Japanese Commuter Diaries

INTRO HERE

On the train.

In the daytime, the outside world offers itself as entertainment. Always something new to be seen. Some subtle thing about a place that I missed before.

This is my morning leg.

But what of the night? In the dark, the outside view is gone: obliterated by the bright light in the carriage and the reflections it casts on the windows. What to look at here?

Nature abhors a vacuum, though. So too does our mind. Denied the wide vistas to engage itself, our mind collects more detail from what it has to engage with. We can examine our fellow passengers in more detail now. Furtively, of course, with all the decorum that the social harmony of the car requires. What do a person’s shoes say about them? Their jewelry, or luggage? How do they choose to present themselves to the world, and what telltale signals of their inner self have slipped through?

The seating is the booth type on my train. Like restaurant booths without tables; two person sofas facing each other. When I get to the train early enough, I can get into a booth first. Then, later passengers will tend to avoid sitting in my booth until there is no other choice (they are still skittish about gaijin up here in the countryside). Even then, usually only one will sit; always on the opposite couch, and not directly opposite. Plenty of leg and elbow room still.

Like I said before: in the boondocks here. We are not overcrowded.

On the night leg, the window reflections become mirrors with which to watch fellow passengers. More opportunities present themselves this way. This can be both entertaining and titillating. Here in rural Tohoku, there are not that many gaijin around. And in this country, bedding a white person is still pretty high up on many people’s bucket list. This, along with me being something of a sexy bitch, makes me popular with the racial fetishizing crowd over here (yes, that goes both ways; and you won’t catch me complaining about it). Not bragging; it just is what it is.

As demure as they might seem, Japanese women do find ways to let their interest be known. Surgeons with the coy glances, they are. A nice hour of languid eye fucking, I have found, is a lovely way to end the public portion of my day. Harmless fun.

Not an everyday occurrence, certainly, but frequent enough to be a feature.

I do so love my commute.

Japanese Commuter Diaries

Intro here.

On the train. Between my terminal stations, there are multiple stops on my train ride. The “rapid” version has about five stops. The regular, more.

Three of the stops are fairly big country stations. Two are for towns. The other is for an onsen resort village. Onsen are Japanese hot spring spas. Basically gender segregated, communal (sometimes private) hot spring baths that people soak in. The hotels attached to the spas are usually pretty big, and a popular holiday destination for Japanese folk of all ages.

As my train passed through the onsen village this morning, I happened to be staring out the window at one of the bigger hotels. It’s wide, with at least fifteen stories overlooking the whitewater river. Big and nice.

Most of the room windows had their blinds drawn. My eye was drawn to a window about halfway up.

A man was standing sideways at the window. A woman was seated in a chair right in front of him, clearly giving him a blowjob. Her head bobbing away. Him leaning back in a lower back stretch, watching the train go by underneath.

Predictably, I suppose, the man was wearing a track suit.

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.

Dislocated

I’ve never fit.

I never had a sense that I was going to be anything other than wasted potential in the eyes of anyone that matters in this world. That I would ever have a chance to become anything. That there would ever be a place for me.

It was always made abundantly clear to me that I will never belong anywhere.

This is why I prefer living in Asia. Already an other here, I can be more myself.

Here there are clear ethnic, cultural, and linguistic reasons for my lack of belonging. Here my dislocation from everything around me can be camouflaged in practicalities, and I feel altogether less alien than I do in my parent culture. It’s not any less lonely, but it is a lot less alienating. Since belonging isn’t an option, I don’t have to worry about why I don’t.

Not a fix for everyone, sure, but it works for me. And am I supposed to be selling road maps here?

Moat

I almost fell off a castle parapet into a moat late last night. No joke; it was really close.

castle fall

This pleases me on multiple levels.

Whether the fall would have been fatal or not, at the moment when my foot went off the edge into the abyss, I wasn’t assuming a good result. Time slowed to crawl and I realized that this could be the end of it for me. Then my ass hit the stone of the edge and I managed not to go over.

What a feeling! A good near-death jolt every now and again is good for the psyche.

I think I was saved by all the years I spent fly fishing rivers of the Canadian Rockies’ east slope. Walking scree slopes and cut banks give you a good muscle memory for falling back onto your ass when a foot goes out.

Further, it is very pleasing to me that here in Japan they allow people to wander up onto a castle parapet without any barriers or safety considerations at all. If you want to be a dumbass and fall off the wall into a moat in the middle of the night, that’s your prerogative.

Finally, I think it is marvelous that I managed to almost kill myself in such an anachronistic manner.

Sucking at Japanese

I have never been willing to suffer through sucking at things: either I was naturally talented at something, or I didn’t do it. Growing up, this bullshit attitude was possible thanks to being blessed with more than my fair share of talents. However, due to laziness and an anxiety disorder, I developed too few of those talents into skills.

For example: as a child I had a natural affinity and talent for goalkeeping, both in soccer and street hockey. Unfortunately, my first foray into organized sports was with a coach who was more interested in winning and yelling than educating. One season of that was more than enough to permanently associate team sports with terror, embarrassment, and misery. (Actually, in hindsight, I’m pretty sure I hit the nail squarely on the head with that one, so maybe Coach did me a favor in the long run.) Since my parents were not the types to insist I do anything I not want to, that was the end of that.

Even so, I continued to play sports in a pick-up capacity, and particularly enjoyed goalkeeping. That is, until later elementary school when the training of those in team sports outstripped my natural talent. Once I started to suck, my laziness engaged and I quit rather than strive to keep up. This same basic trend played out in most areas of my life. The skills I did develop came out of pursuing mental escape from education and educators: doodling led to drawing and reading to writing. Then in grade ten I discovered marijuana. The predictable results of that are for another essay.

Be all that as it may, I managed to get all the way through university without ever having to learn how to study properly. Careful course selection and nightmarish cramming sessions got me through the worst of it. Being an intelligent and talented bullshit artist is well more than enough when your only goal is scraping by in a liberal arts degree. Until recently, I never had to work hard at getting results in something I wasn’t good at. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve worked hard at developing the skills I have, but they are things I had a talent for to begin with, which I enjoy doing for their own sake.

But the party has come to an end. I am at a stage in life where I must learn to speak Japanese; to do otherwise would be completely ignorant, in every sense of the word. Unfortunately, language learning is a special kind of hell for me. Whatever the opposite of talent is, that’s what I have. Nothing sticks. And here I am with the study skills and habits of a cocker spaniel. Not that I’m complaining; the reasons for having to learn the language are all really great. So buckle up, Sunshine, it is time for your medicine.

It’s been an interesting and humbling journey. In forcing myself to study, I was pushed into a kind of regression back to the horrors of childhood. The first step is infantile rage. “I don’t wanna!” Then there’s the fall back to unproductive time wasting. The appearance of study always got Dad and Teacher of my back before. The problem is, I’m not studying to quiet an authority figure or get a minimal grade here; I need tangible results. Then comes the embarrassment and shame. “I put in X hours of study, and Y is the result of my efforts? I suck.” Every interaction at a store’s till feels like a quiz in front of the class.

This leads to the inevitable comparisons. “So and So learned this shit the first time she heard it. I have to drill it fifty times over three weeks and my retention is still under twenty percent. I suck.”

I began to feel like Sisyphus Junior: but instead of a rock up a hill, I get vocab flashcards. And Sisyphean plodding was how I approached study for a long while. The same resigned stubbornness that got me through many an underpaid double shift.

Then, slowly, things began to change. Or, rather, I began to change. Our brains and our minds are not blocks of stone; they are clay. It may take a long time and a lot of work to change our form, but we can do it. I suck because I never engaged in the work that leads to not sucking. Bit by bit, day by day, card by card, I suck a little less.

Yes, there are people with talent who will always outperform me, no matter how hard I work. But I aint one of them, and complaining about that is futile at best. Comparisons are odious, especially when we force them on ourselves. Nothing productive comes of it.

The lesson here is that when you find you are getting your ass kicked by something (or someone), do your best to ask: is this because it sucks or because I suck? Working hard at sucking less, little by little, is never going to be fun, but it carries its rewards into all other aspects of life. So keep your shoulder into it and focus on the work. Given that, the results will take care of themselves.