying to give verbal directions, but several times someone who speaks English just fine has walked with me to make sure I get where I need to be.
So my new guide escorted me down the nearby side street and pointed up. Three flights up a narrow outer staircase was a door with some Japanese script written on it, which my guide indicated was the Leopalace office. OK. Seemed a little odd, but he’d know better than me. More arigatos and bowing and I began my ascent (with aforementioned baggage).
I set my things down and began to open the door which was actually the back of the office. An office worker quickly greeted me. I showed her my papers and a light when on in her eyes. Follow me. We proceeded back down the staircase (baggage attached to my person). We began to walk around the building. Uh-oh. On the opposite side of where we had just been, we entered an elevator, attempting the usual awkward, stilted conversation using the spare words we knew of each other’s language. Three flights up, we exited the elevator and entered the front of the Leopalace office. I was 15 feet from the back door where I had just been. Protocol is protocol.
After some confusion about why I was there (even though I had just given them the letter from my PC explaining that I was there to pick up keys to an apartment rented to me), I relented and called Westgate. As soon as they answered, another Leopalace staffer who spoke almost perfect English magically appeared. Within minutes, I had my keys and copies of signed documents, and returned to the station to continue down the line to my new apartment. (I often wonder how the conversation goes in a Japanese office after assisting some hapless foreigner.)
You’d think it would be cake from here, wouldn’t you? I did and I was wrong.
I got on the train, gathering my things about me in an effort to make myself less obtrusive than I already was. For all the confusion and exertion of the last couple of hours, I was feeling satisfied that the mission was accomplished and with only one phone call for assistance. At the same time, I knew it wasn’t over ’till I was in my apartment, Internet connected, and was confident all systems were in working order.
And I was still sitting there many minutes later. Now what? Usually a train stops just long enough for passengers to exit and enter. Finally we were moving – in the opposite direction that I needed to go. Rawwwwrr. Rawrrrrrrrrr! But I couldn’t scream that out loud because then I’d be the crazy gaijin with her many bags, looking abandoned and lost. But I wasn’t lost! I’d been on this train and at this station many times when I lived nearby last term. Why was I getting this wrong?
Because I’d forgotten that there are three tracks here: one goes that direction, one goes in another direction and the center track comes from the opposite direction, stops for 15 minutes and returns from whence it just came. And that was the train I was on now. Rawrrrrrr.
All I could do was sit still until we came to the next station, get off, cross over the station bridge to the opposite side and wait for the train that would take me to Nakanoshima Station. I arrived, exited the station, consulted my map and without one mistake or backtrack, found my apartment block.
And you’d think this tale would be over, wouldn’t you? I did and I was wrong.
Yes, I found a Leopalace apartment. I found #303, the door to match the number on my key and documents. I put the key in the lock like I’ve done a hundred or a thousand times over the last two years. And it didn’t open. The key didn’t work. The sun was now starting to set. I was getting chilly and a few scenarios started running through my mind: 1) I was given the wrong key. Not likely, as careless mistakes in this situation don’t happen that often. 2) I could call Leopalace via Westgate and someone could come out with a different key. But then they’d try my key again and it would work and I’d be a dork. I tried my key again. Still no luck. 3) I could go back to the Leopalace office. Also not a likely option, since I didn’t want to and it was probably closed now anyway.
I left my baggage (which I was beginning to hate while wondering where I’d gone wrong in my minimalistic endeavors) and walked around the building. Hey ho, there was another Leopalace-looking building just right there. I ran over, took the stairs two at a time to the third floor and with hopeful, but cautious ambition, slid my key in. Nope. Didn’t work. I repeated the scenarios in my head.
I knew I was in the right place. My maps showed that clearly. I was standing in front of the Leopalace sign on the wall. I looked carefully at my key. I compared the Japanese characters on the sign to those on my key. They did not match.
I walked around some more and saw yet another apartment building. The characters on the sign and my key matched. This looked hopeful. I repeated my two-at-a-time dash to the third floor. The happiest sound I heard all day was the satisfying click of my key.
Later, when I told friends, including Westgate staff, about my adventure (“…and then I accidentally tried to break in to two other apartments…”), no one had ever heard of three Leopalace apartment buildings being together like that.
I spirited my crumpled bags onto the floor of my squeaky clean and welcoming apartment (which felt like my reward for the day’s efforts), immediately checked that the appliances and heating worked and connected my Internet, because I wanted to know ASAP if I had any other surprises to deal with this night.
And you’d think that, as I did, finally, at last, this day would end. And you and I would both be right.
Later, I slept the deep sleep of a weary traveler (I’d only “traveled” two hours from Nagoya on a cushy bullet train! It was everything after my arrival that exhausted me), content that my immediate world was in order and ecstatic about meeting friends in Tokyo the next evening! (Part Three, coming up.)