Japanese Commuter Diaries

Intro here.

They are flooding the rice paddies now. The vistas of dirt fields are now filled with water; transformed into wetland almost overnight. In the evening light, they reflect the sky and mountains behind; like a placid lake segmented by the grids of paddy walls.

Looking down at the nearby paddies from the train, we can take in small, organic, squishy scenes. Muddy pools still, with baby rice seedlings poking up in their neat rows. Ducks and herons going about their business, clearly delighted. The little rice planting tractors at work, with the tiny farmer trucks supplying their trays of seedlings parked on the narrow roads between the paddies.

Later, these pools will become seas of deep green. And later yet, yellow: drooping low under the heavy burden of grain.

But for now it is water and mud. Ducks and rubber boot wearing oldsters in their straw hats going about their labors together.

The junior salarymen from my last instalment have put in another appearance. Just the youngsters, though: none of the managers are in attendance.

At first it was just two of them sitting in the booth opposite me on the morning leg. Nothing unusual here; with their pressed black suits, white shirts and striped ties, overly shiny patent leather shoes, briefcases and overnight wheelie carry-on bags. At the next stop down the line, however, they are joined by another of the lads. This one is different. He is rocking street clothes and has with him a full suitcase.

He sees his two compatriots are wearing suits. He expresses his concerned surprise at this with one of the many expressive Japanese vocalizations they use instead of words. (“ehh!?”)

His two chums are surprised too. You’re not in your suit? (“Sutsu? Sutsu?”)

Oh dear. Buddy in his trendy ripped jeans and rocker shirts whips out his smartphone and hurriedly accesses the email that summoned all of them on this excursion. He’s almost frantically scrolling through it now, looking for some way out of this nightmare. Perhaps the two guys in suits are the ones who misunderstood.

His two mates look on with a mixture of amusement and sympathy. Of course, there is also the subtle edge of predatory satisfaction over the failure of someone who is nominally your competition.

No salvation in the email, the street-clothed fellow sits with a stricken look as he contemplates whatever situation awaits him at the other end of the journey. Will he have time to change into the suit he has carefully packed away in his suitcase?

Not likely.

His pre-trouble embarrassment is not over yet, however. At each of the next two stops, another young colleague boards the train and joins the crew. Both of these fellows is, of course, wearing his suit and has a small overnight bag for his toiletries and street clothes.

Oh dear, oh dear. The one odd man out in the five. Not good.

Later, on the terminal platform, I watch the crew. They have been met by an older gentleman salaryman I have not seen before. He leads them off to their destination. The street-clothed chump with his oversized suitcase takes his place in the duckling procession following in the manager’s wake. Stone faced expressions all.

The manager has made no mention of the lad’s fuck up. Probably all the kid got from him was a raised eyebrow and a cleared throat. Maybe a cough.

This doesn’t mean he aint fucked, though. If they are on their way to meet a customer and don’t have time for him to put on his suit before they do, the manager himself is going to have to bow and scrape to Customer-sama for this breach of etiquette.

The subordinate’s fuck up reflects on the manager, you see. It is his responsibility. His bad.

But being anything other than five minutes early for an appointment is not an option either. Do they have time to handle this? However this plays out, it will not be forgotten. Careers have been torpedoed for less.

Oh well, sucks to be him. It’s the kind of fuck up that the managers will all happily bust a gut laughing about at the post-work drinking party, once the acute tension of it has passed. A “shit happens” incident that won’t truly upset anyone too deeply.

But that doesn’t make the youngster any less fucked.

This is Japan.

Japanese Commuter Diaries

INTRO HERE

On the train.

Today I decide to change it up: sit in a seat other than my normal one. I can choose because I always arrive early enough to get the seat I want.

My normal seat is usually in the last booth on the train (my commuter train has two cars, generally), on the left side. I usually sit facing forward.

However, I have found that it’s nice to change things up. Usually I stick to the left side of the train, since that is the less sunny side, but taking a rearward facing seat on occasion is a nice change of scenery. When you’re used to watching what’s coming in your journey, it’s a new perspective to see those same scenes in reverse. A contemplation of where you’ve been, watching things drifting off into the distance.

Today is overcast, so I decided to really change it up. Right side booth, rear facing. Totally different world now. Like they say: sometimes a change is as good as a rest.

Waiting for the train to depart, a group of seven salarymen get on the train. It’s a whole crew. The dynamic with which they do this is interesting.

First, the point man: junior manager. He snags my usual booth, but takes the rear facing window seat. He is followed by four juniors: young, fresh-faced keeners; all obsequious eagerness and jumpy bowing. They occupy the four sideways facing seats by the rear doors. Totally separate area from their manager. The train equivalent of the kids’ table at a big family function.

This remains the entirety of the crew for some time. Then, five minutes before the train’s departure, the two big dicks present themselves. Turns out, junior manager has been holding the booth down for them.

Middle manager takes the rear facing booth seat next to the junior manager, at the aisle. Then, senior manager gets the front facing window seat to himself. His backpack gets the empty seat to his right.

Bossman is the only one with a backpack. The rest have the ubiquitous salaryman briefcases. Bossman, however, can allow himself this small breach of professional dress code.

It is a very nice backpack. Black and grey. Has the logo of some prestigious international business conference or another. The wooden handle of an expensive, folding umbrella protrudes from one of the backpack’s side bottle pouches.

Bossman’s number two, the middle manager, leaves his seat and heads back to the kids’ section. He hunkers down in front of two of them, like a peewee baseball coach instructing his youngsters. I can make out a few words: “customer,” “office,” “meeting,” “presentation.” His juniors are all attentive heads bobs and squared shoulders. Coiled springs at tension, ready to engage.

His people primed, his duty done, middle manager returns to his seat.

Bossman acknowledges none of this. He has not looked at the youngsters behind him once. Nor will he.

Bossman is in his early fifties, with a greying crewcut. Fit. Very low body fat. Square jawed. Dark black suit. Purple and violet tie with a broad, interesting striped pattern that probably set his wife or daughter back a minimum of ten thousand yen (a hundred dollars). He is calm. Like a cat on its favorite perch, he watches quietly with placid eyes. Sure of his superiority.

Bossman likes gum. He works it like it is premeditated murder, with violent stabs of chewing. The base of his jaw thickens as he chews; the muscles there overdeveloped. Sinews and tendons spring out of his jaw and neck. Not just a gum chewer, then: a nighttime tooth grinder too. Unsurprising.

Bossman hands gum out to his two underlings seated opposite. They dutifully take it. He likes gum, so you like gum. Halfway through the train ride, having swallowed his first batch, Bossman hands out more. He actually throws a stick of it at the middle manager, who has to move fast to catch it in his open file folder.

The managers don’t talk. They spend the first part of the trip going through some paperwork quietly. Reviewing files and business propaganda materials. The Bossman has an interesting looking notebook in which he has glued papers and pamphlets amongst his handwritten notes, like some kind of weird scrapbook. Then, once all their preparations are done, they put their materials away and sit in silence.

They sit in silence because the Bossman wants silence.

When we reach our destination, Bossman and his two subordinates leave the youngsters in their wake, paying them no heed as they move to the escalators to get to the bullet trains. A little later, moving through the station myself, I am able to watch their procession heading up to their platform.

Bossman leads the way, talking amiably with the middle manager, who follows one step back and to his right. Then, a good two meters behind, follow the rest. The junior manager who held the booth seats leads the four ducklings, who follow along, two by two.

Bossman leads the way. Kicking ass for his company. Not a doubt in his mind that his people follow behind, doing everything exactly the way they are supposed to.

This is Japan.

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.