Category Archives: Train Stories

Train Stories #11: Between the Rice Fields

Emiful Masaki in Masaki, Ehime-ken.

Emiful Masaki in Masaki, Ehime-ken.

I’m usually sleepy and a little disgruntled on my Saturday morning train rides to work, but on a balmy morning last month, something inside of me was awakened – a realization that in another life, I was probably a Japanese Buddhist nun.

Every Saturday for work, I commute from the city center to a smaller country area just outside of Matsuyama. Smack in the middle of rice fields is Emiful Masaki (エミフルMASAKI), which is said to be the largest shopping mall in Western Japan and is quite the attraction in the otherwise rural Ehime-ken. It’s also home to one of my company’s English conversation schools.

As a result of the location of Emiful, there is always an interesting mix of people surrounding me on my morning train ride, from the J-pop wannabes glued to their iPhones about to spend their monthly earnings on designer clothing to the obasan carrying a rolling “granny cart” because she is going to the supermarket to buy groceries.

On this particular Saturday morning, two young men to my right chatted and laughed while the other young women surrounding me stared at their smartphones. All of the women wore pounds of mascara, covering their eyes like a black web. One proudly toted a Marc by Marc Jacobs purse and the others were admirably well-dressed and groomed with perfectly painted toenails and well-tailored clothing.

When the train stopped at Okada Station, a rural area with only ricefields in the distance, I looked out the window. Directly in front of me, there was an elderly woman probably in her late 70s working on a farm, tending to her rice crop on a cloudy Saturday morning. Like so many elderly woman I see in Japan, she probably walks with a hunched back after years of hard labor on the farm. Her life is her family and the crop she produces and harvests – a stark contrast to the designer brand frenzy that consumes so many of the younger generation in Japan and other wealthy countries.

As the train slowly started to move again, I forgot about the younger passengers surrounding me and noticed a woman sitting directly across from me. For some reason, I didn’t see her before.

I can’t remember anything she was wearing, but I can still see her posture vividly: she looked down at her shoes as she clutched her shopping cart. She never once stared at me or any electronic device, but rather seemed deep in thought, perhaps thinking about what she will cook for dinner or recent medical tests. “It’s the simple pleasures in life that matter the most,” she seemed to say to me, though we never made eye contact or said hello to each other. Every wrinkle on her face and hands seemed to tell a story of strength, survival and wisdom. Even though she was more than three times my age, I felt connected to her more than anyone else sitting around me.

At 古泉 (Koizumi), she and I exited the train along with most of the other passengers. I let her walk in front of me. She gently tugged at her cart and trotted to the grocery store past the rice fields.

I watched her for a few seconds before continuing on my path to work. She has no idea how much I admire her, but I do.

Train Stories #10: The Girl Who Looked Up

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The Girl Who Looked Up

With a challenging new job and new city in Japan to establish myself in, it’s been a tough few months. I like many things about Matsuyama City and Shikoku, but some days, I find myself thinking about Toyama and all that I left behind ( friends, people who I genuinely loved, a good job where I was respected). There are days when I think the people in Namerikawa, the seaside town I lived in for two years, were simply nicer (though I’ve met great people in both places). It seems Toyama residents smiled at me more, asked about my life and were sincerely concerned if I felt sick. They also talked to me on trains more.

Most days and nights in Matsuyama, I’m alone in my apartment after work with too much to think about, sometimes cursing myself for perhaps making a poor career decision and sometimes cursing a country that I love but also find so frustrating.

So when a young girl who was no older than eight looked at me on the train one Saturday evening after work, I was somewhat surprised. With innocent brown eyes and a pink book bag, the young girl smiled at me as everyone else stayed in their own world.  Suddenly, any contempt I felt for my new situation melted. Something in her eyes spoke to me, seemingly saying, “I will speak English well someday, so I can talk to people like you.” I thought of my young students, some of whom can be really challenging but others of whom I feel privileged to teach. They try so hard after a full day of school to speak a foreign language very different from their mother tongue. At their age, I couldn’t even tell you how to say hello in Japanese, or any other language besides French or Spanish perhaps.

I was a little worried for the girl because she was on the train without a parent or friends, but it’s surprisingly common for young children to take trains alone in Japan, probably due to the fact that crime rates are extraordinarily low here. Still, I felt a little sorry for her and smiled back at her. She looked down as if she was a little embarrassed, but I could see the faint trace of a smile beginning to form under her cheeks.

I walked back to my apartment alone, feeling lucky to have taken the risk of moving to Japan to teach for a few years. I don’t think I want to be an English teacher in Japan for much longer, but these little experiences always make it worthwhile.

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.

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.

Train Stories #7: The Woman in the Black Hat

Farmers in Namerikawa, Japan

It is a bit self-indulgent of me, but I’ve been worrying a lot recently about getting older and the ending of my youth. I turned 28 in March, and of course I have so much more to look forward to in life.  I feel too young to be worrying about mortgage payments, changing diapers and other heavy life decisions. I’m happy to be free at the moment, but I also feel too old to be floating through life, partying every night like it’s college and avoiding any sort of contemplation of what I want to accomplish in life and how to make that happen.

I’ve never been one for heavy drinking or much partying, but I enjoy the freedom of time and having my 20s to figure things out and explore. In two years, I won’t have my 20s to fall back on. I can’t say for certain, but I imagine I’ll likely feel the pressures of starting a family and settling down in a few years. I don’t know what exactly I’ll do in August after my time on the JET Programme ends, but I hope I continue to challenge myself and think positively about life.

I think I will always view everyday as a gift, but I have some anxiety about the future because life just seems so much more challenging and scary as you get older.  With each passing year, you have to make more difficult decisions and think carefully about your health and others around you.

So when I see elderly women in my Japanese town– and there are many– I always look at them in awe. They are survivors, struggling and ultimately overcoming the many trials of life, including health scares and the death of loved ones. They still stand tall, though often with hunched backs from years of labor on rice fields. If you look closely at their hands, you can see their swollen knuckles from years of work. They continue to bike around town and are active members in the community. They are proud of their accomplishments and their memories, and cling to them everyday.

Recently, when waiting for an early evening train to the nearby town Uozu, I stood on the platform looking at the mountains and thinking when spring would come. Out of nowhere, a woman who looked to be in her 80s approached me and pointed in the distance to my left. She wore a large black hat, green coat and carried a maroon tote bag. As she pointed in the distance, she said something in Japanese I couldn’t understand. I nodded and smiled because that’s all I could do. In Japanese, I asked her if she lives in Namerikawa.  “I’m 83 years old,” she responded in Japanese. Either my Japanese is more awful than I realized (very likely), or she didn’t hear me properly and/or wanted to tell me her age.

We both got on the same train car and she sat next to two young Japanese girls in high school.  Packed between high school students and other elderly Japanese, I decided to stand for the ride. The girls were giggling and pointing to purikura (funny photo booth photos). The woman said something that made them laugh even more and the girls showed her more pictures. Still in her hat and clutching her bag in her lap, she never stopped smiling for the entire train ride. I waved goodbye to her when I came to my stop.  She politely nodded back.

As I looked back at her one last time, I saw a vibrant and confident woman – a woman I hope to be like when I’m in my 80s.