|Shinkansen (Bullet Train) passing Mt. Fuji|
Before I went to Japan, I studied Japanese, and it seemed that every book on conversational Japanese had at least one chapter called "At the Station," and there were usually several lessons with a train or subway theme. I asked one of my teachers why, and his answer was that you spend a lot of your time in Japan at the station. He was right. And I have a lot of memories to show for it.
When I went to Japan to live, I did not know how to drive a car, but I had used the heck out of the city bus system in the Twin Cities, and I knew all about figuring out bus routes and making transfers. That experience stood me in good stead in Japan, where I applied my knowledge to the incredible transportation system, which gave me the power to go anywhere in the country on my own. Such freedom!
|Tokyo subway system map|
The biggest train and subway stations are huge, with several different sets of tracks, one set for each line. Every station, large or small, is a shopping mecca. On the platforms, there are kiosks that sell reading material, cigarettes, beverages, and snacks, and once you exit the platforms, there are multiple levels of stores. Back in the 70s, indoor shopping malls were new in the U.S., so the ones in Japan were a novelty to me. Many of the shopping malls included little gift shops that specialized in items from a particular area of Japan, and there were plenty of specialty restaurants, as well, selling buckwheat noodle soup, breaded pork cutlets, yakitori (chicken grilled on little wooden skewers), sushi, creme puffs, and other fancy pastries. You could wander for days in some of those shopping areas, and I met more than one foreigner who approached me to ask how to find the exit to the street.
|Tokyo Compression is an ongoing photo series |
by German-born artist Michael Wolf that
shows daily commuters with their faces pressed
against the steamy windows of Japan’s
overcrowded subway trains.
|White-gloved subway pushers in Tokyo|
|Rush-hour crowd at Shinjuku Station in Tokyo|
Once, during a partial subway workers' strike, I boarded a train that was so packed, a couple of windows popped out. I felt fortunate that time to have gotten into the middle of the car, so I at least had some breathing room as I stood over those few who had taken the seats. The most crowded part of any train is the area by the doors.
|Ticket machines with a huge subway map above them.|
These machines are so modern compared with the
ones in use when I was there.
On the less crowded trains, most of the commuters either closed their eyes for a bit of rest or pulled out some reading material. Occasionally someone next to me would fall asleep and their head would slump onto my shoulder, which was an uncomfortable experience for me. Recently, a survey was taken of things that Japanese commuters are annoyed by on the train, and I noticed that several items on the list are things I never had to contend with, such as loud music bleeding from headphones or ear buds, annoying cell phone ringtones and cell phone conversations. Other things on the list were common, such as groups of young people conversing loudly or horsing around, drunken men peeing or puking in the train, and young women applying makeup.
For me and for a lot of foreigners, one of the worst problems was the way people pushed and shoved onto the trains, especially during the morning and evening rush hours, and the reluctance of younger people to give older folks a seat. Of course, the old ones had a lot of experience getting on and off trains, and I couldn't believe how many little old ladies pushed past me, right under my armpits, to get on the train.
The all-time worst problem for me was the chikan. These are men who molest women in the crowded trains. If you know a person's name or the group he represents, he will always behave with respect, but when people feel anonymous in Japan, that's when they feel like breaking the rules. "I don't know you and you don't know me, but I'm feeling a little horny, so I'm just gonna cop a little feel, since we're standing so close." That seems to be the thinking. There are a lot of ways to handle guys like that, depending on how dense the crowd is, how sure you are that the guy whose face you are looking at is actually the one who's touching you, and how annoyed or confident you feel that day. I've seen women grab the offender's hand and hold it up, shouting, "Chikan!" in order to thoroughly embarrass the attacker. I've also heard of women pinching the guy's hands or digging her fingernails into his skin. My best technique for dealing with chikan was to carry a newspaper, every single day. When someone started to grope me, I would slide my newspaper between myself and the hand, and suddenly I had plenty of space and a little peace of mind. Another technique I used without remorse when I was sure that it was the guy directly behind me that was doing the dirty deed, was to bring my elbow back sharply. This worked well when the train wasn't that crowded, but the guy was standing much too close for comfort. A satisfying "oof!" sound told me I had hit my mark, and the guy would usually move to the other end of the car.
On the train and in the station was where I met most of the people who wanted to practice their English on me. One time a group of young men got on and one of them noticed me sitting nearby. He started bragging to his friends about how well he spoke English, so, predictably, they dared him to go over and chat me up. Meanwhile, I noticed that an older man sitting opposite me was watching the whole business with interest. Finally, the young man came over, stood in front of me and initiated a conversation. I decided to be approachable on this occasion, and asked him slowly and clearly if he was studying English. He didn't understand me, so I repeated myself. That didn't work, either, so I asked him the question in Japanese. The young man blushed and said yes, then rejoined his fellows, who were jeering at him mercilessly. The older man who had been following the whole incident remarked to the young man, "That foreign woman speaks better Japanese than you yahoos can speak English. Shame on you." I tried not to laugh.
If you spend any time at all in a very big city, you will eventually see a dead man, somewhere. I saw three. One had fallen to the floor in the shopping mall part of the station. I was showing a lady from the United States around on a Sunday morning and she happened on the body first. The man didn't seem to have any gunshot wounds (and the Japanese general populace isn't allowed to own guns, anyway), but he was bleeding from his eyes, ears, nose and mouth. His wallet was lying on the floor next to the body, but it didn't appear to have been stolen from. The station was moderately crowded that morning, but no one stopped to look at the body except the two of us, foreign women in a sea of Japanese. We decided to get out of there and let the police handle the matter, once they were aware of the situation. We wondered if the dead man was a victim of mob violence.
Another dead man was a fellow passenger on the train. I watched him get on in the middle of Osaka, a dapper older man in a plain, dark brown kimono with jacket, black dress shoes, a western-style businessman's hat, and a cane. He took off his hat and put it carefully on the shelving above the seats, then sat down on the end of the long seat next to the door, hooking his arm over the side bar and neatly hooking his cane there, as well. Then he proceeded to fall asleep, or so I thought. He was still sleeping when we got to the end of the line, where I was getting off, but his face looked kind of white, and he wasn't moving at all. I decided to nudge him to wake up, but he slumped further toward the bar that his arm was still hooked on, and I ran to find the conductor of the train. The conductor gave the man a push and shouted at him to wake up, but the man slumped over farther, and the conductor gasped, "Masaka! He's dead!" (Masaka is one of those really convenient phrases that has several translations, including OMG, You're kidding, No way, etc.) I told the conductor that he'd gotten on in downtown Osaka, and that was all I knew. He thanked me for the information and took over, while I beat a hasty retreat.
|Map of Shinkansen Routes.|
Tōkaidō Shinkansen opened in 1964, and several other lines opened after that, for a total of just under 1,500 miles of track. The trains travel at speeds between 149 and 199 miles per hour, and startup is so smooth that you don't even realize you're moving until you look out the window. These trains are famous for running on time, and I used to be able to set my watch by it. I knew if I got on the train on car number 10 at a certain time in Osaka, then when I got off in Tokyo, the big clock hanging above the platform would be striking the exact same time, to the second, each and every trip. It was amazing. Like most people, I usually traveled second class, where there are no assigned seats, but where you almost never have to stand. I did once travel first class, but it wasn't worth the extra money, in my opinion. Young people make money carrying carts of snacks up and down the aisles, and many people bring something with them to eat, which they all seam to unpack as soon as the train leaves the station.
The Tōkaidō Shinkansen, running between Tokyo and Osaka, is the world's busiest train line. As of March 2008, it was carrying at least 151 million passengers per year. The Tōkaidō Shinkansen has carried over 5 billion passengers, and the entire Shinkansen network has carried over 10 billion. Between Tokyo and Osaka, up to thirteen trains per hour run in each direction, with a minimum headway of three minutes between trains. With trains running at those speeds, that doesn't leave much wiggle room, in case of a breakdown. It's a wonder that these trains have maintained such a great safety record. There are 16 cars in each train, with a total of 1,323 seats in each train. Many trains are full, but I've never seen one with standing room only. Since there is always another train leaving in a few minutes, most people just wait for the next train, rather than try to crowd into one that is too full.
|Koinobori flags flying on Children's Day|
My best memory, however, is of traveling on a holiday known as Children's Day in Japan, celebrated on May 5. It was originally celebrated on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month, but was switched to May 5 of the Gregorian calendar, when that came into use in Japan. The holiday is said to have started during the reign of Empress Suiko (593–628 A.D.). On this day, families all over Japan fly carp-shaped flags known as koinobori, because according to legend, a carp that swims upstream becomes a dragon. The way the flags blow in the wind, it does look as if they are swimming upstream. The families fly one flag for each child in the household, to symbolize their hope that the children of Japan will grow strong, like carp swimming upstream. I loved looking at the colorful flags flying all over the countryside.
I have two more stories, both with a happier ending. One Friday evening I left work with a brown envelope in which my monthly salary had been given to me. (Yes, in those days, they paid salaries in cash. I'm sure they must use electronic funds transfer by now, but in those days, it was nothing for people to carry around large sums of cash in public.) I won't tell you how much it was, but I will say that as an English teacher, I made much more than many businessmen in Japan at the time. I was taking the train to the home of a friend who was having a party. I put the envelope on the shelf above the seats, standing and hanging onto the commuter strap for a few stops, then I must have sat down without thinking about my pay envelope. I got off the train and found my way to the friend's house, realizing about an hour later that I had left my monthly salary on the train. The station near my friend's house was the next-to-last stop on that particular train line, which turned out to be a good thing. I hoofed it back to the station and explained to an employee what had happened. He nodded and called the office at the terminus station to see whether the conductor had found the envelope as he walked through the cars at the end of the line. Sure enough, the envelope had been found, and the office said they would send it to the station we were at on the next train. We waited, and sure enough, the conductor of the train originating at the end of the line station had my pay envelope. Fortunately, I could also prove that it was mine, because inside the envelope there was a slip of paper with my name printed on it.
I knew that they always counted the money in a lost purse or envelope, and that by law, the owner of lost funds was obligated to pay up to 10% of the value of the cash and goods found. I offered this, but the man refused. I recalled another railway worker who lived near me telling a story about a diamond ring that someone had lost. The workers' policy was to write down "rock" in the ledger, rather than "diamond" or the name of any other precious stone, so that the police wouldn't be alerted and force the owner of an expensive ring to pay the finder's fee. I don't know what they wrote down for my pay envelope. Maybe just "envelope." I would have been glad to pay, but I appreciated that I wasn't forced to do so. I went back to the party and was very, very careful to fold up my pay envelope and put it in my purse before leaving the party.
And finally, every foreigner in Japan has at least one story about getting horribly lost in one of the big stations. My experience happened in Shinjuku Station, a transportation hub in Tokyo which serves well over 3 million people per day, and which is registered in the Guiness Book of Records as the busiest train station in the world. The station has 36 platforms, a vast underground arcade, and well over 200 exits. When you meet someone there, you have to be pretty specific about what line you plan to come in on, and what exit you are planning to meet at. I was meeting a family friend who had stayed with my family as part of a a cultural exchange program when I was in junior high school. This man was a bank employee, with a wife and one daughter. They lived rather far out in a western suburb of Tokyo, but were planning to come into the city one Sunday morning. I was living with my husband in Osaka, at the time, but had gone to Tokyo to visit a friend. We agreed to meet at Shinjuku Station, and the man specifically told me to wait by the "west exit" of the Odakyu Line. When I got to Shinjuku Station, I bought a box of cakes as a present for them, then looked for and found the Odakyu Line. OK, so far, but I couldn't see anything labeled "west exit." I asked a number of people, who said things like, "Over that way, I think," or "It's straight ahead." I walked around in desperation for at least an hour, trying in vain to find the designated exit. I looked for my friends at every exit I came to, but no one came forward to meet me. By now, I was very lost, and the meeting time had come and gone. I finally happened upon the Station Police office, which had a large window with a view of at least twenty tracks. I told them where I wanted to go, and one of the men pointed out the window to the other side of all those tracks. "That's where you want to go," he said. Later, I found out that there is no "west exit" on the Odakyu Line, but instead of telling me this, people just assumed that I had mistaken the word "west" for some other direction and pointed me toward some other exit.
Realizing that I wasn't going to get any real help from the police, I thanked the man and walked out of the office. Standing in the middle of the busy station, I burst into tears of pure frustration. Just then, a little old Japanese man came up to me and asked in English why I was crying. I told him my story, between deep sobs, and he said, "I'll take you to a place where you can have your friend paged."
As I followed him to the office where announcements came from, the man chatted happily in perfect English. "I always take my morning constitutional in this station," he said. "I spent several years in your country. I went to college in Nebraska, and graduated, too. That was years ago." Finally, we got to the office, and the man explained what I needed. My friends were paged, and miraculously, they had waited around for me. They were having some tea in one of the many little shops in the station arcade when they heard the announcement. I was amazed. I turned to thank the little man who had so graciously helped me, but he was gone. He never knew it, but he's the reason I always try to help strangers from foreign lands who are visiting or living in my country. :-)