It’s been a few weeks now since I arrived in Japan, during which I’ve done everything I expected I would do; Be a massive nerd, get lost, fight demons, get found, panic, and hide in my room for days on end, all the while taking special care to shirk all of my responsibilities. The good news is the panic did not last for long and excursions into the concrete wilderness have been frequent and rewarding. Equally frequent are my uses of these strange creatures common in this great island nation. These long beasts of metal and glass were introduced to the environment by foreign traders in the late 1800s. Free from the natural predators of their native lands these gentle giants reproduced quickly, spreading across the country at an alarming rate. Now they are fully domesticated and can be found in every town and city, diligently ferrying people across the land. The locals call them “denshya.” Loosely translated I believed that means “train.”
Now this was by no means my first encounter with the rail-bound kind. I had in the States, on rare occasion, interactions with trains. Though unlike their Japanese counterparts the American species had a unique aroma I can’t describe here (at least not without risk of being fired). Also, very true to American form, the western trains were frenetic creatures, arriving and departing at their whim, beholden to no agenda of man. In addition to being more prolific, the eastern sub-species is far more obedient, bending to mankind’s will and arriving at stations in predictable, precise patterns.
However these creatures are not without their risks. The train is a very territorial animal and will viciously attack anyone it finds on it’s tracks. To counter this threat the Japanese have developed advanced early warning systems in the form of giant red buttons. A single push will stop the beasts cold, giving would-be victims precious time to flee. The Japanese spell out the use of such devices with amusing, child-friendly (yet surprisingly morbid) cartoons that play on the trains themselves.
In order to move around this sprawling city I’ve been forced to form an uneasy bond with these beasts. This was an uneasy transition for me, partially because I’m an American suburbanite, but mostly because I’m fat (more on that in a moment). America is very much a car culture. Car ownership, or at least access and working knowledge of cars, is assumed, especially for suburbanites. Being bound to a set route after years of vehicular freedom is a strange challenge, especially when the route requites changing trains (sadly done via stairs and immobile platforms and not, as I had imagined, dramatic leaps from moving cabs).
The other issue is space. Now Japanese trains have four general states; ’empty’, ‘full’, ‘packed’, and ‘the human body was not designed for this much pressure.’ This is a problem for me since I have the fat. Also being a suburbanite I grew up with the concept of ‘personal space’ and generally find being touched by strangers to be uncomfortable. Allow me to point out a key fact here; Japanese business men do not care about personal space. When a train is at ‘packed’ or above it’s understandable since there isn’t really room to move (or breath in some cases). However even in ‘full’ states where more room can be created by shifting slightly or sliding legs together, the typical business man will not, possibly due to paralysis by apathy. Now I’ve noticed Japanese women will try their hardest to respect my personal space, though I suspect that’s either due to fear of the hairy gaijin man, or disgust of the sweaty gaijin man.
Now I learned this last bit the hard way, so here’s a quick warning to anyone thinking about coming to Japan. Trains here are empty for approximately .02 of a second. The last trains at midnight are usually full of drunks and/or teenagers who spent too much time in arcades, while the first trains in the morning tend to be full of drunks and/or teenagers who spent too much time in arcades and missed the last train. At best you’re sharing the train with about a dozen other people, at worst you’ll be part of a massive human press, think a fruitcake but slightly more appealing. If you find yourself on an empty train do not panic, you’re actually on a ghost disguising itself as a train. Calmly get up and leave at the next stop. Best case scenario it’ll let you go, but more often you’ll end up in a spiritual realm. Stay calm, generally they’re just trying to teach you a life lesson. But in case things go sour remember aim for the shins, a swift kick will usually give you enough time to make a get away.