By Meredith Stephens
The conference on intercultural communication in Osaka is over, and now is the hard part. How do we navigate the labyrinthian Osaka underground to the Wakayama Port to catch our ferry back to Tokushima? Even exiting the building to the underground is complex. A kind senior citizen notices our confusion and painstakingly gives us directions in English. We follow her directions, launch into the underground, and discover a sea of impeccably presented commuters rushing in multiple directions. Our disorientation is heighted by the lack of natural topography and being unable to sense the position of the sun. However we manage to identify the signs directing us to Namba Station, and manage to arrive there with two hours to spare before our train departs for Wakayama Port.
Our home island of Shikoku is no longer foreign to us. Why would anyone want to live anywhere else? I have made Tokushima, home of both the ultra-modern and the traditional, my base in Japan. Tokushima produces LED lights, and is intersected by the mighty Yoshinogawa River, which has provided the water necessary to make high-quality indigo for hundreds of years. My conference companion Danielle has settled in Matsuyama, home of literature, where children regularly compose haiku in elementary school, and where passengers are greeted at the hoverport by a haiku post-box in case the creative urge takes hold en route. Matsuyama also boasts a haiku museum, and celebrates its renowned poet Masaoka Shiki and the novelist Natsume Soseki. Surely everyone else in Japan shares our affection for our green and mountainous (not to mention literary) island, just across the Inland Sea? Surely any number of them in this underground station can help us find the route back to our island?
At Namba Station we locate an information booth. We enter and are greeted by a smiling bilingual guide, who directs us to the JR station. We follow his directions through the purposeful crowd criss-crossing our paths until we find a JR office. We explain we want to catch a train to Wakayama. The clerk redirects us to the Nankai train; it seems that we were was looking for the wrong rail company. As we are leaving we pass a British family trying to validate their rail pass to Okayama. Noticing their language difficulties we intervene, and help them confirm the departure and arrival times to Okayama with the clerk. The British family look impressed at our sudden switch into Japanese, but we explain that we live in the countryside; we are lost and it`s not too hard to ask for train times. Their eyes widen in bewilderment, and they thank us. Then we are back off into the crowd in which everyone but us seems to be walking purposefully to their destination.
Somehow we find our way back to the information booth, and the smiling guide recognizes us this time around. We explain that we want to catch the train to Wakayama in order to make the ferry to Tokushima. He has to consult his workmate. It seems our destination is not as popular as we think it must be; few of the people in this frenetic crowd will be joining us on our trip back into the countryside. We follow his directions and succeed in arriving at the Nankai Station.
Relieved, we line up on the platform, enter the train and take a seat. The heat pulsating through the seats is comforting. Ninety minutes later we arrive at Wakayama city, where we have to change trains. We exit the train and struggle to read the characters for unfamiliar places, but manage to identify the one to Wakayama Port. We have to descend the stairs for Platform 6, which eventually turns into Platform 7 (although I think maybe it should have been Platform 6 1/2). There we are greeted with a cheerful pink rail carriage decorated with sea-breams.
Source: Danielle Kurihara
There are pictures of sea-breams on the floor in the doorway and on the upholstery. There are also sea-bream handstraps suspended from the ceiling for passengers to steady themselves with when the train is in motion. They resemble a school of fish.
I catch the eyes of a fellow passenger above his allergy-mask, and seconds later am jolted into the realization that he is my student from Tokushima. I laugh at the coincidence and take a seat beside him in the now-empty train. We exchange pleasantries and then I ask him why the theme of this train is the sea-bream. He explains that we are on the coast, and that the Japanese word for sea-bream –tai – is a homophone containing part of the word for celebration – omedetai. Before I consider how exotic this is, I upbraid myself. The theme of the conference in Osaka was not to regard the ‘other’ as exotic, but rather to consider how you yourself might be considered exotic. We reluctantly farewell the sea-bream train and board the ferry back to Tokushima.
The ferry is almost empty. The crowds in Osaka have dwindled to a handful of passengers. I gratefully stretch out over a few of the many empty passenger seats and slip into semi-consciousness as I allow the rhythms of the sea to lull me into a dream state. Over two hours later we are gently woken to a broadcast of no-longer-exotic music which sounds like a heart-warming ending to a long film. It echoes or perhaps shapes my thoughts. I won`t dismiss this music as saccharine or sentimental, but rather embrace it as a reassuring “Welcome Home”.