On Japanese trains

Rail travel highlights the contrast between the private and the communal in the land of the well-mannered mob. An excerpt from the recently released, "Salon.com's Wanderlust: Real-Life Tales of Adventure and Romance."

Topics: Travel,

Somewhere in the controlled anarchy of my weeks in Japan last fall, I found myself in a group hug, in the public arena of a crowded train station. I was traveling to several temples with a shifting crowd of Buddhist friends and acquaintances, most of them Americans with no experience in Japan and only a little conversational language.

We’d been moving from one monastery or temple to the next almost every day, bearing gifts, paying respects, attending ceremonies. We rose at 3:30 or 4 every morning, joining in temple schedules until after breakfast, and then moved on, by foot, taxi, bus and train, sometimes all in a day. Mostly, we took trains; when I wasn’t in a zendo in Japan, I seemed to be in a station. And after a few weeks in the world of Japanese trains, I felt as though movement itself was my home.

That day in Kanazawa, a busy city in Ishikawa Prefecture, we were overcome by giddy exhaustion. We had a long wait at the Kanazawa station — when we weren’t moving, we were usually waiting. We piled onto a bench in a heap, a dozen scruffy, coarse Americans out of place in the decorous quiet of Japanese business travelers, and somehow Mikio ended up in the middle. Mikio was raised in Tokyo and Osaka, but is married to an American woman and lives in the United States now.

Mikio has told me more than once that he is “not Japanese” anymore. Japanese who leave the country and live elsewhere for a time are never quite the same, he says. He often has a slightly bewildered expression on his thin face, the look of a man who thinks he’s missed an appointment. Even in Kanazawa, Mikio had that look. The American boisterousness and informality he’d gradually grown used to in his new home stood out starkly in his old one. From deep in the tangle of arms and legs, I could hear his plaintive, clipped cry: “We do not touch much!” he yelped, muffled by the bodies of his alarming friends.

Taking trains is inevitable in Japan, unavoidable — but why would you want to avoid it? The trains are a microcosm of the whole country. I have never had a romantic vision of Japan, never felt a particular urge to visit. This trip was purposeful, specific — not exactly about Japan for Japan’s sake. But day by day, living in the world of the trains, I found myself delighted. It was like stumbling into an accidental love affair with someone as different from your dreams as a person can be.

We do not touch much, Mikio said, suddenly very Japanese again. I knew in the midst of it how out of place our group hug was in that world, but I puzzled over his words. The Japanese are always together. The Japanese tolerate crowds that Americans, the most space-hungry people in the world, find impossible, but in all this swarming humanity, there is always distance, too. They are never alone and they are never completely together, either. Where there is no privacy, there are many masks.

The Japanese are always together, millions of people on a few small islands, mostly in small houses with small rooms. They crowd the sidewalks, walking rapidly from chore to chore, one demand to the next, in well-dressed, quiet, urban mobs. They travel together, lining up politely at bus stops and filling subway platforms in converging flocks.

Even at home, there is little privacy. Many houses have no central heating, and families spend winter time together in a single small space. Almost every workplace operates as a second family, with attendant obligations and society. Japanese hotels charge by the customer, not the room, and put as many people into each as possible — futons lined up on the sweet-smelling tatami mats with only a few inches between. Many public bathrooms are shared by both genders, men discreetly lined up at urinals and women silently squatting in stalls. In the public bathhouses, strangers crouch together on the tile floors to wash before climbing together into big communal tubs. Many people ride trains in standing-room-only crowds for hours every day, the crucible for all this togetherness.

To say “Japanese trains” is to say a mouthful. There are long-distance and local trains of several kinds, as well as city subways and streetcars. The national system was made private some time ago, and there are now six Japan Rail (usually called JR) companies connected throughout the country. They work together so well that the rider never knows this. From one city to another, you may move from one line to the next, from the hands of one company to the next, without a clue. Fares, rail passes and tickets are treated as though the companies were one.

Throwing yourself into the hands of the Japanese rail system is like entering a giant creature’s belly — a massive organism where everything happens quickly and by large measures. More than 100,000 people pass through the enormous and ugly Tokyo train station every day — sometimes many more, shoved into place during rush hours by white-gloved, well-groomed handlers. At such times, Mikio says in his precise English, “You are like a water molecule in water. You cannot go where you want to go.” He tells me a story of a briefcase that was carried away by closely packed bodies, floating across the car, out of reach and never falling to the floor.

In every city’s rail station, hordes of commuters appear like rivers of lemmings, pouring out of trains, across platforms and down the long flights of stairs to the next platform, the next train. They fill the passageways, heading in a single direction, then splitting apart into smaller streams — men, men, men, all in dark suits, white shirts, ties and uniformly serious expressions; flocks of women in skirted suits; small groupings of beautifully coiffed women in kimonos scooting along in tiny steps; masses of uniformed schoolchildren in pleated skirts and ironed shorts, banging heavy book bags on their thighs; even half-naked sumo wrestlers swaggering along, twice as big as their fellows and exuding an almost American self-consciousness. At any moment, you can be swept without warning against a wall by a crowd appearing from around a corner — a descending, ascending, hurrying crowd. Shoved, not by hands or bodies, but by the sheer force of the group which is suddenly moving in the other direction, with an aura so intent on its goal that it can’t be resisted.

The Japan travel guides I’ve seen say little about the trains, this central phenomenon, this complicated cultural ceremony. The most obvious and least helpful piece of advice is that foreigners should buy the “JR Pass,” which covers almost every JR train. These passes seem shockingly expensive — until you stand before a price board in Japan and start adding up individual fares. The pass must be bought before you arrive in Japan, and through a travel agent; even then, you’re given only a voucher, which must be exchanged inside Japan for the precious pass itself.

This exchange takes place with almost ritual stateliness at one of the many Travel Service Centers — small offices with counters staffed by courteous agents who shake their heads disconsolately at English. Our first day of real train travel after an initial stay at a Nagoya monastery began with this exchange. Three agents huddled over our vouchers and passports, turning pages and opening drawers and going through files for a long time, with much whispered consultation, examining our documents and stamping page after page of mysterious forms.

Finally, each of us held a pass worth hundreds of dollars, and a plastic ruler with a picture of the bullet train on it. This little gift was omiyage, small tokens often given by merchants in gratitude for your purchase. The passes are convenient in more than one way. JR fares are dauntingly complicated, depending on the destination, the type of train, type of service and whether or not you’re reserving a seat. With a pass, you need never stand in helpless incomprehension before a fare schedule as complicated as an organic chemistry reaction trying to figure out which ticket to buy and how much to pay. You still need a ticket, but you can get it at the JR office without concern over fares most of the time; it is there, too, where you can get reserved seats and ask for a smoking or nonsmoking car. (The best secret of Japanese train travel I learned last fall was about reservations. They’re good to have, but not always possible. Lots of people make reservations they don’t keep, and you can sit in a reserved car without a reservation, as long as you’re willing to get up if someone holding that seat arrives.)

Reservation or not, you need a ticket, and you must never, ever lose it. There are gates within gates, stations within stations, and you may need more than one ticket per trip and your ticket and pass may get checked several times. If you do not pay enough, you will not be able to exit the platform at your destination. The automatic gate will stay shut, sometimes beeping a warning, and it’s off to the “fare adjustment” window — sometimes a complicated machine these days — to pay more.

All of us were still befuddled by jet lag that first day and only beginning to realize what it means to be illiterate. There is a little English on basic signage in the large stations — “lavatory,” “exit.” Nothing more. One cannot solve Japanese, which has more than one written alphabet, by falling back on high school Spanish or Latin. You can only fall back on luck and trust, which are good tools for the traveler, after all.

With train atlas and maps in hand, we headed down the sidewalks of Nagoya, trailing wheeled luggage behind, into the subway, where a dozen identical schoolgirls surrounded three of the men in our group, giggling and having their pictures taken. Then it was on to the train station, and beyond.

No one had warned us about the stairs.

Japanese train stations are miniature cities, tiny worlds. The big stations cover several blocks and may be several stories high or deep. Rough-textured walkways for the blind crisscross the station floors, meeting and splitting at corners in mysterious patterns. Dozens of long concourses and intricately interwoven rail lines are all connected by stairs. Japan is a rough place for wheelchair users. Oh, there’s an elevator or two, even an escalator now and then, but far from one another. Mostly, you go up and down stairs, lots of stairs, level after level of stairs, which sometimes seemed to stretch before me late on a tiring day like the Sisyphean hills of bad dreams, hills that must be climbed again and again without end. The big stations have entire malls — stores selling groceries, clothes, shoes, books and all kinds of gifts and souvenirs, restaurants, delicatessens, bakeries, pharmacies, postal stations and banks, where travelers eat, shop, sleep, wash, make telephone calls, watch television, mail letters and wait. Everywhere one sees the gyaru, or “gals” — underfed, bleached-blond teenage girls in gigantic, awkward shoes and miniskirts, slouching and sneering at passersby.

On the trains, pretty young women in neatly pressed uniforms pace the aisles without cease, pushing carts loaded with beribboned bento boxes, ice cream, coffee, tea, whiskey and gifts; the conductor in his white gloves strolls through, solemnly punching tickets; stations are announced far ahead of time — once, twice, again and again.

In all those days, watching this chaotic harmony, I felt Japan to be a place of secrets commonly held. Japanese lives are stitched in large measure out of duty, obligation and ambition; our lives are built more on expression and entertainment. Our American identity is so dedicated to the individual — theirs, so dedicated to community. We are snakes and frogs, oil and water. Our odd group was always watched, usually with discreetly averted eyes — the attention of being pointedly ignored. Now and then we were surrounded by curious schoolchildren, or approached by a single adult. The Japanese are courteous to tourists, curious about foreigners, but they have none of the bonhomie Europeans and Americans share. They don’t chat you up. I had the same conversation over and over in Japan, with one polite stranger after another, in hotels, on subway platforms, in restaurants. How do you like Japan? they would ask. Do you know my friend So-and-So, who lives in the United States? I struggled to answer with my few limited phrases. Oh, your Japanese is so good, they would always say, in clear English.

The noise is constant. In a world of careful beauty, there is endless, disconcerting commotion. Incoming trains are signaled with chimes that sound like Swiss music boxes. Announcements are repeated relentlessly: “Please stand behind the white line,” a woman’s voice says from the speakers each time a train arrives, even if a new train comes every two minutes. The community is forever being brought together, willingly or not, by noise: sharing news, political candidates’ amplified slogans, advertisements, television shows, scattered through public spaces.

The commotion is visual as well, mostly in the form of advertisements of uncertain meaning: Here is a geisha holding a power tool, looking oddly excited; there a phone number for something called the “Human Scale Resort.” I stood outside the Nagoya station one day, stopped in my tracks by a television screen on the side of an office building — a television screen the size of a house, blaring its daily shows and commercials to the town. The trains have little luggage space — a little overhead, sometimes a small cupboard at either end of a car. It is hard for an American to leave a suitcase between train cars, out of sight, but on a Japanese train, it is truly safe there. On our first travel day out of Nagoya, one of our group left a borrowed, $900 video camera sitting on the subway platform; it was waiting in the office when one of us went looking.

One way the Japanese tolerate their lack of physical privacy is by the strange combination of rigid courtesy toward others and silent self-containment. Trains are filled, sometimes to the brim, with people reading, having quiet conversations, working and, often, sleeping, without disturbing each other — each person acting as though he or she were alone. The Japanese seem able to sleep sitting up and even squatting without moving a muscle, only rocking gently back and forth with the motion of the train. They can sleep standing up, facing a wall, forehead bowed, for hours.

The Japanese have solved the traveler’s problem of bags with a complex network of luggage service centers. If you know your schedule in advance, you can have your luggage sent from one station on to another, and carry only a small piece on the train. This was impossible for my group because we were making so many brief stops — arriving in one town by mid-afternoon and leaving for another by the early morning, and needing all of our luggage at every stop.

We formed a moving buttress of gaijin — sweaty, large, overloaded Americans moving through stations and train cars like a sneaker wave moves along a beach, sweeping small items along in its wake. (Everything in Japan is a little too small for Americans. On one bus trip out to the remote Noto Peninsula, a group of women fell into uncontrollable giggles when one of the men got stuck in the miniature toilet and had to be rescued.) On the trains, we struggled with our suitcases and packs, we sat on them, held them on our laps and apologized over and over again. The guidebooks I’ve seen usually suggest that a traveler take the express trains instead of the futsu, or local, trains. This is good advice if you’re only interested in getting to the end of the line, but there is so much to see along the way.

The Shinkansen, or bullet train, is not quite as fast as a bullet but it is fast, and more comfortable than most forms of travel. I never even saw the inside of a “green” car, the first class cars, and can only imagine how much better it could be. Bullet trains, these phallically streamlined machines, slide into the station on time to the second, white and gleaming, their aerodynamic cabs angled as sharply as a collie’s head. The trains are always on time and they are always clean. The cars have swiveling, padded seats, beverage holders and folding tables, automatically warmed toilet seats, drinking fountains, recycling bins, reader boards rotating endlessly with stock quotes and news, and what I came to think of as the beautiful bento girls on an endless loop from one end of the train to the other. The Shinkansen stops briefly wherever it stops, being more a machine of time than space — rapidly accelerating and then holding steady, swaying around curves, shooting through tunnels fast enough to pop your ears.

Local rural travel is another world. The trains rock gently through the countryside, flashing past rice paddies, gardens, farms and the back yards of isolated apartment houses and small developments where lines of laundry hang and children clamber over playground equipment, past glittering pachinko parlors in the middle of nowhere, over wide viaducts and under arching bridges, down to the sea, through feathery cedar forests and up into the spiky mountains where rough clouds play at the peaks. They click steadily through mountain tunnels and along precarious oceanside tracks, hypnotic, civilized and seemingly timeless.

To get to the famous monastery Eihei-ji, one of the leading temples of Soto Zen Buddhism, we rode a rickety single-car cogwheel train straight through the farmed countryside and up. A ceiling fan slowly rotated back and forth above us as we sat facing each other on narrow, cracked leather benches. The outside of the train car was painted with cartoon dinosaurs and penguins, chugging steadily up the mountain.

Toward the end of the trip, on the day most of the group was leaving the country, we were surprised to find our rural station crammed with people. It was a bank holiday, and the Japanese do not stay home on holidays. They travel in great crowds and the trains actually run more often rather than less. Suddenly, the neat world of waiting in line and sitting in reserved seats disappeared into a melee of polite, communal running and shoving into every available inch. People sat and stood in the aisles, on luggage racks, on the stairs. Our group was separated between several cars, and we stood with hundreds of weary, hard-vacationing Japanese for two hours through the countryside, everyone within inches of each other. There was no room to sit or squat, no space for more than one’s two feet. And in all those miles, hardly anyone spoke, and no one touched but once. The train rattled hard around a curve and the woman beside me, smiling, tilted forward on high heels, lost her balance. She fell into the waiting arms of four people, who neatly put her back on her feet without a word.

Sallie Tisdale's most recent book is "Women of the Way: Discovering 2500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom" (Harper San Francisco, 2006). She contributes to magazines such as Harper's, Tricycle, and Antioch Review.

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