I have many fond memories of trains in Japan. Some make me laugh to this day—and a few are downright uncomfortable. Nonetheless, they are unforgettable parts of my experience in the land of the bullet train.
My first and strongest train memory is of my first day travelling alone on the local trains. I had a schedule with clear, detailed instructions complete with train times, platform numbers and station names written in English, because I understood absolutely no Japanese when I arrived. I’ll never forget the nervous sweat that trickled down my back as I counted the stations and double-checked each passing signboard.
I remember being warned about chikan or “perverts” on the train who take advantage of the close quarters. I was always wary, but luckily never had that horrible experience. My worst experience was boarding the train with the back zipper of my skirt left unzipped, underwear and pantyhose exposed for all to see.
I remember laughing at an elderly man, shoes off, sitting cross-legged with his eyes closed and a 100-yen coin stuck in each ear—and I remember being squished by the “pushers” who are hired toget as many passengers as possible into each car. And I remember smiling at my son’s round, fascinated eyes when he boarded a train for the first time. How clear those fragments of my past are!
Bullet trains are usually associated with nicer memories (and more comfortable rides). On one trip to Tokyo, there was a sudden rush of passengers to the left side of the train. I realized later that they’d spotted a particularly beautiful, clear view of Mt. Fuji, a rare gift. Years later, that bullet train became the link between myself, my children and my husband, who was living and working apart from us. The excitement on my children’s faces as they watched their dad appear on the platform was priceless.
I have a particularly fond memory of a train trip to Kobe with my best friend. That day involved sharing good conversation, good laughs and an ekiben, or a boxed lunch specially made to be sold at train stations or on trains. Those lunches are always the most delicious.
Perhaps my most hilarious train tidbit came on an afternoon riding to Nagoya. I met an elderly student of mine by chance on the train. We became immersed in conversation and he forgot about his stop. When he realized the train was about to leave, he rushed off—leaving one shoe behind! He turned around on the platform, mouth open, frozen with indecision.
Luckily, one quick-thinking passenger bent down on one knee, scooped up the shoe and chucked it between the doors just as they closed—and my student sat there with the shoe in his hand as the train pulled away. Everyone cheered.
All of those memories associated with a long tube of steel, hurtling through the universe. They are forever in my train of thought.