The Tokyo Project

My only claim to fame—and calling it that is probably a bit of a stretch—was a blog post I wrote almost two years back called Train Culture, which was one of my early attempts at pinning down some of the intangible and social value created by investing in rail infrastructure. It got passed around via social media and caught the attention of WordPress, who pushed it onto the “Freshly Pressed” panel on its homepage. It was unexpected for me to find that something I felt wasn’t much more than my own groping in the dark for meaning actually resonated with a lot of people. In the wake, and with the best of intentions, I made a note to expand on that idea through an ongoing series of vignettes of what I considered train culture. Other than a handful of posts here and there, my execution left much to be desired. The Tokyo Project is not that far from being an entire set of train culture stories which, it is my hope, will go some way toward putting things back on the right foot.

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This particular entry involves welcome back rituals, the little things we seek out to cue our brains that we’ve returned. The destination may be home or could just be a place that holds personal meaning. For New Yorkers back from the near or far abroad, it might be the moment that the Manhattan skyline comes into view from the plane window. Sometimes it’s dropping by a favorite restaurant to order the “usual” or walking to the convenience store to pickup milk in order to have something for breakfast the next morning. For me, I don’t really feel I’m back in Tokyo until I’m on a train.

I always take the Keisei Main Line to go into the city. At 70-ish minutes into Nippori Station, it’s by no means one of the faster ways to get into town from Narita. The N’EX and Skyliner will get you there much sooner and in plush reserved seats. While the time savings might be appealing, these options always seemed too polished for me. They aren’t too far removed from the generic, dedicated purpose air-trains you find connecting many suburban airports with their associated city. The Keisei is a commuter line, not unlike taking say, the Chūō Line in from Hachiōji. While there are plenty of people toting luggage, there are also salarymen looking like they could really use a beer, students in seifuku coming home from keion and after school sports, and enough advertisements plastered all over the carriage to make your head spin. (It may come as a surprise to many American readers that Japanese children are taught to walk, cycle and take public transit to commute to school unaccompanied, beginning as early as the first grade.) These are the images of the Japan in my mind, and to isolate myself from that for the sake of cushioned leather upholstery just wouldn’t do.

If I had to choose just one facet of train culture that I liked the most, I think it would be this engendering awareness of others. Instead of that driver, it’s a mother with her sick child, probably on the way to the pediatrician. Public transit affords us the opportunity to learn how to behave as civil adults, sharing limited resources like space and energy, and acknowledging other travelers as the fellow humans that they are. This alone is enough to make me want to live in a place where these kinds of experiences are part of my everyday routine. But in the right circumstances train culture goes well beyond these subtle interactions and delivers things unexpected, piercing our shell of obliviousness, allowing events, or people, to touch us directly.

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It happened about halfway into my second day. I had finished up with the shōtengai in Togoshi Ginza and was en route to Ivan Ramen in Rokakoen for an afternoon snack. I changed from the Asakusa Line to the Yamanote Line outer loop at Gotanda Station. When I reached for a pole to hold, an older woman had been going for the same spot from the other direction and we bumped. The ritual stream of apologies and deflections ensued. You know the drill, in English it would have been something like: I’m sorry! No, it was my fault! You take it. No, I’m fine, go ahead. I’m really sorry. It’s nothing.

I would have thought a white guy speaking Japanese isn’t very unusual in Tokyo, but it was enough to make her do a double take, pause for one beat, and decide that she was going to launch into an interrogation. Business or pleasure? Both, I guess. I’m working but I really enjoy it. Is this your first time here? No, I’ve been here before. Why did you come back? I love Tokyo! (Corny, for sure. But when you have the language ability of a kindergartener, it helps to stick to the basics.) Where in Tokyo? Places like Musashikoyama, Togoshi Ginza, Shimokitazawa. Why? Well, they’re interesting. (To speak in any detail about the idea behind my work would have been way beyond my conversational ability.) While I scraped my brain for more words that might get me started, I stalled with: In America, a place like Shimokita—doesn’t exist, she finished for me. Pretty much.

We pass Meguro Station. She wanted to know more, but could tell that she had about exhausted my capacity to respond to her inquiry. I suddenly got a hand in my face and a wait a moment, please. She barreled down the center of the carriage, coming back 15 seconds later dragging a young Asian woman with bleach-blonde, razor-cut, pixie cropped hair. The young woman turned out to be from Taiwan, probably a college student, who spoke flawless Japanese and English. Together with my friend, who I’m guessing was around 60, they made quite the pair. I regret not having taken a photo. Translator in hand, I continued to answer questions. Yes, I lived in Tokyo for a few months. I was an exchange student and lived in Jinbōchō. No, I don’t have a Japanese sensei, I just study on my own. I find Japanese language and culture very rich and interesting, which is enough to make me find ways to learn them little by little in my spare time. (She really liked that answer.)

Ebisu Station. I learned that her children live in California, with two grandchildren in school. She had spent time in the US while visiting them so, like my Chinese in-laws, she sort of understood why I found the contrast between the places interesting. She hoped I found whatever it was I was looking for.

We approach Shibuya Station, where both need to depart. Pixie hops off, probably glad to be released from her duties. My five minute friend smiles and ever so slightly bows. She gets off the train and waves as she disappears into the crowd on the platform.

She never said the actual words, but the message was clear: お帰りなさい

The Tokyo Project

This post is part of The Tokyo Project. Click here to go to the introduction and table of contents.

Additional volumes: Volume 2, Volume 3