By Cherie Brown
Sendai to Akita, a 175 km journey that normally takes around two and a half hours on the speedy Japanese shinkansen*, became a crazy, cross-country adventure on local trains (note the plural) on that particular night. All rapid-train services north of Sendai City were shut down by an unknown cause (mechanical or electrical failure was the common speculation), somewhere between Morioka, Aomori, the tiny samurai* town of Kakunodate? Wherever. Even the next day, though it had been a major disruption, there was absolutely no news in English online. Eventually, the media settled on ‘birdstrike’ and popped up a few lines in the global lingua franca for those dogged non-Japanese readers still determined to seek an explanation in a language they could understand (in all likelihood only a very singular moi).
Birdstrike? At the time, it made little sense. The word conjured up bloody scenes from the famous Hitchcock movie. Planes brought down by birds I could understand, but trains? I had not come across that before. But who was I to argue? Stranger things do happen. I shrugged and took it on board. Visions of murderous avian ninjas pierced my dreams for several nights afterwards.
Fortunately, on the occasion of this inconvenient event, though I was stuck in the Sendai central train station by myself, I had not, up until that point, been travelling entirely alone. My employing university had sent me, along with a team of faithful staff members and a couple of very responsible students, on a whirlwind weekend trip. First we had flown, on the Friday night, to Sapporo, capital city of the northern island of Hokkaido, then the next afternoon, south again to Sendai, a distance of almost 500 miles. The purpose of this frenetic expedition? To provide ‘demo.’ lessons in English, along with various PR presentations, to eager high school students in northern Japan in the hope of attracting applicants to our highly-esteemed establishment the following academic year.
Japanese universities, because of the country’s declining birthrate, are now in the unenviable position of having to compete for students. PR trips are made by the administrative staff and co-opted faculty of most universities, to venues all around the country. To juku (after-school cram schools), high-schools, anywhere where potential students might be enticed away from their relentless round of study, to be courted with audio-visual wizardry and free ball-point pens.
Foreign faculty, in particular those who teach English language courses, are regularly trotted out to these events, the hope being to create a favourable impression of the sending institution’s international flavour and global outlook, and to showcase the superlative curriculum, facilities and unmatchable energy of student life at the university in question. All good, ’just part of the job’, as the faculty in question might sigh in quiet resignation. And a weekend here or there throughout the year, with a free meal or two thrown in, is normally no problem, as long as one is back on deck, ready to perform regular duties again on one’s own home turf, by 9.00 am sharp the very next Monday morning.
This being my first official ‘away’ trip, the organisers of my itinerary had kindly put me in the intermittent charge of two fourth-year students, E-chan (female) and K-kun (male). Their noble task, between other exhausting duties, was to ensure I got to all the right places at the right time, with all the right handouts and post-lesson evaluation forms. If misfortune were to befall us, and we found ourselves stuck at any point, they could provide me, not only with perfect Japanese/English translation skills to negotiate our way out of a tight spot, but also a certain knowledge of the most efficient and effective way to navigate the complex transportation system of the entire country… apparently…
We had gotten off to a good start, E-chan, K-kun and I, when I had agreed we did indeed have time to squeeze in a quick visit to a famous ice-cream parlour in Sapporo City between finishing our first round of formal duties and heading to the airport in time to travel to the second destination of our weekend gig, Sendai.
So far, so good. All had gone swimmingly, without any hiccups, burps or other unfortunate gassy exhalations, until the entire weekend programme was over. At that point, we had exchanged our mutual thank-you’s, bowed politely at angles appropriate to our respective stations in life, and gone our separate ways. I trudged off with my airline cabin bag and weighty, antediluvian laptop to Sendai station to take the bullet train back home, something I could normally manage on my own. My two student minders… well, duties completed (or so they thought), had hived off somewhere into the depths of central Sendai in search of a certain oishii (delicious) dish of beef tongue, known as gyutan, served with barley and rice, pickled vegetables and oxtail soup, for which Sendai is famous, and (just between you and me) what I surmised might also involve rather a liberal slosh of local tipple. They aimed to take a later train, arriving in our home city after me, but not so late as to reveal they were seriously hung-over in class the next morning.
Unfortunately, on arriving at the central Sendai station, I was met by scenes of chaos. The station building was full-to-bursting with a multitude of biblical proportions. Everywhere, there were grumpy stranded travellers, whose numbers were, as if by miracle, multiplying by the second. Exclamations of surprise, and then annoyance, repeated over and over as each new batch of unsuspecting would-be passengers arrived, only to discover their unfortunate fate.
No rapid trains at all were leaving the city, but all the usual scheduled trains heading towards Sendai from other parts of Honshu continued to arrive, relentlessly. The crowds continued to swell. Public announcements were both vague and appropriately obsequious. “We apologise for the inconvenience… All departing trains are cancelled… Your co-operation is appreciated… blah, blah, blah.” The words continued to bubble from the public address system, but no information about travel alternatives was provided at all. It seemed the JR officials and all station staff were equally mystified as to how this pandemonium was to be resolved, and when. Even if I had been able to understand all the details of each amplified burst of static-laden Nihongo*, the messages were sufficiently confusing that even the Japanese people around me seemed at a loss.
Somehow, between mouthfuls of delicious beef, barley and lashings of piquant pickles, and no doubt the happiness of a smooth, well-earned brew, E-chan and K-kun had become informed of the situation unfolding at the station (bless the inventors of cell-phones—though it was not I who had called the pair). They had abandoned their cosy hidey-watering-hole, taken advantage of the confusion caused by the crush of bodies within the station concourse, pushed their way, illegally, through the ticket barrier at the entrance to the platform, and in commendable and earnest fulfilment of their duty, had come to find, and rescue me. I must admit it was a relief to see them, ruddy faced, moist and breathless though they were. I did not know it then, but this was just the smidgen of an indication of what was yet to come.
The decision was made to exchange my earlier shinkansen ticket and their later ones, for slow, local train tickets that would enable all three of us to make our way together, over the course of several hours, back to our own city, several hundred kilometres away. Doing this would at least enable each of us to be back in time to snatch a few hours of sleep, and turn up as required to our respective classes early the next morning.
It seemed, however, that at least half of the travellers in the station had the same idea. E-chan and K-kun bade me stand still in one spot outside the ticket office, and off they went to queue and negotiate on my behalf. The hope was, that in spite of the lengthy lines of equally desperate travellers, our own ticket exchange could be completed before the last catchable train left Sendai. Otherwise, we’d be stranded on the platform for the night, since there were no more ‘rooms at the inn’, all local hotel bookings having been snatched up quickly as other stranded passengers frantically changed their plans and claimed the last few remaining rooms for the night.
My dear helpers patiently queued for over an hour in the JR ticket office and eventually appeared, somewhat crumpled, but nonetheless triumphant, brandishing the new tickets, and urging me to make haste to the platform. Pushing our way through the throng, we barely made it onto the last possible train that would enable us to make all necessary connections en route, and finally get home. We sandwiched ourselves, our bags, including the one containing my dinosaur of a laptop, between the forest of bodies in the final available carriage, grasped at whatever appeared stable nearby to steady ourselves, and lurched away from the station, most relieved to have made it.
Our route, heading first towards the city of Yamagata, was westward bound, allowing us to bypass the blocked line somewhere north of Sendai. The plan was to change trains a couple of times on the way at various obscure country stations, until boarding the last slow local train heading north for the night. All going well, we would arrive in Akita, our home city, just after midnight.
Phase one of this masterful strategy proceeded as planned. We arrived at our first destination, the small station of Uzen-Chitose, where there was to be a 20-minute wait for train number two.
Ever heard of Uzen-Chitose? Me neither. Let me describe this bustling ‘inaka-nopolis’*. All that exists in this lively little corner of rural Japan is a crumbling platform, an equally dilapidated overhead walkway, and a small, unlit building that serves as a public restroom (with greasy squat loos… but that’s another story).
There was, at that time of night, no station master to either greet us and clip our tickets, or to bow deeply and farewell us, these being, according to my previous observations, the two key duties of most rural Japanese railway employees during their waking hours. The deserted building seemed unusual since almost every other station I have ever visited in Japan has at least one staff member on duty, or at least a station cat, complete with its own mini stationmaster’s cap, but Uzen-Chitose is so small, I wonder if either of these normally standard installations are to be found there, even in the daytime.
In fact, there wasn’t even a ticket gate. For a moment I speculated as to whether one could sneak off a train there, ticketless, and disappear… forever … into the deep, black night, with the JR authorities being none the wiser. Not that anyone would ever do that. No, no NO! This is Japan, the admirable and honourable land of truly honest people (on the whole). Earlier that very day, I had seen a rather shabbily dressed middle-aged woman chase a young, slick-suited salaryman up an escalator, desperately flapping a fat wallet in the air…
“Sir! Sir! Excuse me… You left this on the train!”
In fact, at around 8.30 pm, in bustling Uzen-Chitose, there are no signs of human life at all, anywhere! My guess is the local hard-working farmer folk were already fast asleep by the time we arrived, happy to delegate the task of welcoming us to the several hundred-thousand, full-throated and lusty frogs who were busy courting each other in the surrounding rice fields. They, at least, seemed overjoyed to finally have some real visitors. The greeting chorus was deafening!
From this dark and operatic spot, the plan was to take another train back in the opposite direction, just a few stops, to a slightly bigger station —Shinjo— to connect with planned train number three heading north to Akita our home city.
With utter confidence in my two young companions, I leapt aboard the second train. How wonderful to have two fit and capable young guides, who could read Japanese fluently, who knew where we were going, in the arms of whose comforting expertise I could fully recline. If only all travel in a foreign country could be as straightforward. Ahh…
After a few seconds, I had the strong impression something was amiss. E-chan and K-kun huddled together whispering in rapid Japanese. Their words may not have made much sense, but the anxiety in their voices was unmistakable. They looked at each other woefully, and the truth fell, leaden, upon my consciousness. The language barrier was no longer any kind of impediment. A single fact shone forth with utter clarity. We were going in the wrong direction.
K-kun: “We have to get off at the next station and change trains and come back again.”
(Sombre statement accompanied by a justifiably very anxious expression.)
E-chan: (looking at me with great alarm–since these two had been charged by N-san, a senior staff member at my university, to … quote… “Make sure Cherie-sensei* gets home safely!”)
“We are going to have to run, Cherie-sensei… Like… we REALLY have to run!”
Clearly E-chan had spent much of her compulsory study abroad year in the US hanging out with her American peers. Her use of the colloquial filler ‘like’ did not go unnoticed, I am a language teacher, after all, and these things push buttons in my brain. But her stress on the intensifying adverb rattled me to the bone. More importantly, there was no mistaking her sense of panic, nor my consternation at the full implication of her words. She was 20 something, tall, fit, very slender, and light of foot. Even in her three-inch pumps, she could manage a convincing marathon.
K-kun, a similar age, looked equally athletic, as if he too could successfully clear more than a mile of fences, leaving great swathes of air between his limber body and every obstacle along the way. I, on the other hand… picture this, slip-on (i.e. fall-off) heavy sandals, a bulky great handbag, an airline cabin bag (containing, among other things, my cumbrous old-fashioned lap-top and an equally weighty exhibition catalogue from the Sapporo Museum of Modern Art) …had no inclination to demonstrate any degree of athletic prowess whatsoever! Run? In the words of E-chan… “Like … run?” As any true-blue Kiwi might say… “Yeah, right!”
We arrived, very soon, sooner than I wanted to, too soon to hatch another plan, at the next station. The train we needed was already on the opposite platform on the distant side of the double set of tracks. “RUN!” yelled E-chan, somewhat repetitiously I thought (I had understood her the first time). Urgent necessity pressing in, I was willing to give it a go, though I was not as confident of the outcome, or my ability to comply, as she appeared to be. But there was no time to demur. As our train slid to a halt, E-chan was already forcing the carriage doors apart with Amazonian determination.
So run we did… along the platform, up 50 or so stairs, across the walkway, down the other side… only another 50 or so stairs… Well, in reality, E-chan and K-kun managed that miraculous feat.
They were already on the next platform, and boarding the train, just as I made it … to the top of the first flight of stairs, still on this side of the railway lines. At this point, a sad vision danced before me. I imagined myself, stranded on the windy platform, no more trains till morning, with only frogs and a laptop for company (and probably no Wifi), while E-chan and K-kun merrily chuffed off inside the glowing carriage, back to the warm beds awaiting them somewhere north of wherever here now was.
K-kun, bless his brand-named socks, sensing the desperation of the moment, and full of urgent exhortations, speedily backtracked, meeting me halfway up the second flight of stairs, stopping to reel dangerously backwards as he caught my cabin bag, (still containing my ancient, but rather precious computer) which I had launched through the air in his general direction from the top of the stairs.
In the meantime, the lovely and astonishingly resourceful E-chan attempted to sweet-talk the conductor, something only she, with her elegant long eyelashes, could do, into, miracle of miracles, HOLDING UP THE TRAIN! (If you have ever heard anything about the meticulous punctuality of Japanese rail services, you will understand what a truly amazing feat this was. In fact, only recently, JR officials made a very sincere and embarrassed public apology, in all the various media, for allowing one of its trains to leave a Tokyo station 20 seconds early. This mistake had apparently made life unbearably difficult for transferring commuters, who were forced to run just a little faster than usual, to make their morning connection. And, if the streaming tears of the JR representatives on morning TV were any indication, had upset the world of Japanese commerce and industry beyond repair.)
Just in time, we fell through the barely open door, and into the waiting carriage. Yes, we did it… literally tumbling onto the floor of compartment, into the midst of a very merry, and rather inebriated group of wobbly Yamagata-ites, who yahooed and patted us on the back for having made it. In fact, the entire carriage-full of passengers, also, I suspect, slightly tiddly, joined in the celebration, clapping and cheering. Never before have I ever heard Japanese train-takers make such a racket. Even the train conductor (we were in the last carriage) was laughing! “Otsukaresama desu”, he gurgled through missing teeth–this phrase being almost impossible to translate, but basically it forms a kind of ritual expression of thanks for outstanding effort. And effort, indeed it was! Especially for this no-longer-20-something, ‘slightly more mature’ … someone.
“Domo arigatou gozaimasu” I gasped, barely getting out the words of profound thanks. My ample bosom heaved in a completely inappropriate manner. (For those of you familiar with my usual approach to extreme physical activity, you will tap your nose knowingly and nod, realising how rare it is that this someone’s ‘bosom’ gets the opportunity to experience such a total lack of restraint). I gathered my breath, at last, and bowed deeply, and in the deepest gratitude, to the gap-toothed conductor, and gushed again, “Thank you so much for waiting.” “Ie, ie ie” he replied, with great grace (and considerable compassion). “No worries”.
From there to the next station, with our new-found companions, we exchanged life histories, amid much hilarity, and much sucking-in of air through teeth, at the surprising answers we gave to their questions. “Who are you? Where are you from? Where are you going?” And “Why on earth are you (read “you, the foreign mad woman”) dashing about the remote Yamagata countryside with two students and so much luggage in the black of night?”
Their many queries, all happily answered, came along with a brief guide to the tourist and diving attractions of Okinawa (from whence E-chan originates) and the jovial practice of the English words, “Ragubee” and “sheeeep’ when they found out I was a New Zealander. (Why, oh why are Kiwis abroad always defined this way?) After a few more stops, the friendly group of drinking-buddies departed the train, but not before distributing, inexplicably, from the recesses of several pockets, pretty little cellophane packets containing the tiniest meringues in the world, to the three of us.
The remainder of the journey was comparatively non-eventful, though the normal turn-around time for changing trains at Shinjo Station was supposed to be seven minutes, on this particular Sunday night, it was only two, for which I accept full responsibility. I am more than happy, if ever asked, to make a suitably public, culturally appropriate, teary and heartfelt apology to the wider Japanese public on behalf of JR (Japan Railways) for any disruptions I may have caused Japanese travellers and the Japanese economy, since it was not JR’s fault the train was ‘late’ that night.
We eventually made it to Akita around midnight, as planned, and miracle of miracles, there were still taxis waiting at the station. This is a rare occurrence in a city where the last buses to my suburb normally depart at 8.30 p.m. and everyone, just like the good farmers of Uzen-Chitose, is well tucked in by 9.00. What could one say, but, “Hallelujah!”
In utter gratitude to JR, my dutiful student saviours, whose outstanding dedication in the line of duty is yet unmatched, and whose perseverance and commitment to my well-being never once flagged, despite all minor mis-directions and clumsy dashings; to the ebullient love-struck frogs of Uzen-Chitose, and to all others un-named, whether sober or gently inebriated, who enabled us, eventually, to reach our desired destination, I am compelled to say, “Domo arigatou gozaimasu. Thank you so very much. I will remember you with gratitude forever. Cross my heart and hope not to… croak.”
- Inaka = countryside
- Nihongo = Japanese language
- Samurai = A member of the military class in feudal Japan who owed full allegiance to an overlord. Literally, ‘the ones who serve’.
- Sensei = Teacher / professor / expert. An honorific title meaning, literally, ‘one who comes before’
- Shinkansen = Japanese high-speed bullet train