today, in a departure from what i usually write about, i’d like to talk about something i noticed from my recent trip to kyoto, japan for the association for asian studies in asia conference

throughout my adult life, i have lived mostly in cities–chicago, boston, taichung, and taipei for the most part. most of these cities do have some sort of grid, even if it merely surrounds or is superimposed upon an earlier, less rational system

one of the wonderful things about living in chicago, in contrast to boston, is that the city grid and system of street numbers makes the city incredibly easy to navigate. although it might take a few years of residence intuitively to feel one’s relationship to the lake and thus to cardinal directions, an address like 1500 north on pulaski (which is 4000 west) has a clear location on a cartesian grid and is easy to locate even for the most challenged of visitors–or new cab drivers. yet even boston, with its maze of alleys and off-kilter grids, is not that difficult to navigate, even if asking for directions causes one to realize that a southerner will never quite get the boston accent (or the fondness for dunkin’ donuts)

in taipei, the street numbers on the left and right sides of the street might vary too greatly to know how to find an address (hsining south road in the westgate district is a fine example of this oddity). similarly, the lack of street names in the village where i now live, ‘atolan, is confusing to visitors and even to officials

“what do you mean there is a house number but not a street name? there is a neighborhood number but not a street name? are you sure that there is not a street name?”

“yes! there are no street names here! the address is dulan village, ## lin, ###-#”

“really? ok…”

image of L stop with street grid coordinates, chicago
image of L stop with street grid coordinates, chicago

the shared feature of all of these urbanized spaces is that they have some kind of street number, which depends upon a cartesian grid. even in ‘atolan, the street numbers follow the conventions of smaller hundreds down toward rt 11, the two lane coastal highway, and higher hundreds as one moves toward the back of the village. to the north, the numbers get higher; to the south, the numbers get lower. this does mean that #295 dulan village is across from #335 dulan village–which might make for difficult navigation. but at least there are street numbers arranged in some rational fashion

surprisingly, even in large japanese cities, such as kyoto, this system of street numbers is not in place

we first became aware of this anomaly when taking a cab from nearby the train station to the place in which we were staying in kyoto. the cab driver could find the neighborhood easily enough, but once there, our directions were not clear enough at first to find the street sign for the locksmith shop that would be on the corner near the gravel road in which we would turn to find the cream colored house with orange mailbox. the cab driver had to stop and ask a few people sitting with their coffees at a local tapas place, one of whom looked at the pictures provided by our innkeeper and took us by hand to the corner in question. we thanked her profusely and felt relieved that kyoto people were such friendly types

later, in our journeys through the city, including to a café famous for its 1950s interior, grouchy boss, and delicious doughnuts, we discovered that even relatively well-known destinations had no addresses, leading us to follow directions like, “walk north on the alley after the bridge for 150 meters, then turn at the place where there used to be a large tree.”

at first, one might find the lack of street numbers uninviting. indeed, it is a bit unfriendly to visitors and new residents that one cannot depend upon street numbers to get from place to place. when taking a cab, for example, one would need to know relatively detailed directions. thus the lack of street numbers could be a means to maintain a kind of exclusivity

yet, from another angle, needing to know how to navigate the city from experience rather than a grid might be an invitation to get lost, wander, and discover. no doubt, kyoto, for example, attracts many who want to see the city’s UNESCO world heritage sites; but many other visitors go there expecting to visit a particular café only to discover a completely unexpected by even more charming place once getting lost amid the city’s alleys. however, i think that there is more here than just a kind of tourist experience. indeed, the lack of street numbers may alienate tourists and other visitors to the city. what the city requires is experiences of navigating it on foot, perhaps being led by hand by longterm residents. the lack of street numbers means, in effect, that to know one’s way around kyoto one has to become a local

an invitation to know the city from everyday practices of walking and dwelling

it is for this reason that apart from a few commercial thoroughfares a city like kyoto feels like a collection of neighborhoods or small villages. i am not sure that navigating kyoto requires more knowledge than navigating chicago, but i am certain that this knowledge is of a different, more practical sort. there is a sense that kyoto remains closed to the casual visitor, who will only know kyoto through a course of long walks in which one engages local memories

IMG_4550 (Medium)

how might this differ from the way that the chicago denizen feels the lake even when it is not visible? in other words, what is the relationship between the city grid and one’s sense of place? is it merely superimposition, a process of filling in, or something else? de certeau asked similar questions a few decades ago in his discussion of walking in the city, but in a far too abstract fashion. walking in kyoto (versus in chicago) places these questions in a useful comparative light. i’d be interested in hearing about your experiences of navigating cities as a way to think these questions more fully

(perhaps bringing in sound and our experience of cities)