So there’s this cool thing in Japan called the Seishun 18 Kippu, which is a group of if tickets you can buy for the national rail system. With one ticket, which is about 2370 yen/$20, you get all day until midnight to use as many of the national railways as you like, which service most of the country and one ferry system. The only drawback is you can’t use trains with reserved seats, and no high speed trains (“Shinkansen”), so you can only go so far in a day. For what I was doing, this wa the cheapest method of getting around without having to hitch-hike.
Kyoko’s family had invited me to come and stay with them for a week in the north of Japan in Iwate, and after that she would be staying longer to have her baby and the stay to recover. Yuuki would be going with her on the Shinkansen and would meet up with me at a certain point along the rail line to take me to the little village in the mountains where they live. This is the story of the day I was on 10 trains for 14 hours straight.
Having explored Tokyo the entire previous day and getting back pretty late, I didn’t have much time to pack and plan. It was around 2 in the morning when I finally got around to it, and by the time the trains started running at 5AM I was running ful force with all my belongings from Yuuki’s home to the train station. Between each train I had about four minutes to get off, go to the main gate, change lines, and get on my next train, and the average length of each train was around 45 minutes excluding a couple that were nearly two hours long. So I had saved the train schedules and knew exactly which platforms to run to before I even got on the trains, knowing that if I didn’t, I would be completely lost.
Train culture in Japan is really boring. Everyone is very quiet, there are no ticket checks (in fact, I easily got away with not even checking in or checking out properly in the morning, although I didn’t know I’d done it until afterward), and on only one occasion did I sit next to someone who was talking, on the third or fourth train.
It was two very drunk, very old Japanese men, pouring each other whiskeys into plastic cups and yelling about different places in Japan being nice to look at. I looked around to see how other people were reacting to the noise and it wasn’t pleasant. Death stares from some of the women on board and the young men seemed to be staring at them like they were watching albino goats passing through a ghost. Duly noted– be quiet on the Japanese train.
Most people had the luxury of being able to nap on the early trains, having set alarms for their stops (Japanese trains are incredibly punctual and always arrive and leave exactly the minute they’re scheduled to).
Luckily the men were only on for a few stops and left, leaving me fresh air to breathe and a window seat from which I could enjoy the climbing hills and greenery of the ever-more-rural Japan just north of Tokyo. The farther north we went, the more mountainous and floral everything was, and the space between houses started to become existent and then grew until there were great distances of farmland and forests that covered every sloping canyon. I was surprised by the forestry in Japan. It’s like layers and layers of green things topped with several more layers of green things, wrapped in vines and then augmented by the bright sunlight.
Mountains are hidden in mist here, perpetually obscured by high humidity, and tall pine trees have been trimmed so that the green leaves are only present on the top third, while the rest of the tree below the leaves is just a beautiful stream of filtered coffee, spilling out onto the ledges with little stubs dripping off the side where branches used to be.
I think a lot of how Japan looks is due to the way they see peace in nature, but also because of how much control they feel they need over their environment. There are rules and buttons for everything, rigid ways to behave and formulaic responses in discourse that don’t change from person to person. At meal time this becomes most evident, when I’m asked a question and everyone responds to a fact in exactly the same way: a nod, and “Heeeeeey! Sou desu ka?” at the same time.
Anyway, there seemed to be at least one total weirdo on each train. There were the old drunk guy pounding liquor, a guy that laughed to himself quietly for twenty minutes straight before getting off (no phone, no conversation, no nothing, just giggling), and a couple of my favorites in the later trains…
Between Fukushima and Morioka, traffic became really heavy and people were literally sprinting between trains. If you didn’t sprint fast enough, you would be unlucky enough to have to stand the duration of your next train, and once I’d reached this point it was like everyone was headed to my last stop as well. A couple of times I wasn’t able to get a seat and instead decided to squat the way people in Southeast Asia do when they don’t want to stand for long periods, or when they’re dropping the kids off at the pool.
It just happened that a really incredible large and smelly man decided to stand over me and put his crotch in my face for the duration of that train. There was room for him to walk backwards, but he chose not to. Instead, he had me cornered, and I couldn’t stand because there wasn’t enough room between his stomach and the wall for me. As my legs completely fell asleep and began to feel like they were on fire, I despaired as the only bit of fresh air I had left was used up and replaced with air that was certainly carrying the spores of whatever was living in his skin. At one point, he was even swinging back and forth anchored by naught but the tiny plastic ring above his head, threatening to smash my head into the wall.
Finally, it was his stop and he started moving backwards. I had no idea where we were and stood up to look at the name of the station, only to see it was mine as well. I sprinted along with a bunch of high schoolers carrying large instruments and suitcases, but didn’t manage to make it in time to secure a seat. I stood in the middle of the train car, and just before we took off, there was the man again. He shoved his way through until he got to me.
“Oh Jesus,” I thought, “this is not going to end well.”
He had a perpetual grin on his face and decided that since I was obviously not Japanese, he would try to practice his English with me. It would have been a lot easier if I could breathe properly, or if he talked about something that was interesting, or was intending to have a conversation at all. Instead, for an hour and a half I listened to this man rant about American baseball and literally nothing else in a very difficult-to-understand accent.
Despite the fact that I told him I had no interest in baseball (politely), and that I literally knew nothing about baseball, and that I couldn’t understand what he was saying (and yes, I told him all this in Japanese) he chose to ignore me and continued talking.
The next train was to be my escape, but no. More sprinting, and this time I got a seat. All the seats were filled up and I thought, “Even if he makes it, I’m safe.” No more seats or space in this car.”
Nope, not even close. He shoved everyone out of the way to get to me and literally told the people sitting next to me, “It’s difficult for me to stand, can I have these seats?” And then he continued to talk my ear off. A man across from me stared at me the whole time like he wanted to bite my head off, maybe because I was still smiling and nodding at everything the man said.
On the final train to Morioka I thought, “Thank goodness, their no way he’ll find me this time. My mistake was choosing the first car on every train. This time, I’ll go to the very end!”
I had a fifteen minute break (the longest out of any of them) so I took the opportunity to shove some food in my face before getting on the train. Then, the horror. He was sitting there in the very last seat of the very last car. He turned around like a piece of pizza dough being twisted at the top, grinning widely and, seeing me, smiled widely and waved at me with spirit fingers.
“I give up on politeness,” I said under my breath. I waved back, smiled, and then walked backwards until I couldn’t anymore, a few rows away, but just enough space that when the car filled up, I was blocked from his vision. I didn’t have a seat, but I had peace and quiet and a bag of green tea kit-kats at my disposal. I ate the whole bag and enjoyed my ride to Morioka.
Here, I finally missed a train (by less than a minute). Yuuki had informed me that instead of meeting me in Morioka, Kyoko’s uncle would be picking me up in Ninohe and I needed another train. That left me with almost an hour to have an actual meal, so I left the station and went across an intersection to a noodle restaurant and grill.
As I stared at the menu outside, trying to decide what was worth paying for, a woman in an apron and disheveled hair came out to greet me. With all the pomp and circumstance of a gay pride parade she enthusiastically explained the entire menu to me, laughing and and dancing around about jokes I didn’t understand.
“Sorry, where’s the bathroom?” I asked.
“Bathroom? Bathroom, was it?!” she said, having me follow here down a flight of stairs. She turned around every couple of steps to make sure I was still behind her until we made it there and literally pushed me in.
“Bathroom!” she cried, smiling and turning back around to dance all the way back up the stairs. I did my business and went back up into the restaurant.
“What would you recommend?” I asked, being the only person in there. I told her I liked noodles and rice and fried pork and soup. So she gave me all four.
When I asked if I could take a picture, she enthusiastically declined, shaking her entire body along with her head and waving her hands in front of her like she was going to be hit by a flaming bus.
“I’m too old, I’m too old! See you later!” And with that, I went back to the station and caught the last train.
Finally, after 14 hours of trains and tiresome sprinting and weird people, Maru-ojisan (endearing term for “uncle”) was there to pick me up and take me to the little village in the mountains, Karumai.