Monthly Archives: June 2012

Train Stories # 9: The Man in Rainbow

Osaka, the third largest city in Japan with a population of more than 17 million in the greater metropolitan area, has the reputation of being one of the rougher cities in Japan.  Compared to Tokyo, where millions of businessmen and woman in ubiquitous black suits and shoes ride the trains like zombies in a trance, the people of Osaka can sometimes be a little more straightforward and colorful.  It’s often said that Osaka people just like to be different.

They stand on the right side of the escalator (instead of the uniform left in Tokyo), they bump into you with uttering as many sumimasen (excuse me) and they sometimes can be a little abrasive.  The first time I ever witnessed a Japanese person shouting at someone was in Osaka’s JR Fukushima Station, where a man in casual jeans and a sweatshirt screamed at the train attendants for a good 10 minutes (he was still shouting when I boarded the train).  The train attendants just stood there without so much blinking and let the man release his energy.

An awesome hippie in Osaka

But even with that said, Osaka is still in Japan, meaning although it has a grittier vibe compared to other Japanese cities, it’s still a city brimming with people who work to death and travel to and from business in uniform fashion.  It’s a way of life everywhere in Japan.  You follow the rules.  You are on time.  You straighten your black suit or skirt and do what you are told without complaining.  Their work ethic is both admirable and maddening at times, like an entire population of people is just waiting to break free from the chains of twelve-hour per day labor.

So when I spotted a Japanese man wearing a blue baja shirt, patterned bell-bottom jeans and red shoes on an Osaka JR Loop Line train, my eyes were drawn to his colorful wardrobe.  Amid the surrounding grey of the train and passengers wearing conservative weekend clothing, he stood out like a rainbow emerging from the clouds after a rainfall.  He was probably in his early 50s and had a full head of long, stringy grey hair.  His youth was far gone in his face, but his clothes spoke another language.  The vibrant colors of his clothes seemed to scream:

I am proud of who I am!

I can’t say for certain if he thought the same thing, but I was proud of him.

Three Little Things (Rainy Season Edition)

If you visit Japan during anytime of the year, chances are very high that at least one of your pictures will look something like this:

A rainy day in Kyoto.

It rains here.  A lot. 

This is especially true in Toyama, and even more so during tsuyu (梅雨), or the rainy season, which begins in Okinawa in early May and travels its way north until mid-July.  Last week Typhoon Guchol roared its way across Japan, though luckily Toyama escaped with only some rain and mildly strong winds at night.

Here are three little things to help you get through the ame, rainy season or not.

 1.    Muji Umbrella

Muji umbrella

I’ve gone through at least five umbrellas during my two years in Japan, most falling victim to Toyama’s unyielding wind.  You can buy umbrellas almost anywhere here, including 100 Yen stores and convenient stores, but the most reliable one I have had in Japan has been from Muji. 

Muji is one of my favorite stores in Japan for its simple yet well-designed items.  Its markable umbrella ($15.95) is sturdy and chic, and you can even engrave it at some stores.

2. Say Aloha Pink Shoes

Rain shoes from Don Quijote in Osaka

When my sister visited Japan in April, we spent two weeks in almost constant rain.  On our trip, I lost a pair of shoes in Osaka and was left with my grey TOMs,  which looked great but offered zero protection in the rain.  On an aimless night in Osaka just after a downpour, we walked into a Don Quijote, a crazy busy Japanese discount store with hundreds of locations in Japan.  Think of it like a Target or Walmart but on crack and steroids.  In the sale section just past the entrance, I saw these cute pink waterproof(ish) shoes for about $7.  They’re very sporty-looking but they do the trick for rainy bike rides.  I couldn’t find a link to the shoes online, but if you’re in Japan, try the closest Don Quijote store.

3. Flipboard

A screenshot from Flipboard’s blog

There’s nothing like curling up on your bed or couch with a good book on a rainy Sunday afternoon when you have nothing else to do but open a world of imagination so different from the pitter patter outside. 

But it’s 2012 and we live in the world of Facebook, Twitter, iPhones, iPads and Kindles.  I still love paperbacks and hardcovers, but my go-to iPad application for lazy Sunday mornings is Flipboard, a social media/magazine aggregation application.  That’s tech speak for saying that the geniuses behind Flipboard scour the Internet for great stories and combine it in one easy magazine where you can “flip” through any number of topics, from business news to travel stories.  The stories spotlighted are always thought-provoking and the application’s format makes it extremely easy to browse and customize your version of Flipboard.

Train Stories #8: The Boy in Blue

“I am a rock. I am an island.” -Simon & Garfunkel

Everything about him was blue – from the frame of his glasses to the sad, doe-eyed look in his eyes.

When riding a local train recently from Naoetsu to Namerikawa – about a two-hour journey – a boy dressed in nearly all blue sat in the seat diagonally from me.  I was riding the train with my sister, who was visiting me in Japan for the first time.  For the first part of our journey, we were the only two passengers in the car and after talking for a bit, my sister rested her eyes.  As she slept, I stared out the window, beginning to daydream about the future, until the boy in blue got on the train at Itoigawa, a town of about 48,000 people in southern Niigata prefecture.

I had never seen someone wearing so many shades of blue at once before.

He wore blue jeans, blue socks and a striped blue-white collared shirt.  He carried a blue North Face book bag and wore a purple watch.  Dangling from his book bag was a small teddy bear charm.  A few minutes after boarding the train, he stretched his legs up on the seat in front of him and took out some paper.  Squinting and rubbing his forehead, he stared at the graphs on the paper with a diligent intensity.

After a few minutes of studying, his eyes slowly shifted to the window.  It was dark outside, and we sometimes went through tunnels, which muffled the sound in the train and caused some of the doors to violently shake back and forth.  But after passing through a tunnel, we could occasionally see the faint city lights glowing from homes and shops outside.

He looked about 18-19 and was probably a first-year university student.  He reminded me of many high-school aged students I see in my Japanese town.  They are constantly studying on trains, even on the weekends.  They joke and laugh when with their friends, texting on their cell phones and teasing one another about sports and girls.  But when alone, their disposition changes to that of a lone wolf.  They zone off and listen to their mp3 player and read a textbook or worksheet in hand.

I wondered what the boy in blue was thinking.  Like so many other Japanese young men, his fortress of solitude seemed impenetrable.He left the train sometime before we got to Toyama.  He moved so quietly that I can’t even tell you what stop he got off at.