Monday, September 10, 2012

Sense of Direction, Sense of Place

We got back from Hakodate last week. I'm still dealing with the pictures I took so a post about it will have to wait a while; in short it was fun, the food was great, but the weather too hot.

Meanwhile, something odd happened to me on the subway this morning: I suddenly, without warning, lost my sense of direction and my sense of place.

It was a temporary thing and I'm fine again. I knew where I was — on the subway, standing at Tanimachi 4-chome station, on the way to work. But I suddenly didn't feel where anything else was.

We're constantly moving in an invisible location field of our own making. Face a direction and you just know what landmarks are located that way. And when you recall a particular place in the area — home, a nearby train station, the NAIST cafeteria — you'll intuit the direction and distance without thinking; I experience it almost as if a heat lamp is shining on my face from the right direction. That's how you can walk towards a place without a map and without having to explicitly plan your route every step of the way.

This sense of place suddenly disappeared. I didn't forget anything and I wasn't confused, but I could no longer say what direction I was facing or which direction the train would be moving. I could no longer tell the direction to common landmarks such as home, the previous station or Osaka castle. In fact, I could no longer say anything about what lay beyond my line of sight without explicitly digging through my memories. I could tell what the street above the station looks like only by a conscious effort to recall the stairwell beyond the ticket gate, then follow it in my mind up to the street level.

The feeling wasn't scary, just, well, …odd; similar to a feeling of deja vu, perhaps. I realized we see everything in relation to our location, but now I was experiencing the station, the train and myself without the context of place. It felt liberating in a way, as if I was seeing it all clearer and more objectively without the added clutter of other things in the area. It would be severely debilitating — not to mention frightening — to lose this sense of place permanently, but as a temporary effect it was quite interesting.

The doors closed, the train started moving again, and gradually my sense of place returned. By the time we reached the next station it was fully back and only the odd memory of it remained. Why did it happen? No idea; it's the first time. It's listed as one effect of dementia, but the described symptoms differ from my experience. I put it down simply to stress and lack of sleep.


  1. Hello,
    I'm a Danish guy about to move to Osaka to study, and I found your blog, searching for information on this unique city. After reading a couple of these blogs, I'm happy that I stumbled upon this one, since it's really creative, well thought out, and quirky. Reading blogs on Japan you really get to miss the Scandinavian perspective. Therefore - Mange tak! (eller "tack" ^^)
    Anyways, just wanted to comment and say, that this is a really great blog - that's it. ^^;

    -Best Wishes

  2. interesting. I think quite a few people would class it as some spiritual experience , some like self realisation. it's what a lot of people are looking for!

  3. Welcome to Osaka, Anonymous! Good timing; the summer heat is finally slowly subsiding.

    Jon, It felt spiritual in the same way deja vu is spiritual - not very, in other words. But interesting, definitely.

  4. Is it possible to live and communicate in Osaka without knowing Japan? I'm not sure if I could learn it fast there, but the country is really amazing.

  5. Gregory, yes you can live her without knowing any Japanese. But just like anywhere you are fairly limited if you don't know the language. Imagine if you did not know your language in your own country and had to point and gesticulate when buying things, or rely on random strangers to translate; and things such as paperwork becomes an extra burden.

    But yes, absolutely doable. I did not know a word of Japanese when I came here and I'm still around after all :)


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