Train Stories #10: The Girl Who Looked Up


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 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.

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 #5: The Girls Who Screamed “Kawaii!”

Kawaii culture in Tokyo

Train Stories #5 – On most days,  with wild, unkept hair and pants that don’t always fit me properly, I generally think I look like a hot mess  – or a life-sized fuzzball walking down the street.  But because I am white, slender and have greenish eyes, a lot of teenage Japanese girls seem to think I look somewhat exotic.

I am always flattered when I walk past someone in Japan, and I hear them quietly whisper, “Oh, kawaii…”

Kawaii (かわいい) is the Japanese word for cute, and it is used almost as much as teenage girls in America say OMG!

See that Winnie the Pooh pouch? Kawaiiiiiiii!

See that three-foot cellphone charm? Double kawaiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!

On Saturday night, I took the train to Takaoka for a nabe (Japanese soup) party.  I was dressed pretty casually — in jeans, Converse shoes, a winter coat and red cap.

The journey to Takaoka takes about 45 minutes by train, so once I found a seat on the train, I put on some music and took out my book (Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running).

Midway through the train ride, at Toyama Station, a bunch of high school students suddenly stepped on the train.  What was once a peaceful journey turned into a mini-high school drama akin to a scene in Hana Yori Dango.

High school girls in short blue skirts, knee-high socks and matching jackets were giggling and looking at their ketai (cellphones).  The boys around them, in disheveled white dress shirts and slacks, tried to look cool and oblivious, so they played games on their cellphones or looked out at the windows.

Even on Saturday evenings, most Japanese high school students wear their uniforms for club activities or tests, so I wasn’t surprised to see so many students still in uniform. Just as the train started to move again, two high schools girls sat across me.  I looked up briefly and suddenly heard one of the girls say, “kawaii.”

I smiled at them and went back to reading my book, but before I could finish the next word, her friend, who seemed shocked by my smile, instantly repeated “Oh, kawaii.”

This made me laugh and take off my earphones.

“Oh, kawaii….” they said once again, this time looking straight at me and giving me the Manhattan Once Over.

“Are you high school students?,” I asked.


“High school?,” I said again.



Both girls looked at each other.

“Kawaiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!,” they said again.

Since kawaii seemed to be the only word they liked saying in front of me, I smiled one last time and went back to reading my book.

The girls went back to talking to each other and texting on their phones.

As soon as we arrived at Takaoka Station, I said bye.

Their last words to me?

“Bye bye. Kawaiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii.”

Later the next week, I took the same train to Takaoka for a birthday party.  This time, I dressed-up more in a purple dress, black boots and make-up.

I left my red cap, however, in my bag.

I sat next to a young woman who looked about the same age. She never made eye contact with me and clutched her leopard-print bag the entire way.

As the train stopped at Toyama Station, once again a large group of high school students got on the train. This time, however, everyone ignored me.

It must be the red cap that is extra kawaii.