電車 が来てる (or The Densha is Coming)

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*This post should be read as if posted immediately after I left Japan in August 2015.  It took nearly a year of living in Thailand for me to fully reflect on my time in Japan, and to be able to write about some of the more difficult aspects of living there.  These experiences are my own and will differ from others.  I’m still reflecting, still writing, and still laughing at my inability to properly say “the train is coming!”. *

I. TWO YEARS AGO

 

I am in Japan, standing on a train platform. I’m unsure, checking the timetable more than once, listening closely to the English announcement each time it plays. Behind me, office workers beginning their evening commute line up in perfect order, like neatly arranged domino-people waiting their turn.

I am the only foreigner on this platform. I am the only person who does not look like everyone else. My western features act like magnets, attracting a spotlight with every step I take, every action. And with each small movement I make in this new place, I am hyper aware of my otherness.

And of course it’s hellishly hot. They’d told me it would be hot. Multiple people warned me of the humidity before I left. I’d been sure I could handle it. I was wrong. My misery increases as each fat drop of sweat runs down my back, pools in my armpits, or sticks to the backs of my knees. I’ve given up on appearance and piled my hair on top of my head. I’ve even bared my shoulders in an effort to cool myself, but only succeed in getting sunburned, another faux pas. I don’t care anymore because I am in survival mode.

Suddenly there’s a noise, an odd midi collection of bells and chimes accompanied by Japanese that I can’t understand. The train is coming. I glance at the timetable once more to be sure its destination hasn’t changed. I look down at the ground, placing my feet perfectly in line with the arrows directing passengers about to board. I take a small step forward, my toes just touching the yellow danger zone painted on the edge of the platform. The train pulls in, the doors line up with the markings on the ground then open automatically, in unison.

The train is crowded. It is very crowded, in fact. All of the seats are taken and people are standing in the aisle. Salarymen hold their briefcases clasped between their legs, arms raised and hands gripping a dangling ring for balance. Women stand straight, arms pressed tight to their bodies, taking up as little space as possible.

And they all stare.

They all stare at me – out the open door, out the windows, over surgical masks and through stylish glasses. They all stare at me, the strange foreigner on the platform who isn’t entering the car like the rest of the passengers. They stare at me while I stare at them.

I take a step back. The doors close and the train rolls away. There wasn’t enough space for me. I will wait for the next train, a less-crowded car where I can slip in without disrupting people or taking up too much space. But in reality, that particular train will never come.

 

 

II. ONE YEAR, SIX MONTHS AGO

 

I am standing on a train platform in Japan.  I’m going somewhere, meeting friends in the city to begin a weekend of sightseeing. I’ll have to take several different train lines to meet them, but I know the way.

It is cold, very very cold. The heavy humidity of summer lasted far longer than any summer has a right to, but when the seasons changed they changed overnight. Thin, cold, dead air arrived to freeze the trees and frost the empty rice paddies. It doesn’t help that my apartment, the school, and most buildings are colder inside than out due to lack of insulation. As I stand outside watching my breath puff out in front of me, I remember once thinking, foolishly, that I would never be cold in this country.

Fortunately, the trains are warm, often heated past the point of comfort. I stand in line behind the other passengers as the train approaches and I board swiftly after those departing have passed. Luckily, I find a seat and place my bag neatly on my lap. Having a seat means being able to avoid the press of the crowd. It also allows closer contact with the floor heaters. A woman nods and sits down beside me, leaning outwards towards the aisle.

I look out the window as all the now familiar scenery passes by, blurring slightly as the train picks up speed. At the busy connecting stations the aisle fills and the standing spaces are packed full. With too few hands, parents hold multiple children, shoppers and students stuff bags into corners, and people with strollers or luggage are somehow fitted into the throng.

But I sit comfortably at my window seat, able to show my face only to the backs of shops and empty fields that line the tracks. Occasionally the light will change and my own face is reflected back to me in the window, superimposed on the dark wood of an old warehouse or the black façade of an office building. Only those closest to me can spot the foreigner hidden among them. With a hat to cover my hair I can almost blend in.

 

 

III. ONE YEAR AGO

 

I am standing on a train platform, top heavy with a large multi-day pack on my back, a small shoulder bag, and a dry sack filled with carry-on necessities. It is pouring but the rain will not stop me. I am going on an adventure, a multi-week long trip to Southeast Asia with two friends. It will take several flights and multiple lines at immigration but I couldn’t be more excited.

The rain blows across the platform and the other passengers shake off their coats and umbrellas while they wait for the train. I try to picture myself, in twenty-four hours time, eating Pho in Vietnam.

Finally the recording sounds, “mamonaku ichi-ban-sen ni Akashi ga mairimas”; the train to Askashi is arriving at platform number one. I adjust my multiple bags and watch the carriages as they go by, looking for one less occupied or possibly one with an end seat available.

When the train stops and the doors open I wait impatiently for the exiting passengers to disembark before being the first to step onto the train, using my large bag as a buffer. I cross directly to the opposite side of the carriage where there is a free corner and dump the smallest bag onto the foldout seat, claiming my space. With practiced movements I swing the smaller backpack up onto the luggage rack, sit down with the shoulder bag in my lap and tuck the large pack between my legs. I’ve contained my baggage as much as possible.

No one sits next to me for the duration of the ride, even as the train passes through very busy connecting stations. I’m not surprised; it’s not the first time I’ve sat alone next to an empty seat on a crowded form of public transportation. They don’t want to sit next to the gaijin, the foreigner, let alone one with multiple bags dressed in cargo hiking pants. Sometimes being ostracized bothers me. Sometimes it angers me. But today it doesn’t matter because my mind is already in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi and Siem Reap. If they want to pretend I’m not here, I can pretend, too.

 

 

IV. ABOUT ONE YEAR AGO

 

I’m standing on a train platform, back in Japan, carrying a heavy pack filled with treasures and three weeks of dirty laundry. It’s late and dark and the monotone messages in Japanese coming through the speakers are mildly calming after the strange tones of foreign languages. The train lights come into view and I shift to the side, allowing the passengers with less baggage to board first. The train is nearly empty and I fall tiredly into one of many free seats, grateful for the comfort. The doors close and I let my eyes look blankly out the windows, silently acknowledging the buildings and the landmarks as they pass, subconsciously counting down the stations as I move closer to home.

 

 

V. TEN MONTHS AGO

 

I’m standing on a train platform, trying to maintain my grip on three large bags of groceries without breaking the eggs. The platform is busy; Sunday afternoon is prime shopping time and families, teenagers, and the overactive elderly love this mall. Today the grocery store was extremely crowded and I wonder if the cheaper prices are worth the added effort of dealing with long lines and lugging all of my purchases back home on the train.

Even now the crowd grows as people move around the platform, bumping hips and full bags against walls and small children. The speakers announce that a freight train is passing and warn all passengers to move back from the edge. The freights fly past the passenger stations and this one always blows a disturbingly loud horn when it comes through.

Sure enough, the train flashes through the station, roaring loudly and sending a fast whiplash of wind across the platform.  Bags flutter, children whine, and a line of containers in shades of rust blurs my vision.  Seconds later, the train has passed and the crowd collectively re-settles.

I look over my shoulder and contemplate buying a warm can of green tea from the vending machines, which have already undergone their winter re-stock to include heated beverages. Japan’s seasonal shifts extend to all forms of life and machinery. But I know it’s best to save the money for autumn trips to Kyoto or the hiking weekend planned for next month. I can also make matcha when I get home.

The next passenger train arrives and the waiting crowd slowly enters after a larger crowd exits. The doors close then reopen immediately when someone’s bag gets stuck. The conductor reminds us to stand clear of the doors, the doors close again, and the train begins moving forward, leaving the busy shopping district almost immediately and crossing through rice paddies plucked naked and calm before the first frost.

Autumn is coming and that means gorgeous foliage, endless persimmons, and some day, hopefully soon, kerosene heaters in the staff room. But I’m not cold yet, certainly not while squeezed into my small space on this crowded train full of Sunday shoppers.

 

 

VI. EIGHT MONTHS AGO

I’m standing on a train platform, watching my breath rise in the freezing winter air.  I’ve just finished teaching a biweekly adult English class. One of the students drove me to the station, as he does every week after class, so that I don’t have to walk the fifteen-minute distance alone.

The lesson had been slightly derailed when one student distributed gifts from his home garden.  I’m used to receiving random produce, usually seasonal items, from co-teachers and students.  The fruit and vegetables are a healthy addition to the sweet and sugary omiyage that often appear on my desk.  I usually hoard these little treats until moments of hunger (or boredom) result in binge eating.

But I was not remotely prepared for the absolutely gargantuan sweet potato that I received this evening.  This proudly purple satsuma-imo, the largest of the bunch, is literally larger than my head.  I wonder how I will cook it; neither of my two pots is large enough.  The class had enjoyed taking turns sharing recipes, though, which is still language practice.

Now, I place the heavy potato, in its bag, on the ground by my feet as I wait for the train and take out my phone to catch up on emails and messages; the time difference means my friends on the other side of the world are just waking up.

I scroll through photos and texts as the platform fills up around me with the odd assortment of late-night riders.  The office workers ending their workday at nearly 10 pm no longer surprise me.  Occasionally, they stumble up the stairs drunk after stopping at the bar.  They contrast with the junior high school students, still in uniform, on their way home for dinner after an evening at cram school.

The train arrives and it’s standing room only.  I lean against the backrest of an end seat, grateful for the slight support after a long day.  The train moves along at it’s typical pace and I yawn, looking out over the crowd of sleepy passengers.  A young girl is texting on a smartphone secured in a giant silicone case that looks like Hello Kitty, accessorized with glittery charms.  A man in a nearby seat is falling asleep on the passenger beside him, his head resting on the stranger’s shoulder.

These scenes are familiar to me and I smile, holding my sweet potato.

 

 

VII. TWO MONTHS AGO

 

I’m standing on a train platform, waiting for a delayed train. All of the trains in the city are delayed due to the giant festival crowds. The weather isn’t helping; an unanticipated rainstorm flooded the tracks of the private line, forcing everyone onto the public system, which is already over crowded.

Groups of people file down the stairs, the pleasant clip clop of wooden geta adding a slow cadence to the long wait. All around me young people laugh and pose with friends, leaning in for selfies or looking over their shoulders as cameras snap photos of intricately folded obi decorated with lace or silk fans. Some hold their phones high to capture the beautifully intertwining braids and buns on the tops of their heads while gazing up through false eyelashes. Everyone is wearing yukata, the summer kimono traditionally worn at festivals. For women it’s flowers and circle patterns, for men it’s stripes and chevrons.

My own yukata is tucked into my bag; I plan to change at the station before meeting up with friends. I’ve done up my hair and added flowers for color. People glance at me occasionally. I wonder vaguely if people stare because I’m the only foreigner on the train, or if the other passengers have simply noticed my drab clothes clashing with the colorful yukata. Maybe they’e looking at my hairstyle as I admire theirs.

The train pulls in and everyone squeezes inside, some girls careful to protect their obi while others lose footing atop their sandals and have to be helped onto the train. I press against a back door and hold my bag in front of me, smiling at the sea of colors and patterns. Through the window I can see the sun setting behind the distant mountains, turning the green rice stalks to gold before their time.

The train moves sluggishly from station to station, extending its wait so more people can press into the full space. When it finally arrives at the festival grounds, everyone exits in a rush and the platform floods with a slowly moving mass of color as we all disregard the labeled footpath and head directly for the stairs. I move quickly to the bathroom, grabbing the last empty stall so I can change. It’s a process but I get the folds right and manage to tuck the obi in correctly. Pleased with my accomplishments and appropriately dressed, I exit the bathroom and mix with the crowd, looking forward to my first taiyaki of the night.

 

 

VIII. NOW

 

I am standing on a train platform in Japan for the last time. Somehow, all of my acquired belongings of the past two years are stuffed into one large suitcase, a pack, and a small backpack. Somehow, I’m going to the airport to board a flight bound for Thailand. Somehow, I do not have a return ticket.

Two years have come and gone. It all happened so fast that I’m not sure if it actually happened at all.

The train arrives and the doors open to surprised faces, unaccustomed to seeing a foreigner on the platform this early, an irregular feature to their typically boring morning commute. I bow slightly under the stares of the uniformly dressed salarymen and push my suitcase onto the train, frowning apologetically at its bulkiness. Everyone makes space for me, letting me access a far corner where I can stack my baggage out of the way of the automatic doors.

Most likely, there are prolonged stares over the morning paper, between yawns. I can feel the slight confusion in the air, as everyone wonders what I, a foreign woman traveling alone, am doing at a suburban train station with so many bags. But I don’t notice because I am looking out the window, staring at all the things I need to see one last time.

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3 Comments

  1. I love the new look of the blog!

    This is a great piece, I love how it chronicles your years in Japan through the train platform

  2. I love this! I love so many of the sentences but especially love “these scenes are familiar to me and I smile, holding my sweet potato” 😊🍠

  3. This is so beautiful Claire. The simplicity of sentences with your adjectives for touched, tucked, folded in little bits of Japanese and punctuated through train rides. Through coming and going, which we are used to. From being looked at and the act of looking. I can see you are seeing far more than what’s before or behind you. I can see you’ve found your tune and your rhythm. Congratulations on finding the words and bringing them to this crafted story. It is perfectly finished.

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