Directions revisited

Editor’s note: Again, this is a blog post from the past that I updated for a newspaper column. Thought the new version was better than the old, so I hope you enjoy it the second time around.


My life has become dependent on a little blue dot.

This little blue dot I am referring to is the directional decoder on the google maps app on my smart phone.

Of course, I still use the older version of google maps that came with the cell phone I bought when I moved to last year.

Before moving here I had to discontinue my Sprint plan and now my Blackberry sits in a drawer alongside other obsolete devices such as a Flip video camera and mp3 player.

When I canceled my Sprint services, of which I had been a customer of 10 years, I literally called from the airport as I was ready to board the plane to Tokyo. The customer service manager asked why I was leaving Sprint. “Because I’m moving to Tokyo. You don’t have service in Tokyo.”

“That’s a good reason,” he said.

Anyway, I’m not one to upgrade technology until I absolutely have to. I ignore all of the update messages on my laptop and cell phone because I have heard too many horror stories of an update process wiping clean an address book or filling ungodly amounts of space on a hard drive.

Sure, I’m paranoid. But I’m perfectly fine with what I have already and I don’t trust people smarter than me (namely IT folk).

So the next time I upgrade my cell phone will probably be when they start implanting computer chips in our heads. In the meantime, I follow around the little blue dot on my google maps app like a geezer on the beach follows his metal detector.

This map app blows me away. If you want directions by public transportation, even here in Tokyo, you dial in your destination and it will give you the quickest route, even telling you which train line to take, along with departure times.

If you are walking, it leads you through these dark alleys and back yards, yet you still wind up at whatever watering hole you are stumbling to.

Of course, there are some kinks.

When disembarking from a train station, it takes a few minutes for the app to recalibrate. For instance, one night I emerged from Shibuya Station, which is crazy crowded. Shibuya Crossing is known as the busiest intersection in the world, and is featured in the movie “Lost in Translation,” if you have ever watched it.

When you emerge from Shibuya Station, and you want to get your bearings on your google map, it takes a few minutes to shake things out. Everybody else at Shibuya is also on their cell phone, so the signal can be disrupted pretty easily.

So that’s the scene. I was on the curb of Shibuya Crossing, at the edge of a stream of literally hundreds of passerby, with the glow of my cell phone illuminating my face like Tinkerbell, discerning my orientation. I was meeting some friends at Las Chicas, one of the few overpriced Mexican restaurants in Tokyo, which was in nearby Jingumae. Google maps said it was a 15 minute walk.

Unfortunately, the blue dot had not caught up to my current location. In fact, it told me I was standing on the opposite side of Shibuya Station.

Finally, the coordinates clicked in a satellite somewhere in deep space, and the little blue dot glided across my iPhone screen like the puck on the easy levels of Pong.

However, the next step was to decide which direction I needed to walk. The unfortunate feature of my google maps app is that all of the landmarks (except for McDonald’s, KFC and 7-11) are written in Japanese.

See, when you plug in your directions, the app gives you this blue line that leads you to a pin at your destination. If you are going the right way, the little blue dot will follow along this blue line.

If you are going the wrong direction, which is always the case for me, the blue dot wanders off into no man’s land. Also known as Harajuku.

So at the beginning of my trek, I began walking in one direction to make sure the blue dot followed the blue line. Since 100 percent of the time, it does not, I then had to reorient myself.

Once on my way to a job interview, I had to recalibrate my google map directions five times. That’s right. Do the math.

You would think you just have to turn around and go in the opposite direction. But in Tokyo, the streets do not run north, south, east and west. They criss cross, they curve, they go diagonal, they run into dead ends.

You see, after Tokyo was decimated with bombs in World War II there was a frantic land grab. All of the land, which was previously owned by a few rich families, was for sale to public citizens for the first time ever. Buildings and homes started to pop up on whatever chunk of land people were able to buy. Then they had to build streets to circumvent this mess.

The streets of Tokyo are very similar to the streetscapes I designed on the Super Nintendo version of Sim City when I was 9 years old.

So when giving directions in Tokyo, if my wife tells me to take a right, my usualy reply is, “Which right? There are three rights.”

However, the google maps app has never let me down.

I get a kick whenever I see other Americans striding down the sidewalk with their eyes glued to the smart phone held out in front of them like a divining rod. I feel like I am part of a club.

Though instead of upgrading to the latest iPhone or Galaxy, I’ll probably just buy a map and compass.

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