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.