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 and 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 relationships. But when alone, their disposition changes to that of a lone wolf.  They zone off and listen to music or 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.

Slowly Becoming an Instagram Junkie

I’ve been playing a lot these days with Instagram, the popular photo sharing program recently acquired by Facebook.  I’m usually not one for gimmicky iPhone apps, but I must say that I enjoy exploring what I can do using one of Instagram’s 16 digital filters.  Best of all, the app is free and makes it easy to share pics and follow other photographers.  Here are some of my favorite photos that I have taken with Instagram.  You can follow me on Instagram @lulubellphoto.

Orix Buffaloes baseball game at Kyocera Dome Osaka

Tokyo skyline from Mori Tower

Shibuya, Tokyo just after sunset

Gion District of Kyoto

Sakura in Takaoka

Miyajima deer

Floating torii gate in Miyajima

Namerikawa sunset

The road to my junior high school (Hayatsuki) in Namerikawa

Train Stories #7: The Woman in the Black Hat

Farmers in Namerikawa, Japan

Recently I have been worrying a lot 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 more serious life decisions. I’m happy to be free at the moment, but I also feel too old to be floating through life, 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 endless nights of going out, but I enjoy the freedom of time and having my 20s to 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 seek out new opportunities in life. Still, 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 proud, 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 and the onset of arthritis. Yet they continue to bicycle around town and are active members in the community, exercising, volunteering, and even learning English. They seem 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 jagged mountain range blanketed in snow and hoping that the emerald buds of cherry blossoms would soon emerge. Out of nowhere, a woman who looked to be in her 80s approached me and pointed in the distance to my left. She wore an oversized floppy 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 or wanted to tell me her age.

We both got on the same train car; she sat next to two high school students still in their uniforms. 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 two 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 nodded back.

As I looked back at her one last time, the frailty American society so often associates with age dissolved. Instead, I saw a vibrant and confident woman — a woman I hope to be like when I’m in my 80s.

Train Stories # 6: The Fallen Glove

Japanese people are some of the most courteous people I have ever met. Customer service here is a way life and the standard compares to no other country I have visited. This ideal extends beyond stores, too. Rarely have I met a Japanese person who won’t go out of his or her way to help me. If I need help finding a bus, there are dozens of trustworthy people I know I can ask on the street.

With that said, however, being on trains and in crowded train stations isn’t where their courtesy shines. I went to Tokyo for a meeting recently and was reminded what it’s like to be packed in a train like a sardine. In train stations people brushed so quickly behind me that I felt dizzy. Everyone is in their own world, listening to music and clutching their newly-purchased designer items like a mother does her baby.  In Chiba, I witnessed a mad rush to the train where two young women slammed their bodies into the train like popsicle sticks. It’s likely that they had to make the train or would have been late for work.

Even in the countryside, where you’re much less likely to encounter packed train stations anything like those in Tokyo, people tend to walk without much regard to those around them. Every time I look around the train, Japanese people are on their cellphones, playing games or reading emails.

A Fallen Glove

So when I saw a woman lose her glove in Takaoka Station, the second largest city in Toyama, I didn’t want to stay shut inside a bubble. I noticed the woman lose her glove as I was sitting in the waiting area. I stared at the glove for a solid minute, thinking of what to tell the woman in Japanese.  She was now sitting a few seats from me and was looking at her phone. Everyone else around me was either napping or glued to their cellphones. Not wanting to ignore it, I gently picked the glove up and carried it over to her. She looked to be about 60. She was elegant in a brown suede coat and reminded me of my mother a bit. “Sumimasen,” (excuse me) I said. She looked up surprised and instantly uttered a stream of “arigatous” (thank you).

A few moments later, she got up to leave. Before she left the station, she looked back at me and bowed twice.

It was a simple gesture of gratitude, and it made my day.