Distortion of distance

At the time of writing I’ve been in Singapore 10 days out of my three-week vacation, typing this up in my parents’ house in Taman Jurong. One very significant change I’ve noticed in me being in this environment, so familiar yet so foreign, is my attitude towards distance.

I spent 23 years of my life in Singapore, and I remember hating walking home from the MRT station. I spent two decades in Taman Jurong, and the distance from my parents’ home to Lakeside MRT station is 1.3 km, about 16 minutes on foot. When it was time for me to look for a flat, I made sure that it either be not too far away an MRT station or be served by several buses. I ended up buying a flat in a block that was right behind a bus stop, served by about six buses. I ended up never living in that flat, but that’s a story for another day. Anyway, it was of utmost importance that I lived in a place that connected me to as many of the places I frequented, in as short a time as possible.

When I was 23 I moved to Gunma Prefecture, living in a city in the lowlands (i.e. almost-Saitama). The city’s name is Ota, and while it isn’t completely rural, it’s no metropolis (it’s where the Subaru headquarters are, so it’s like… Johor Bahru I guess?). I had no driver’s licence and no car, so I had to bike or walk if I wanted to go somewhere. My first week in the city I walked 25 minutes to the nearest supermarket, got lost on the way back because it had gotten dark and there were very few street lights to illuminate my landmarks, knocked on the door of a house in the middle of a rice field, and got a lift from the very kind family who lived there back to my apartment. It was quite an adventure, and also my first real taste of living in a place that had such a low population density, a place that was so spread out.

A couple months into my life in Japan I got really good at riding my bicycle. I realised I didn’t mind biking five kilometres into the main part of the city, because I wanted to attend church. Technically, I lived one train stop away from the station that served my church, but trains ran infrequently on my line (again, not a metropolis) and I either had to arrive at church very early or slightly late if I wanted to ride the train. I figured that since I was getting confident on my vehicle, I might as well use it to transport me over greater distances.

You know how in Singapore there are bus stops everywhere? I chanced upon a video made by this Japanese guy vlogging his travels in Singapore, and he timed how long it took from one stop to another:

It took 30 seconds.

Not saying that every bus stop is 30 seconds away from the next, but seriously, most are, and that’s actually… I don’t know, privilege? The bottom line is, Singaporeans get to live in a lot of convenience. In Ota, bus stops were merely erected in a tiny radius from the main station, Ota. Anywhere beyond the main station – my area included – wasn’t served by buses. In fact, this is characteristic not only to Ota, but also to many parts of Japan that are similar to Ota (semi-rural, suburban-ish, not quite a bustling city but still industrially significant), which is actually a lot of the country.

There were other things, like having to spend two-and-a-half hours on a train just to get into Tokyo, and being thankful when I moved to the city beside Ota and had that journey reduced to one-and-a-half hours, since the line that runs through this other city has more trains. Also, when we moved to this new city, we had to commute to our workplaces by car, and driving yourself for 50 minutes one-way really makes you enjoy long train or bus rides because you get to go from one place to another without expending too much effort or energy. (I mean, I enjoy driving, but there are nights when you’re so tired and you have to drive for over an hour because you have to pick up your husband before heading home and really don’t feel like you can get yourself home without falling asleep at the wheel but still have to… It’s a real struggle. There was once I got into an accident because of said struggle, but you know how I roll with mentions of these episodes – another story for another day.)

It was things like that that slowly changed my perception of distance. I started thinking: if I can browse the shops in a mall for one whole hour, what is walking 35 minutes from Ginza to Akihabara? If I have biked for 30 minutes every week for six months just to get to my driving school to obtain my driver’s licence, the 30-minute drive to a concert hall to watch my friend conduct is infinitely easier. And, when I come back to Singapore, I think about how I spend one hour and 15 minutes on the train to get to Tokyo from my home, which seems long, but actually covers 90 km, while Lakeside to Changi Airport is about 40 km, and the journey takes the same amount of time – so why not take the train home instead of cabbing it? It’s also incredibly cheap – a trip from my home to Ueno costs about 1300 yen (more than 15 SGD), whereas a trip from Changi Airport to Lakeside is less than 2 SGD. Similarly, I think about how there are no buses serving my area in Japan, and end up having no qualms spending an hour riding buses in Singapore because the buses take me right to my block, or at least within reasonable walking distance!

It’s not only this kind of point-A-to-point-B sort of distance that I perceive differently now. Even vertical distance seems shorter to me in Singapore – my parents live on the sixth floor, and during this trip I realise how easy it is to scale the steps. The flights of stairs seem so conquerable after climbing so many stairs in Japan (back in Ota my train station platform was accessible only via stairs). Especially now that the Circle Line and the Downtown Line is up – I can get from Serangoon to Lakeside within an hour! I used to think Serangoon was freaking far away, and it probably still is, but an hour is short to me now. Also I just tried GrabHitch yesterday, and I got from Taman Jurong to Sengkang in 30 minutes for 15 SGD. Sengkang. For 15 SGD. That’s so cheap.

I think it’s amusing to observe how 23-year-old me would’ve gone: omg an hour on the train that’s so long, but 30-year-old me is very impressed with the Singaporean infrastructure that allows me to get from most Point As to Point Bs in under a mere hour, for a very decent price.

Until you decide to buy a car, of course.

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