Tuesday, May 25, 2010

In Defense of Walking

I should be asleep because I have class in nine hours (it's 12:39 am on Wednesday morning here in Japan), but screw it, I'm writing this post.

Today, I marked an epic milestone in my three-month long trip to Japan: I bought new insoles for my New Balance walking shoes. For those of you who have never owned New Balances, they're tough shoes. I have the 845s, which are the successor to the long-loved 844s. I've worn the same model of shoe, or practically the same model of shoe, for the last five or six years. If there's any shoe I know, it's these shoes.

And so, when I tell you that I have never, ever, had to replace the insoles on these shoes, I hope you believe me. But here we are, six weeks into my trip in Japan, and I have walked enough that I must replace them or die first. The shoes were brand-new when I left the US on April 6, 2010; it's now May 26, 2010, and they're getting a replacement pair of insoles already. Besides the dirt from regular use, the outer parts of the shoes don't even show any wear-and-tear.

As an American, and particularly, an American who hasn't been physically active for many years, this amazes me. I have literally never walked this much in my life.

Tokyo is a city that is built for walking with residential areas radiating out from central stations that have adjoining commercial centers. Which isn't to say that there aren't stores far from stations or houses close to stations, but that's the basic principle of the place. There are stairs everywhere, and while there are elevators and escalators on some train platforms, the stairs are often more convenient. On top of that, because of the way the city is laid out in general, I have the ability to walk ten minutes from my house and get the majority of my daily shopping done, including groceries from the supermarket. If I want to go farther afield, I have a choice of taking the regular trains or the subway; I can go shopping at various other stores including in a covered shopping arcade; and I can choose from a wide variety of bars.

Once I hop on a train, I can walk practically anywhere from whatever station I end up at. For example, Shinjuku, a favorite of mine, has large-size women's clothing (Isetan, my dearest expensive department store friend), a Kinokinuya bookstore with English books, and all the arcades and karaoke you could want within a 15 minute walk from the station. But when I go out, I don't usually go out to one place, so I end up walking and walking, just looking and enjoying myself.

Take today, for instance.

I walked from my house to the local station, which is 900 m each way, a little more than a half mile. I took the train to Takadanobaba, where my school is, after transferring once within Ikebukuro station. I walked from Takadanobaba station to my school and went to class. Then, I went from the school, past the station, and walked a few blocks more to go to the cheap udon/soba place with my friend, Kim (last-name). We didn't go very fast, since Kim is almost six months pregnant, but we walked it all. We ate lunch at the udon/soba place, walked back the way we had come from school, and got on the train at the Takadanobaba station. We rode down to Shinjuku and then navigated the positively gigantic Shinjuku station, until we figured out the right exit to take for Tokyu Hands, a lifestyle/home goods/random stuff store we wanted to visit. Ten minutes from the Shinjuku station, we got to Tokyu Hands, which was delightfully in the same building as the Prada and Gucci stores; we gazed adoringly at the extremely expensive stuff we can't afford. An hour and change later, we had covered two floors of Tokyu Hands, both bought lots of stuff, and were ready to go home. Walking the entire time, mind you, as women do while shopping together.

God, this is long, so let's do a paragraph break! Feel free to visit the bathroom and replenish your beverage. =)

Ok, so then ten minutes back to Shinjuku station, onto the train again, and we set off on our separate ways, Kim for home, me to kill time. I rode the train to Ueno station, exited at the Park Gate, and spent a delightful hour and change in Ueno Park. I saw a Japanese bagpipe player, a pair of acrobats/jugglers/balloon animal creators, and had an ice cream cone. It was lovely and cool in the park, very leafy and green. It was considerably smaller than I thought, but it still took me fifteen minutes to get back to Ueno station to go home, once I decided to leave. Back home I went, and this time, instead of the standard 900 m, I ended up wandering around my neighborhood. About a 1.5km walk back instead, which isn't that bad. Maybe a little less than a mile.

And that was my day in Tokyo, ladies and gentlemen, which is a completely typical day for me. Sometimes I walk more and sometimes I walk less. I did all of this today in 86 degree heat because it was either walk or go nowhere at all. That's the beauty of Tokyo that you have to move, if you don't want to sit in your house.

Now, contrast that directly with the US, where we drive in most areas. I live in the middle of a suburban oasis--suburbia prime, as my friend Spencer calls it. Even if there were places within walking distance, I can't get there safely because of 40mph roads right outside my housing development. If I want to go anywhere, I must drive. I get no exercise like this at all. And the great thing is that it doesn't even really feel like exercise, although I do admit that my feet hurt most days.

I wish the US was more like Japan in this very aspect. I know that you can get a similar experience in urban areas, but it's very, very unlikely in the vast majority of the country. In Japan, pedestrians are respected and encouraged; in the US, pedestrians are often in imminent danger whenever they step onto the street. I wish the US was built for walking like this, and that more people took advantage of it. Want to stop childhood obesity and make all Americans healthier in general? Then make them walk everyday, even if it's just a mile. The results add up, trust me.

I am not on a diet. I eat something sweet everyday, usually a piece of cake or a confection. I do not count my calories while I'm here.

I've lost 10 lbs (11 lbs, when the scale is having a good day) in six weeks.

But it's more than just the 10 lbs that I've lost, since I'm fairly sure I've gained muscle, too. Because besides those 10 lbs, I've lost 2.5" off of my waistline, 1.5" off of my hips, and 3" off of my bust. And had to buy new insoles after just six weeks, even though I was fairly immobile for two to three weeks, due to two sprained ankles. I've dropped at least one clothing size, if not two.

All because of walking.

Top that, America.


Kristin Laughtin said...

Agreed, and I was quite jealous as you described all the places you can walk! I do live in an area where I can walk to nearby shopping if I want to, and often do unless it's for groceries (because I tend to go rarely, so when I do, I stock up). I can take the bus to work right now, but when I move, I'll have to start driving part of the way again unless I want to change buses three times, with a half-hour wait at least between each bus. I wish we had more of a walking culture and better public transportation in general in the U.S.

David said...

I don't know about US cities, but in North America, Vancouver has the reputation of being laid out in a way that encourages walking.

When we were last there, we were struck by the number of fit-looking people walking about vigorously. That included older people, not just young ones.

Deb Salisbury said...

Oh, I am so jealous! In a good way, though. :-)

What a wonderful place for walking. I also wish more of the US was build like that.

Kalika said...

I walked a lot while I was in Japan too, and yet didn't lose a gram. Unfair!

Nadine said...

Congratulations, that is awesome!! So glad you are having a wonderful time in Japan and yay for the walking!!

Jodi Meadows said...

I really wish there were more walk-friendly areas here, too. Unfortunately, one of the problems with living in the middle of nowhere is that nowhere is close to walk to. (I may be able to walk to a grocery store, but it's not a great one, and there's still a chance I will die when I head onto the highway. There's not a sidewalk.)

ryan field said...

You're right. We only walk when we're in urban areas in the US. I even drive to Washington Crossing State Park to run in the morning because it's not safe to jog on the roads where I live in PA.

This is why I love Provincetown, MA, so much. When I'm there, I park the car for the entire time and just walk.

Soratian said...

Agree with you completely about walking. Singapore's great for walking except for the heat, which makes it pretty much unbearable after 15 minutes or so. Vancouver's lovely for walking--I generally think most cities are.

But when my husband worked in an outskirt of Chicago and walked to work, it was as you said, putting himself in imminent danger. He lived across a freeway from a hospital but there was actually no way to walk there.

I like how in Japan, you can find entire buildings under the freeways :) They just don't waste any space.