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 #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.