More Musings about Traveling

Last spring, I had the incredible opportunity of traveling to Japan. It was a wonderful trip, and I can’t wait to return.

Me standing by the Peace Bell at the Hiroshima Peace Park.

I have traveled out of the country twice before, both times to Paris, France. I treasure these trips, not just because they were great experiences, but also because they gave me perspective on what life in some other countries is like. You see new ways of living and doing things, allowing you to reevaluate how you do things at home. For example, in Japan there are strips of tactile pavement all along the sidewalk to help people with visual impairment navigate. But in the US, you really only see these at corners by crosswalks. That was one of the small details I noticed. And in both Japan and France, sales tax is built into the price of a product, so the price you see is the price you pay. That happens some places in the US, but not usually.

Tactile sidewalk stripes in Japan. The dots indicate that there’s a fork or turn in the road. The lines indicate which way to go.

That’s not to say that everything in these other countries is better. In Tokyo at rush hour, the subways are so packed that employees push people to make sure as many people are packed into the subway car as possible.

But one thing that fascinated me about both countries was how connected they were. How easy it was to travel around them. Japan, of course, is famous for its train network which spans the country. Before I went to Japan, I got a Japan Rail Pass, a special pass that allows you to ride on nearly all of the railways and even some ferries and subways. With this one simple booklet, I was able to travel across basically all of Japan.

Put this in contrast to the United States. The US is the third largest country in the world, behind Russia and Canada. But so much of America’s land is just empty space. For example, driving from Albuquerque, New Mexico to a nearby big city, like Austin, Texas, takes about 11 hours. Most of the 700 miles you travel through is barren, undeveloped land. In comparison, Japan’s largest island, Honshu, is about 800 miles from end to end. In fact, riding the shinkansen (bullet train), it takes about 11 hours to go from the southern tip of Kyushu (the southern island) to the southern tip of Hokkaido (the northern island). Similarly, if I were to drive for 11 hours across Europe, I could easily pass through several countries.

This huge amount of space between places is why it’s so difficult to travel in the United States. I have lots of friends in Washington State, but if I want to visit them, I need to either fly to Seattle or spend 3 days driving. Either way it’s going to take me a lot of time and a lot of money. Such an excursion is not a light undertaking, and requires planning and preparation. But in Japan, I could easily purchase a train ticket on to go from the northern half half of the country to the southern half for a day if the mood struck me.

Another consequence of having more space is that cities can expand without limit. For instance, Phoenix, Arizona sits in the middle of the desert with nothing around it. There is nothing to stop the suburbs from winding further and further out into the desert, making the city larger and larger. As a result, Phoenix covers an area of 517 square miles, but only has a population of 1.6 million people. In other countries, cities are constrained either by geography or historic development. Paris can’t grow outwards any more because it is surrounded by hundreds of years of history.

Recently I took a trip to Los Angeles. LA is a classic example of how cities in the US have grown. LA sprawls over a huge area, not all of which is technically Los Angeles. There are many smaller cities, like Burbank, Pasadena, and Torrance. These all bleed into one another, creating a huge urban area that continues for miles and miles. Traveling around the southern California area was almost impossible without a car.

Riding the subway. Luckily I didn’t have to go through at peak time in a big city.

Put this in contrast to Japan. In addition to the trains connecting different cities together, most of Japan’s towns have extensive subway lines. This makes it easy to travel around without a car. Most Japanese also have bicycles that they use to get around. A family might own a single car, but that’s very different from the US where a family might have a car for every member. I often wish that things were closer and public transit in the US was better. When I was an undergraduate, I enjoyed walking and taking the bus. Having to drive can be a pain.

Hopefully advances in transportation technology can bring us all closer together. Having the ability to travel easily allows you to expose yourself to new vistas and viewpoints. It forces you to interact with people outside of your normal circle. And that, I think, is a valuable experience. It helps you to open up to other peoples’ perspectives. When you see how other people live and spend their days, you are able to connect and empathize with them. Realizing that everyone is a part of the same world and that we’re all in this together is something we sorely need.

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