Up to this point, I have not used the style of writing that recounts personal experiences, instead preferring a commentary style approach to convey information. However, as some of my encounters can give an insight into the Japanese psyche, and an indication of the kinds of things that can occur while visiting the country, they have relevance for this document, and so are now included, but up here, at the back, easily ignored if the reader so prefers.
The ‘retired’ couple
As I have explained, Japanese people are generally slotted into a number of stereotyped categories, the traditional caricatures including the dark-suited salaryman sacrificing personal and family life for company, mothers who rule the roost at home and meticulously plot the life path of their children, and doting grandparents whose lavish gift-giving knows no bounds.
Being on the outer in Japan, living outside the mainstream, is not usually done by choice, and even when it is would normally be as part of a group, a recognised sub-current in society’s flow of life. On my first trip to Japan, in March 1989, I had the great fortune of striking up a friendship with a married couple who, five years earlier at around 40 years of age, had taken a deliberate decision to drop out of society and lead a shared life entirely of their own choosing. This was made possible by their not needing to work for a living.
With a few basic sentences of travel Japanese under my belt, some contacts to look up, and a fairly well researched route to pursue, I set off to Tokyo for a month’s stay in a country that for the previous couple of years had increasingly become like a magnet for me.
Armed with a Japan Railpass, a good guide book and various city maps, I spent my first three weeks firstly familiarising myself with the intricacies of the Tokyo above and below ground rail systems and the labyrinthine city itself, then exploring the widest range of cultural, culinary and architectural delights I could fit into the time available. Most of these nights I was put up by a succession of friends of friends (Japanese and Australian) whom I’d never previously met and would never meet again.
For the fourth and final week I had a trip planned to Takayama, a remote historic town near the foothills of the Japan Alps. This trip coincided with the staging of the town’s spring festival, a nationally famous event featuring day and night processions of centuries old floats, puppet displays and traditional dancing and singing. My travel agent for this trip, a Japan specialist, had secured a booking in a very traditional minshuku, which I was to subsequently learn gave me an accommodation experience perhaps more truly Japanese than staying in a private home, with old style sleeping, bathing and eating facilities that appeared little changed from the Edo era of 150 years earlier.
I arrived in the afternoon, and not being able to read building signs or ask directions caught a taxi the full 500 metres from the station to the minshuku. My after-dinner stroll soon had me completely lost, but the situation was quickly retrieved by a very kindly pavement fortuneteller, who guided me around the block back to my destination.
Not being game enough to attempt to fathom the workings of the communal bath, I prepared for my first night on tatami matting, head resting on a kind of bean-filled pillow that sounded like the crashing of waves at a surf beach every time I re-positioned my head. Sometime after I managed to ease the tide out and achieve a quiet and restful sleeping position, I was awoken by the return to their room of my next door occupants, a couple in their mid-40s.
Breakfast at the minshuku was, literally, a culture shock in an eggshell, with the customary raw egg being mixed in a bowl of plain rice and soya sauce. With this and each other stage of the meal, I first watched how other guests ate each dish before tackling it myself. I exchanged fleeting greetings with some guests, noticing that one couple, my night-time neighbours, were more open and friendly than the others.
After breakfast, guide book in hand, I headed for the main area of town, where crowds were already gathering around the incredibly ornate, towering floats before they commenced on their journey weaving through the laneways, which still contained some of the original dwellings.
My thoughts and attention focussing intently on the sights and sounds around me, unexpectedly a firm grip clasped my arm, and I was greeted by the beaming faces of the minshuku couple, who asked me if I was all right and enjoying myself. Within seconds, the husband had inserted coins into a nearby vending machine and produced a can of drink for me.
I readily accepted their invitation to join them and, although it wasn’t yet midday, within a few minutes they were ushering me into a restaurant and ordering lunch for the three of us. Upon completion, the husband announced that as this was a traditional style meal, and hence insubstantial for a Westerner, I must still be hungry and without any ado ordered me a large steak, brushing aside my words of protestation.
From then the couple insisted I should accompany them for the rest of my stay in Takayama, to which I gratefully agreed, constantly but fruitlessly attempting to decline the stream of drinks and snacks they plied me with, while they absolutely refused to even look at anything I wanted to buy for them. The following day was my planned departure day, and because I’d arranged to be met at Tokyo Station by a friend, it wasn’t possible to change this plan.
The couple indicated they were staying on for another day, and asked me to do so too, but when they understood my plan, promptly cancelled theirs and booked tickets for the same train trip back to Tokyo, to make sure I arrived safely.
We all alighted at Tokyo Station, and after being assured the person waiting for me was indeed my friend and that I would be in good hands for the remaining few days of my trip, I bade farewell to the most kind and natural two people I felt I could ever hope to meet, well expecting that although we’d exchanged names and addresses, the language problem and living in different countries would prevent us from ever meeting again.
This belief was proven misplaced a few months later when, completely out of the blue, I received a phone call from a Japanese travel agent announcing that my two friends were about to embark on a six week Australia and New Zealand odyssey, and were insisting they meet me. When I heard this, and the news that in every town and city they were staying in a five star hotel, or the highest level available, a kind of mystique started developing about them. What kind of life did they usually lead, what kind of jobs or business enabled them to take off the time for their travel and afford it?
When I’d been with them in Japan, they were dressed casually and inexpensively. When I first saw them on Australian soil I didn’t recognise them, so well-tailored and heavily bejeweled were they. In an attempt to learn more about the couple, I invited a Japanese friend to join us for our first meal together, but rather than achieve clarification this only threw up more unexplained possibilities.
Coming out of the evening’s discussion the most plausible one, my friend later informed me, was that they owned a large electrical store, or chain of stores, and not needing to work had retired at forty to travel and enjoy life. Another possibility, as can be the case with Japanese who don’t fit into the usual mould and are living outside the mainstream, was that the husband was a yakuza who derived his income from one or more pachinko parlors. When he demonstrated his skill with these machines, eliminating the element of luck, this line of thinking strengthened.
But I was little interested in where this speculation might lead to, or even if it would have an outcome, as I was so thoroughly enjoying acting as their guide around my own city and into the countryside, having taken a week’s leave to be constantly with them. There was no ebbing in their generosity, although this time I was able to convince them to accept something from me.
Again, when we said our farewells I fully expected to never have the chance to enjoy their company again, however this thought disappeared when I received a 27-page letter from them. A rough translation indicated they were thanking me profusely for my kindness in Melbourne during their stay, and were imploring me to make another trip to Japan, this time to stay and travel with them, according to their plan and at their expense. With little need to think twice, a trip was soon planned.
From mid-December of the same year until the morning of New Year’s Day, 1990 I was looked after as if I were a long lost son, or younger brother. They were living in temporary accommodation while a new home was being built, and sleeping and living quarters were rearranged so I could have a room of my own. Initially we stayed at their home, going on day or half day trips nearby, including spending a rainy Sunday afternoon and evening at a multi-storey bath house that combined bathing, dining, stage entertainment, games room, exercise and massage in one all-inclusive location.
We then embarked on a ten day trip together, by train, five star hotels or their equivalent the whole way, side trips by taxi, every day punctuated by three full meals plus morning and afternoon tea, and most nights ending with a masseur called into our rooms. One night we stayed at an incredible onsen accessible only by boat. Taking of the waters was followed by private dining and entertainment in our shared tatami room. The next morning, after paying for the night’s accommodation, the husband returned to his wife and I waiting in the lobby and, opening one hand, told us the two or three coins he held were all that was left of the equivalent of $1,200 he had handed over to pay for the night.
After sharing so many wonderful occasions and unique experiences, travels together, lavish meals, opulent hotel rooms, I was convinced I had made friends for life. Whilst I lapped up the unfamiliarity of luxury travel, and their unstinting hospitality, I had found the generosity somewhat overpowering, being forcefully refused anything but minor shows of gratitude. To them, their kindness and behaviour was normal and in no need of repayment, except for the genuine friendship I showed them, of which they were always most appreciative.
With my improving Japanese speaking and basic writing ability, I looked forward to maintaining the friendship from afar, and immediately upon my return to Australia began bombarding them with phone calls, cards and small gifts. When, shortly later, the phone went unanswered, I suspected they had gone on another trip, the usual cycle of their life together as a childless couple with no need to work. I knew that their life at home was fairly mundane, that they had watched virtually every film in the local video store, and that travel and the experiences it inevitably threw up to them was their life.
For many months, I sent at least one communication a week, but with never a reply, then just birthday and New Year cards, until finally I accepted I would never again hear from them. In a sense it seemed like a shipboard romance; a transitory friendship, intense and all-encompassing while it lasted, but unsustainable, or not wanting to be sustained, for some reason.
Due to factors of shared interests, similar personalities, or whatever, a married couple of one nationality and a stranger of another had, in an instant, clicked and become close friends, able to share only limited spoken words, but immensely enjoying times together, but then just as suddenly the friendship had come to an inexplicable and mysterious end.
The Yamanote Line in peak hour
The final week of this first trip Japan was set aside to visit friends in Hokkaido. I spent the weekend at another friend’s home in Chiba, and together we undertook the Monday morning journey comprising three train trips to Ueno Station, in Tokyo, where I was to board the Shinkansen for the first of a further four train trips north, for a total of seven train trips in eleven hours.
The first leg was in a small, single carriage train from a local station on the very edges of the Tokyo conurbation, and being the start of the line, and before 7am, we secured a seat for the leisurely ride. A few stops down the line we changed to a suburban train, that took us into the more central regions of Tokyo, where we had to get off at a station connecting with the Yamanote subway line.
The Yamanote Line goes around Tokyo in one big circle, functioning as a connector and feeder for many other subway and above ground lines, like the Circle Line in London. I had frequently used the Tokyo subway system during the first week of this trip, three weeks earlier, but never in peak hour. A couple of non-Tokyoite Japanese friends had told me they would never tackle it even at the quietest of times, let alone peak hour, and I had heeded their admonitions. But to get to Hokkaido in a day, I needed to leave Ueno Station by no later than 9am, and so arrival there in peak hour was unavoidable.
When we arrived at the Yamanote Line station, I felt that the volume of people and pace of movement was a little more intense than I had experienced in peak hour usage of the London Underground or Paris Metro, although the extent would certainly have been greater without the higher frequency of train arrivals and departures on Tokyo lines at this time of day. In the usual way my friend, who was on his way to work, and I took our places at the end of a line of people stretching out from markings at the edge of the platform.
Estimating there to be 50-60 people in the line ahead of us, and the number rapidly swelling behind, I guessed we’d be looking to make it into the train after the next one, a comment to this effect to my friend eliciting nothing more than a wry smile. I was soon to understand why.
As the train pulled in there was a slight movement among us, those at the front allowing a few passengers to be disgorged from the already full carriage, and a slight ripple effect emanating from behind. Within seconds, forces totally beyond the control of one or two individuals came into play, as if equivalent to a tidal wave pushing upon us from the rear, and a super industrial strength vacuum cleaner sucking us in from ahead. To my utter disbelief, the end result of this uncontrollable force was that in one big whooshing movement everyone in our line ended up inside the carriage, a feat repeated by every other line of passengers.
Apart from the crushing effect of so many bodies crammed together, my immediate problem was that I had become separated not only from my friend, but from my overnight bag hand luggage, which fortunately my friend was somehow able to retrieve. Any form of movement was now completely impossible. Apart from the crumpling of clothes this wasn’t of undue concern to me, as my body had fortunately been jammed in in a not too uncomfortable position.
But this wasn’t the case for the young woman pressing up hard against my back, whose predicament I only learned of when a kind of wriggling, squirming movement in this area prompted me to strain my head around, and notice that not only was one of her arms locked awkwardly behind her, her glasses had been knocked off both ears, and were perched precariously on the end of her nose.
Regrettably, as much as I would have liked to have come to her aid and at least reposition her glasses, moving one of my arms to do so, or any other part of my body to give her more room, was a physical impossibility, so she was forced to keep her head angled upwards until the next stop, to prevent the glasses from toppling off her nose and resting in the small of my back, as they would have.
Unscathed it was that I emerged at Ueno Station, but incredulous that such a volume of humanity could be squeezed into just one carriage, repeated in all other carriages, on countless trains, every working morning and night. No wonder non-press clothing is essential for Tokyo peak hour subway users, and few people take their own lunch to work.