A Transportation Paradise Lost

My heart sank: they weren’t there.

Still sweating profusely and gasping for breath, I peeled off my coat and sat down, watching the platform through the train window. One minute left.

Thirty seconds. Nothing.

A high pitched scale chimed over the intercom and a crisp British accent welcomed me to the super-express service to Kyoto. In absolute silence, the bullet train slid out of Tokyo station, three empty seats around me.

———

Lets talk for a minute about transpiration in Japan.

At our pre-port meeting, the Japan-expert called it a transportation “paradise.” I don’t want to say they’re lying. I just think that the word “paradise” could use some defining here.

There are things that are actually and truly miraculous about the way Japan runs, things you notice even in a 5 day visit. Bullet trains are astonishing. We slipped through the countryside with less turbulence than a luxury car, going almost two hundred miles an hour. The subways are clean and on time – I heard an apology announced when a train was two minutes late. Streets are impeccable. Even though neither Tokyo nor Kyoto are the shining futuristic metropolises that I think some part of my less imaginative (or more imaginative?) brain believed, you never see trash, nor even much graffiti. Also, and I am just going to repeat this here: you can get cans of hot coffee and tea from vending machines.

A culture that deeply values hospitality also means that the people are kind and polite in a way I have never seen before, and I have been to Canada. The counter agent at the ticket office chased us two blocks because we left a shopping bag behind. A man who gave directions came, 5 minutes later, when he was free, to check that a friend had, indeed, found the post office. We only had one rude encounter and it was with a drunk Brit, which was a relief, frankly. Every country on earth has to have one drunk Brit who aggressively hates you for no reason. Just like every travel story should involve the Australian backpackers you met. (Ours were named Patrick and Sarah. Patrick does a mean karaoke version of Man in the Mirror.)

And there are other things, outside transportation, that definitely feel like paradise: you can order ramen from a vending machine (outside the restaurant, and then you take the ticket and hand it to a man and 2 minutes later a bowl of steaming heaven is in front of you. And if you do this alone after karaoke at 2am on a cold, deserted Tokyo street, you will end up standing at a tiny counter in a brightly lit space next to a rumpled
businessman just leaving the office, slurping ramen in absolute silence as you both read newspapers and you will know, right in that moment, that this will be what you remember as Japan.) There are cat cafes, and now owl cafes, and apparently rabbit cafes. There are crepes everywhere and miraculous street food. There are convenience stores that are, really and truly, convenient: you can pay your bills and taxes, mail your packages, use an ATM, photocopier or computer, get on free wifi, buy umbrellas, pick up coffee and get mysteriously delicious meals all for a few yen.

But paradise? I question paradise.

Here’s a metaphor that does more justice to my particular experience in Japan: Japan is a Michelin three star country, and I am a Beverly Hillbilly who never learned which fork to use.

I have never been so acutely aware of the myriad ways I was offending everyone around me. And I have lived in Austria. Was I talking too loud in the ramen place? (yes) Was I using chop sticks correctly? (no.) Am I meant to dip this in soy sauce? (who knows) Will this ticket work for this train, or did I need to get a different ticket for a different denomination from that orange machine right next to this green machine? (no, and yes) Everywhere I went gates slammed closed with a startling honking noise, cops frantically waved that I was not allowed, waiters looked at me in quiet despair, and I was deeply aware that I was doing it oh, so, very, very wrong.

A ten minute subway ride took us 45 minutes, including getting off and on the same train three times at a single stop. We walked around the entirety of Shibuya station, dragging bags, to discover that we were meant to make a cross-platform transfer. In the crowds that 38 million people cause, you knew that if you lost one another, it was a lost cause. By luck one of the men I travelled with was 6’5” and wore a red hat, but were it not for Greg, I’d probably still be standing, somewhere in the middle of a crowd, wondering where to go next.

————

The bullet train gathered speed, and I decided to move up to Quynh’s seat. I leaned back and looked out the window – in Kyoto I’d find internet, and email them. I’d wait by the Shinkansen gates for them to appear. I realized I didn’t know where our AirBnB was. I realized that these were reserved seats, and probably not transferable. I realized I’d paid for them. This was going to be a long night.

I heard a yelp and looked up. There they were, all three of my travel buddies, pumping their fists in triumph. One had been grabbed by another as he walked the wrong way through Tokyo station, another had had to convince an official to let him through the ticket barriers with no ticket on the basic explanation that he was helpless and hopeless and Western and needed her pity. A conductor held the door, making the train, oh, five seconds late, in order to let them on. The librarian produced convenience store hand rolls from his bag and we settled back, chomping on seaweed, as the train shot through paradise.

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