Japanese trains are silent. The engine may huff, the couplings will swing, and the cars can creak, but you won't hear a word. People bring silence to the train. It's an odd concept in North America since North Americans love to talk. There's laughter, sometimes overly loud music, and of course, conversation. Yet, in Japan, the silence is deafening. The few times I heard anything was often between foreigners or high school girls. Even still, the foreigners eventually learn it's a faux pas, and the girls always speak in hushed tones. The train became a prime example of Japanese etiquette.
For instance, if someone is carrying a backpack or any other type of bag, it takes up no space. If they sit, it's on their lap, and if they stand, it's between their legs and on the ground. Courteous. Polite. Efficient. That's not all. Say someone enjoys reading during their commute, they will use a book cover so no one may be offended and they are granted their privacy. In truth, I highly doubt there would be offense in the first place, but the thought is there. People listen to music, but you'll never see them move. No rhythmic bobbing of the head, or even a slight toe tap, and while you would think this was only true for the train...the night clubs always surprised me.
As I'm sure you've guessed, Japanese trains can be quite busy - especially Tokyo trains. Yet, there is no pushing or shoving. When the doors open, people allow everyone to disembark and wait in a self imposed queue automatically. The moment people are done leaving the train, the queue begins to board. Everyone respects the amount of time someone has waited, and respects the order. It was heavenly. I loved being able to trust that every single person understood the unspoken, unwritten rules of commuting. It made commuting safe.
But, marching in robotic synchronicity, and keeping absolute silence was sometimes painful. There's an absence of life. I can honestly say I hold politeness, courtesy, and respect in the highest regard, however...it was as if everyone lacked humanity. It was like the town from Footloose. Everyone was so morally upstanding, that it even prevented them from dancing. I wanted to be the person who breathed life back into Japan - well, everyday Japan. Japanese TV and media is another story. I think it's the only way they can express anything. Through over the top symbolism, and crazy hi-jinks. Trust me, in everyday life, people hide their eccentricities. Usually. Save for the odd man inexplicably wearing a girl's school uniform.
I digress. Japanese trains are efficient and always on time. If they're late (even by 5 minutes), either someone died, or the weather has actually gotten serious. Worried about being late for work? Just ask one of the many train staff for your proof that the train was actually late (chien shoumeisho). I'm serious, it's a slip of paper officially stamped, essentially acting as an apology to your employer. I had to ask for one a few times, but luckily it didn't affect me. I still managed to arrive early (thanks to leaving early and typically short delays).
Overall, the most impressive part about Japanese trains is the fact that so many of them are still running. I often took trains to rural Japan, and that meant riding on the oldest trains you've ever seen. Like the ones just after they were done with coal. They worked beautifully. Sure, they made a little bit more noise, and sometimes when they started moving again you could feel the whole train jolt and shudder as it caught up to the engine, but they worked perfect. That's another thing I learned about Japan, they believed in fixing things - not replacing them. Another quality I greatly admire.
For today's post, I've arranged a few photos from trains around Aichi. I've also included a few videos of trains in movement. They're a bit boring, but interesting. I hope you enjoy, and I'll be back for the next update on March 31. Jya ne! (See you!)
After a whirlwind of new experiences, it was time for some formal training. We were up at the crack of dawn ready to storm the beaches, office attire equipped and hair done up. Our first days of orientation involved introductions from different company representatives and reminding us that this would not be easy. They compared it to hell. They smiled, and we laughed, but we were mistaken - it wasn't a joke. The President of the company graced us with a brief introduction. He was an older Japanese man that didn't speak a word of English, and was accompanied by a translator, another man in the company. He asked us who we thought the top 3 private TESL schools were in the country. Interestingly, the top 2 had invited me for interviews, but I declined (it was 3,500 km away). This is when we found out PKC was the top 3 company for teaching English in Japan AND they had the same number of schools as KFC had restaurants. He was incredibly enthusiastic about this fact, and before he left we all recited in unison our new creed, "Otsukaresama desu!". It's essentially a formal way of thanking someone for their good work. We were sternly instructed to say it every time we saw a co-worker, started or ended a phone call with the office, and at meetings. It was a sign of respect. (However, it eventually became a tireless mantra that seemed to lose all meaning.) Each day we were up early, and each night we came home late - then everyone tried to relax/study in the wee hours, leaving maybe 4 hours for sleep. The first few days were learning how to deal with emergencies, and filling out incident reports. Then came the really brutal days - trying to learn the curriculum and teach it to students.
Back in 2014 I moved to Japan and had the experience of a lifetime. I was all set to be an English teacher, and ready to move to my first big Japanese city, Nagoya. It's located in the Aichi prefecture in central Japan. I spent a hot and humid August training, teaching, and exploring in the "peaceful" city.
From far and wide,
I dared to stride,
And never did I know,
True loneliness - my life was bliss
With vending row on row.
What did I need?
A drink maybe,
for weather hot or cold.
If cold, how nice,
how about some ice?
Matcha or choco?
Ice cream is sweet,
But soup to eat
Is lovely in the snow,
And all year round
In town to town,
No matter where you go.
Japan is odd in many ways. Whether it's the products you find in stores (tentacles on a stick, no joke), or the cultural expectation of wearing slippers for particular types of floors (one set for indoors, and another for the bathroom). The oddest thing about Japan, in my opinion, is living here. You are transported to a reality that simultaneously places you in the past and future. Now, I am drawing a comparison between Japan and Canada (or more generally, between North America, and to some extent, Australia and the U.K. - perhaps other countries as well, but I'm drawing from personal experience). Why is Japan like simultaneously living in the past and future? Let me explain.
The Past: So if you think of bygone days, what comes to mind? What are some things that were common and are no longer but a memory? Well, let me give you some examples that are alive and well in Japan. Bicycles. Yes, I'm sure you're aware that bicycles are common in places like China, but were you aware of how common they are in Japan? They are everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. Not just bicycles, but the type of bicycles remind me of travelling back in time to the 1950s. They're the kind of bicycles with baskets in the front and a bell on the handle. I'm not kidding. If you watch a movie from that era, you'll see people happily biking along on exactly the bike I'm talking about. How about trains? Trains used to be a common method of transportation. Guess what? They're everywhere here. Trains, trains, trains! So many different lines! Some of them are older and feel like they're from the 50s, I swear. In more rural areas, the train pulls away from the station with a tug, like pulling on a slack line. You can see the movement jostle everyone in the car.
Okay, okay. So bicycles and trains are a blast from the past. What else? Laundry. Yes, everyone owns a washer, but owning a dryer isn't actually common. Most people buy laundry clips and hang their laundry to dry on a line. It's true. In fact, I just finished hanging my clothes to dry. It's an odd thing having to take your clothes from the washer, and clip them to a string hanging outside your apartment. What year is this?
Remember fax machines? Well they're plentiful here. I use one every single day at work. I can hardly believe it myself. I find it so incredibly old fashioned. What about e-mails? What about computers? What about doing things that save paper? I'm not sure I understand myself. I guess Japan just prefers having hard copies of absolutely everything. So I spend my time filling out forms and dialing numbers. You think they're old, clunky machines? Nope. They're new. Yes, new, small, efficient, fax machines. Oh Japan.
Then we come to the topic of gas stations and convenience stores. You're probably thinking, "Wait, aren't those the same things?" Nope. They most certainly aren't, not in Japan anyway. I know travelling in North America is filled with gas stations and convenience stores being one and the same. Not in Japan. Take a trip back in time when those things were clearly separated. Your local "general" store carried everything you could possibly need in a pinch, and the service was always friendly. If you wanted gas for your automobile, you had to go to a different place, where it was always full service and they offered mechanical work if you needed. Welcome to Japan. In that sense, things are very much like looking back in time. Station attendants happily take care of your every vehicle need, and definitely offer any automotive service required. In fact, because it's Japan, customer service is always taken to another level. At some gas stations, expect the attendant to stop traffic and clear the way for you to leave safely, and in style. Now that's service.
If it isn't classic bicycles, gas stations, fax machines and hanging your laundry to dry, what else is a blast from the past? Simply put, gender roles. Japan is the place where women are exquisitely feminine and all the men wear suits. In fact, they're called "salary men". They work ridiculous hours and are never home with their families. Women graduate college, work as a receptionist for a few years then marry. It's true. They marry young and they have children. Then the men continue to work themselves to the grave, while the women take care of the offspring they've birthed. What's that? Is that the phone? Who's calling? Oh yeah, it's the '50s and they want their stereotypes back.
The Future: Honestly, I'm just going to talk about technology advances. For instance, the machines located in a train station. They can take bills, coins and most of them offer services in English. Then there's the gates. It's this elongated machine which you can either scan your pass through (you can buy a card that will scan electronically through your wallet, no kidding), or you can insert your train ticket into a slot and it will shoot through the other side of the gate. It's pretty amazing. It gets me every time. The city I'm from goes by the honour system. Kind of a huge mistake. In contrast, there's New York City, where you will actually get deported if you don't swipe your metro pass.
How about ATMs? Feel free to dump your change into these machines. That's right, ATMs process change. When you want to withdraw cash, a slot opens and the cash is presented to you in an expeditious and polite manner. (Not to mention the fact that everyone deals in cash. That's right, cash. Another blast from the past.) Or what about the presence of a copy machine/printer in every convenience store? They take USB keys, SD cards...whatever you can slap you files onto and print off. It doesn't matter, these machines will do it.
Japan is also very concerned about the environment. That idea is reflected in some city bus drivers that will actually turn off the bus instead of idling (even while at a red light). Although, I must say that I don't feel like it's helping much (if at all), but the thought is there. One hotel I visited, gave me a key card, which seemed perfectly normal until I got to my room. I attempted to turn on the lights but nothing happened. Then I saw a slot on the wall that asked me to insert my card. As soon as I did, all the lights came on. It blew my mind. They actually thought of a way to conserve energy even if you've left things on, because without the card, nothing would work. So if you go out shopping, and forget to turn the radio off, the tv, the bathroom light - whatever, removing the card would immediately shut it all off. Pretty cool.
I nearly forgot to mention trains again! Yes, there are old fashioned kind of trains, but there is also the shinkansen, also known as the bullet train! Oh my god. Prepare yourself for the most luxurious and comfortable train ride of your life. You have a lot more room than a plane, and yet it feels like you're flying. The train exceeds speeds of 300 km/h and feels like a soft glide just above the ground. If you're standing on the platform and watch the train go by, it rushes by with such speed and sound, that it's sure to surprise you! I grab my heart every time and feel the whirlwind wrap itself around me, like a plane passing you on the street. It's intense!
All in all, Japan really is like living simultaneously in the past and future. All of the technology (save fax machines) are a reminder that they are always ten steps ahead of everyone else. They have the ability to invent and implement everything right here, in their own country. Simple things like talking vending machines that can produce hot and cold beverages (depending on the weather), ice cream, beer and even cigarettes. Some ramen shops have a machine where you purchase your meal ticket before handing it over to the chef. Yes, technology wise they are "streets ahead". However, some things culturally remain rooted in old beliefs and traditions. Whether you're visiting a temple or shrine and witness apprentices wearing traditional clothing, catch a whiff of cigarette smoke from the numerous smokers (some places in Japan allow you to smoke EVERYWHERE), or observe the gender dynamics of a couple - the female wearing ultra feminine, frilly clothing and following behind her well dressed, male partner. Things in Japan are quite different from the rest of the world. Nowhere have I ever seen such a strange dichotomy of the past and future. I suspect that I will never experience this type of surreal reality anywhere else.
On the Ninth Day of Christmas,
My blogger gave to me
Whenever I hear a train, I think about the exact same memory. I think about my time living in a very small town. Every night I would lie awake in bed thinking. The moonlight would shine in the window and the darkness would fill with the sounds of coyotes howling and yelping. Then I would hear it. The piercing, resonating sounds of a train. The loud and sudden blast followed by a continuous rumble. It sounds like a thunderstorm in a bottle.
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