Life in Tokyo can only be interesting and challenging if you make an effort to see it from a different point of view.
i am on the train writing from my cell phone. an hour ago i took off in the night from my apartment in the country to the train station, to head into tokyo before heading out for a five-day walk in the mountains west of tokyo early tomorrow morning.
for three weeks now thunderstorms with incredible lightning displays accompanied by the heaviest torrential rains on record and, when not raining, the highest temperatures on record, have been hammering the islands. even as i write the train rides through a lashing rain that obscures the lights of the city outside, but lights up every now and then with flashes of daylight. thunder pounds against the roof of the train.
it’s almost a dream, sailing blithely through the night land while the gods stamp about among the rooftops, hurling spears and roaring in anger. around me in the train car passengers doze and glance up sleepily when a lightning bolt stabs the roof of an apartment hi-rise. the world could be sinking into the sea for all they see. in the seats across from me a baby snoozes in the arms of her mother while the mother watches tv (the olympics most likely) on her cell phone. nothing is really there.
the rains and lightning may hold me back from climbing this week; i’ll have to keep an eye on the sky. but at least i’ve broken out of this two-week shell and will feel whatever may come against my skin. there is nothing like the rake of the immediate world.
One more day to go. I’ve been so busy with work and preparations that I haven’t had any time to post anything here. As with all such things problems pop up at the most unlikely times. For one, another big typhoon is making its way along the Japan archipelago, but hopefully it will veer off toward Korea. Then there was the problem with travel insurance. I applied for membership with the Austrian Alpine Club, UK branch, specifically so I could get the mountain walking insurance (including health and rescue) and discounts on mountain huts in the Alps. However, when I recieved the membership card in the mail, my name was printed out wrong, with no sign anywhere of my last name. I emailed and then twice made an expensive international call to rectify the problem, and you know what, they flatly denied that there was any problem with either my registration information and the card, in spite of evidence right there in my hand. They cancelled my membership without looking at the scan I sent them and had the audacity to say that I didn’t know what I was looking at! Well, now I don’t have travel insurance and with diabetes that is a BIG worry. I just can’t understand what induced those people to treat me like that. It took me four months to find a travel insurer who accepts diabetics.
All I can do now is either completely give up going up to the mountains, or just damn the torpedos and hope for the best. I’ve been dreaming of this trip for more than ten years, so giving it up would be self-defeating.
I’m excited about getting out of Japan after all these years, but full of trepidation, too. Yesterday as I was wishing a good summer to people with whom I work and ended up walking home along my now daily route through the rice fields, I wondered why I was doing this, heading off yet again alone to some mountain somewhere, undoubtedly to go through bouts of loneliness and sadness. Why don’t I just stay home, find someone to settle down with and love, and forget about subjecting myself to the rigors of the road? The other day an old woman sat down next to me on the train and indicated two children across from us sitting in the “Silver Seats” for handicapped and elderly. “Japanese children these days are so spoiled, don’t you think?” she asked me (already a rare occurance… most Japanese will never assume that I can speak Japanese) “When I went abroad last year I was shocked when someone next to me told me that the two children standing next to me were not allowed to sit down, because to stand built character and showed respect for the elderly. Don’t you think that Japanese children should do the same?” She turned her coke-bottle glasses to me and blinked at me with big expectant eyes. Of course I had to agree. Then she asked, “Do you have children?” “No,” I replied. “Ah, but you’re still young,” she said, nodding. “I don’t know. I’m already 46,” I said. She shook her head, and then, in a loud voice so that everyone in the car could hear her, she boomed, “Oh that’s so sad. What is it, something wrong with your semen count?” I think I must have shrunk to the size of a grapefruit. “Oh, don’t worry about how much semen you have. You can always go to some countries I know, get an operation, and soon you’ll be squirting the stuff all over the place and having 20 or more little rugrats!”
In spite of the humor in that encounter, I thought a lot about her saying that it was sad that I didn’t have any children. I’ve often wondered if that is what is missing from my life, because I can’t seem to find that one piece of the jigsaw puzzle that makes me feel like a human creature that has filled its purpose in this world. I don’t know, maybe that has nothing to do with children at all, though.
So tomorrow I’m going to the Europe. I will arrive in Zurich, Switzerland, spend a day or two there, head over to Lucern and Interlaken, maybe catch a jazz festival or so, then head into France to Chamonix where I will spend two or three days acclimatizing to the altitude and seeing how my legs are faring. From there I hope to head up to the Tour de Mont Blance, about a 10-day walk about the biggest massif in western Europe. I hear it’s one of the greatest walks in the world. Most likely I’ll have some more days after that and if there is enough time I will head on along the Walker’s Haute Route towards Zermatt, where the Matterhorn is. Even if I can’t walk it I think I will at least take a bus there just so that I can see that famous peak. Then it’s down to Italy to relax and do some architecture viewing. If it’s not too far I’d like to go see the architect Carlo Scarpa’s Brion Cemetery, one of my favorite examples of architecture. But none of this is set in stone; I’m aiming to be very flexible and not be too hard on myself.
I’ll probably have internet access here and there and will try to post occasionally, but since I want to get away from the computer I will only post a little. Hope to stay in touch with you all!
Have a nice summer!
Maybe because November winds are blowing and daylight is stopping short of 5 o’clock Tokyoites have moulted into blacks and greys and seem more sombre than ever on the trains. In the annual rite of mourning the sunlight, some students file into my classroom on the verge of somnambulism, the same people who had filled the lessons with laughter and energy during the soporific summer heat. The cells know better. It is time to shut down, to conserve your calories, and hide in the shadows. And on the trains dour commuters pinch their frowns a little further.
So it was quite a delight when this elderly couple stepped on the train while I was on my way home tonight. The man wore an old, ill-fitting navy blue suit, and the woman an old grey flannel dress, probably their best clothes. The man’s skin was mahogany brown from a lifetime out in the sun, and his wife wore her hair tied back and had a smile full of flashing gold fillings. The moment they stepped on the train the man’s voice was too loud for the confines of Tokyo sensibilities and everyone turned to stare at them both. The old man had the temerity to turn to the business man reading the newspaper beside him, bow his head, and apologize in his hillside bred voice, “Sorry! Sorry! Just have to push my way into this sardine can and jostle all you folks. Please, don’t mind me. Pay no attention to me.”
His wife pressed her hand over her golden teeth and suppressed a giggle. “Look dear, you shouldn’t bother this nice Tokyo man like that!” The Tokyo man rustled his newspaper but kept his nose buried in the news.
Sitting down right beside the two newcomers was a young couple, probably in their late teens, dressed in the whimsical fashion of those who love trance music. The boy wore a loden green tunic with a hood, and had a leather satchel, studded with bolts, slung over his shoulder. The girl wore an onionskin series of Indian and Indonesian gauzy, printed fabrics, not unlike a moth with gossamer wings. Both of them were deeply involved with one another, faces pressed together, legs entwined, in a way that, here in Japan, definitely meets with clucking disapproval, even glares from the elderly.
The train stopped at one station to wait for the following express train to pass and the two lovers suddenly jumped up and stepped outside. As they stood up, some gum that had been left on the seat pulled in a long green string from the boy’s bottom, with a large green blob fixed to the seat.
The elderly couple, seeing the seats open up made to sit down, but the old man noticed the gum just in time. In a loud voice he called out, “Now who would do such an inconsiderate thing? This is really terrible.” he grabbed the boy’s arm as he made to step off the train. “Did you do this? Would you leave gum on a seat to trouble another person?”
The boy looked back, surprised, “Oh gosh, I’m sorry!” he blurted out at first, then corrected himself. “But I didn’t chew any gum. It wasn’t me.”
The old man frowned, then laughed. He pulled out a newspaper from his wife’s handbag, placed it over the gum on the seat, and announced to everyone in the car, “I’m going to sit down and just have a test to see if this gum will stick to my buttocks. Don’t worry about me!” He plopped down on the newspaper, wriggled his butt, and sighed. “My dear”, he said to his wife. “It’s safe.” She sat down beside him, both of them laughing. For about five minutes, as the train waited, the two of them discussed, in full-throated enthusiasm, the perils and effects of sitting down on wet gum.
After the express train had passed the boy and the girl stepped back into the train and stood in front of the elderly couple. The old man started talking with them, asking where they were from. The two were shy at first, because no one talks to each other on trains in Tokyo, but their demeanor changed as it became clear to the four of them that they all came from the countryside, all from up north in “backward” Tohoku, the boy from Iwate, the girl from Miyagi, and the old man and woman from Fukushima. The old man let out of roar of laughter, folding his arms and nodding. “I’m just an old country bumpkin (“inakappe”) and don’t know anything about living in the big city. Just came here to attend my brother’s funeral, that’s all. And today I went downtown to look at the big electronics stores. And what are you two young uns doing here, anyhow?”
“Studying,” replied the girl, smiling shyly, completely different from the lover making out on the seat just ten minutes earlier.
They talked until the train arrived at the young couple’s station and they both made to leave. “Wait,” said the old man. “How’s the chewing gum on your butt?”
“We got most of it off,” said the girl.
“Lemme have a look,” said the old man, and he made to grab the boy’s buttocks.
“Dear! You don’t go around grabbing strangers’ butts! What will people think?”
The girl hooted with laughter and the boy tried unsuccessfully batting the old man’s hand away while blushing red as a tomato. The old man’s wife managed to subdue her husband and let the young couple exit the train. They looked back, laughed, and waved good bye. I was sitting half a seat length away, barely able to keep from joining in the laughter. Everyone else peered down at their shoes or newspapers or cell phones, frowning, pretending they hadn’t witnessed a thing.
At the next station the elderly couple got off and fell behind as the train pulled away. The train fell silent again and I watched the rain hitting the window panes. But a warmth remained. A sense of a vital force having just passed through, like a fresh wind. I got off at my station and whistled as I walked home, in the dark.