My schedule's been a bit off lately, I know. Next week I promise to have Monday's Child up and running (with an interesting subject). As a substitute - let me offer up this tale of life in Japan. And for those of you waiting for my next chapter on Ireland; I haven't forgotten - it will be posted this week.
As most of you probably know - I lived in Japan about 20 years ago. My house was on a hillside adjacent to a delightful little seacoast village called Akiya. Akiya was just down the road from the Emperor’s summer palace, you see – making it a very popular resort town in the summers. Traffic would get so thick, local Japanese made sure to carry tables and chairs in their cars to help deal with traffic jams. Damn good idea, that; out comes the picnic basket or a crate full of Mikans (the best tangerine in the world) and fun is had by all whilst waiting for traffic to move. When it finally does – everyone scrambles (laughing happily) moving their cars another 4 or 5 feet. Rinse and repeat. Delightful, really – and the best way to handle insoluble traffic. Akiya was one happening place. During winter though, it remained a smallish fishing village filled with warm, friendly people. I loved it there. Sea air and bamboo forests, Rhinoceros beetles and benjo spiders – I took the good with the bad. It was also centrally located – just a hop, skip and a jump from Yokohama and from there right on up into Tokyo.
I'd often spend the weekend in Tokyo – usually staying in the Sano hotel (back when it was affordable). Roppongi, Shinjuku, Shubuya, Shinagawa, Akihabara - pick your poison; I knew them all intimately – and by foot. No one really drives in Tokyo – it’s like New York in that respect - so hopping the train was always the best bet; though you did take your life in your hands. Man – was the crowding something else! I was tall, so I didn’t get claustrophobic – but I always felt squashed twelve ways from Sunday. They packed people in until all the oxygen was replaced by sweaty bodies. You usually ended up feeling like mashed sardines (without the oil). That is, except - for one rather exceptional Friday. It was rush hour; they were loading us on with those long poles (really!), so I kept getting shunted along the inside until I nearly ran out of train. Suddenly, inexplicably, I found myself standing in a completely open space. This didn’t happen frequently – let me tell you! And with empty seats even! Lord! A miracle had occurred! I immediately stepped free of the crowd and looked around to find a place to sit down. There was a sole Japanese man in a very sharp looking suit quietly reading one of the more popular manga (weird-ass comic books – usually about sex) – not a soul sitting next to him or even standing anywhere near. I didn’t get it – but what the hell, it was breathing space, so I sat down opposite him and settled in for the ride.
When I took my seat, a kind of inhalation spread through every other person in that car. I thought it was because as a gaijin, I had somehow violated a rule of conduct. Being gaijin (foreign) usually meant I was making some kind of faux paux, so I looked around, making sure my legs were neatly tucked, no skin showing – you know – I really didn’t want to offend anyone. My eyes naturally fell on the man sitting next to me. Middle-aged (thirty-something), pock-marked skin, kind of bulky – like he worked out. Large for a Japanese guy, actually. Peeking out of his shirt collar was evidence of massive tattooing. I was intrigued. I had recently been tattooed myself – a birthday present (I always treat myself to a little something on my birthday), so I was always looking at other peoples tattoo’s, just in case I wanted something more done. I noticed the mans tattooing was very intricate and extended down his one arm – his shirt cuff would ride up so you could see it around his wrist when he’d shift. That’s when I also noticed he was missing the tip of his pinkie finger, and suddenly all the air seemed to get sucked right out of that train. Of course I recognized what he was – yakuza – and a yakuza that had fucked up, or he wouldn’t be missing part of his finger.
Well – he must have heard my intake of breath, because he looked up and caught my eye. We stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity – I couldn’t break away, even knowing direct eye contact to the Japanese is often looked on as rude or some kind of a challenge. All this and more flashed through my mind – the other people on the train, the quality of light in that car – the thumping of my heart. It was like slow motion – everything stretched out – even my hearing seemed affected. I blinked – still caught in his gaze. He almost smiled - then went right back to reading his manga. The train began to slow down as it came up on its next stop. Though my legs felt like rubber, I got up, made my way to the doors, and got off the train – even though it wasn’t my stop. That day I was heading for Roppongi. Who knows where the hell I actually was at that point. The train moved on. I could barely bring myself to look back. Thank God he wasn’t following. Shaken, I went to the nearest coffee machine, and got myself a can of something very strong. I followed that up with some Saki (you can get anything in Japan from an automated dispenser – even worms for fishing. No lie). I stood there, sipping, until I could bring myself to catch the next train. I’ve never forgotten the incident – and I’ve never forgotten that man. So – the next time any of you get caught in heavy traffic or feel trapped by too many people on the bus - be glad all you have to deal with are the crowds. But who knows? One day you might run into someone very interesting.