Commuting on the Local Japanese Train

I live in the mountains of central Tohoku, Japan. Every workday, I commute about an hour each way by local train. The line I take cuts through numerous rural villages and natural areas, including a scenic volcano with ski resorts. It’s beautiful.

There’s a rhythm to the train that I love. The rocking of the cars. The way it seems to breathe as its pneumatics operate. The energy of the people, all in their own private bubbles, yet sharing this communal space together. Forced into each other’s worlds, if even just a little, we share this mundane daily ritual together.

I suppose I would be a lot less enamored of the experience if I had to commute in just about any other country. But this is Japan. Polite and orderly to a fault, the Japanese are ideal commute companions.

It helps that have no lingering distasteful associations with trains from my previous lives. Growing up in Alberta, Canada, I never had much a chance to experience passenger trains. Buses are the mode of transport that I loathe. I hate their smell. Their motion. I hate waiting for them, and I hate being on them. Buses have been ruined for me by too many hours of being crammed into them going to and from school; packed in with bullies and random big city psychotics and smelly geriatrics that want to talk. Being on a bus always makes my skin crawl just a little.

But trains? No problem. They carry with them all the romanticism of bygone eras and international travel experiences. I’ve always loved trains. I grew up near the rail yards and the middle of the night booms of the freight cars being shunted was always a comforting sound to me. My friends who slept over thought the sounds were monsters. No, it’s just the trains, I’d tell them.

When I agreed to take the job that would require this commute of me, I realized that the train ride would become the anchor of my day. Each leg a stable bookend to compartmentalize my work life from my private. It has been just so.

But what to do in during this time? You see, I have no smartphone. No tablet. Is this a modern purgatory I subject myself to? No. It is a precious chance to unplug. Unplug from my family responsibilities. Unplug from my coworkers and work life. Unplug from my online personas and the steady stream of toxic news that otherwise pollutes my consciousness.

It is a time to plug into myself. To listen to that inner voice that gets drowned out in the barrage of those other incessant commotions.

It is a time to stare out the window. To gaze at the snowy hills or mountain; the little roads winding through the rice paddies; the dilapidated towns nestled amongst the trees and hills. A time to people watch. Maybe send something back to the woman who’s been eye fucking me from across the car since she sat down. To wonder what the interesting looking person opposite me is writing so furiously in their notebook with a twenty year old mechanical pencil.

A time to zone out and let my mind wander. Be entertained by whatever nuggets of memories wash up, seemingly at random; the snippets of songs I haven’t heard in years; the lingering images of last night’s otherwise forgotten dreams.

These are all internal pleasures that are being lost to us. Obliterated in the steady barrage of internet product we subject ourselves to constantly. Well, not so much anymore for me.

Then there’s my plan for what to do with my time. My plan to turn it to my use in a more explicitly productive way.

I write.

Writers write, they say. Too many aspiring writers, however, fetishize the process of it. “If only I had the ideal writer’s nook to work in and inspire myself, then I could write!” they tell themselves. Typewriters and cluttered desks with rustic views; leather-bound notebooks and fountain pens: these are like smut to the aspiring writer. What perfect combination of materials and circumstance will finally allow these dreamers to pursue their craft? If only that could be found!

Well, there is no such formula. They have the wrong idea. Writers write. So grab a pencil and some paper and fucking write already. You write wherever you happen to be when you have the time to do so. Steal the moments from the bitch tyrant of time whenever she leaves you the opportunity. There is no other way.

Fucking do it. Or don’t. It’s not my problem.

As to my writing time on the train commute, it took me about three days and five legs to get comfortable with it. Every word was like pulling teeth until my mind adjusted to the reality I was forcing upon it: this is where we write now, bitch! Now, perform!

Once I was used to writing on the train, it fast became the ideal venue for me. On this vehicle I have no means to distract myself from the writing goals I have set out for myself. I’ve never had a more productive time. (In case anyone is wondering, I am presently working on a fantasy novel. More on that as it develops.)

Before, at home, I had to attempt to schedule writing around my family’s schedule. Less than ideal, with a toddler and an exhausted wife to deal with. And when I did have the chance to sit down and focus, the tool of my craft, the PC, also doubles as my main vehicle of procrastination. When I hit those dull, low moments in the writing process, where every ounce of my being hates the work, it is all too easy to click open a browser. To check those feeds.

To plug right back into the sea of noise that sweeps away those vibrant little threads inside that must be carefully plucked up and woven together into notions to be explored through the written word.

Not so now. No Wi-Fi on this motherfucker; we’re in the boonies here! Now when I hit those low moments where I don’t want to write, all I can do is look up from the screen and engage with the train and its journey. There’s always something to take my mind off my creative issues. Oh, how lovely! Snowy mountain in fog. Pretty Japanese lady peeking at me yet again, eyes a sparkle of shy desire. Salaryman checking his tablet and nose breathing angrily; I wonder who’s all up in his shit today?

Then, soon enough, my brain resets and I begin writing again without any thought. It’s natural, after all: my laptop is open right in front of me. I’m bored with looking out the window, or checking out my fellow passengers, so I may as well hammer out another couple hundred words.

As I have just done now.

The soft clicking of my keyboard disappearing into the racket of the train and the murmur of the people on it.

Catchunka-chunk… Catchunka-chunk…

…and on and on we go.