The list of things I miss (and don’t miss) about Japan is long and complicated. But without a doubt, the efficiency and thoroughness of Japan’s high-speed rail system is high on the list of things I wish existed in the Midwest. I explore this issue in my latest “Letters from Japan” series at Gapers Block.
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.
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.
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.
Japanese train stations are some of the most modern and efficient places I have ever seen, but here in the countryside, life moves at a slower pace. Our trains are still generally on time and used by the masses for work and leisure, but many inaka train stations here are rustic and barren, minus the waiting seats and vending machines.
But at these desolate places, I see stories.
Inside Nakanamerikawa station (中滑川駅), part of Toyama’s Dentetsu line, there is a wall mural that always catches my eye when I walk past it. In the mural, a young couple embrace. They look more Western to me than Japanese, but they could easily pass for two characters in a manga. The slender woman is clasping onto the man’s broad chest like her life depends on it. Her blue skirt is flowing so that it looks like an ocean wave. The man, wearing a tailored brown coat and slacks, looks ahead as if he is about to leave her to serve in a war. Duty beckons, he thinks, and he must protect his woman and his country.
I don’t know the facts or history behind this mural, but I am drawn to it nonetheless.
A few feet away from the mural, there is an elderly woman who works at a sweets shop frequented by students. She sells fresh crepes and ice cream in a rundown train station. She is the only worker I have seen at the shop. Except for the junior high school and high school students who buy sweets and giggle on the nearby bench, her only company is spiders and Winnie the Pooh dolls. She is no more than 4 feet 11 inches tall and looks about 85~87 years old. She stands with a slight hunch, always wearing a checkered apron and bowing or smiling when I walk past her.
To me, she is the woman in the mural.
She is smiling, and waiting. Waiting for her husband to return, and waiting for the days when she does not feel so alone.
Sidenote: This is my 100th post! Thank you to anyone who has ever read any of my entries, commented or simply inspired me to write.