Country Bumpkins

posted in: Japan, Journal, Life In | 4
Great Meadows Heron
Young Great Blue Heron still foraging through the water lilies in late autumn, long after the adults have left. Great Meadows State Park, Concord, Massachusetts, 1990.

Maybe because November winds are blowing and daylight is stopping short of 5 o’clock Tokyoites have moulted into blacks and greys and seem more sombre than ever on the trains. In the annual rite of mourning the sunlight, some students file into my classroom on the verge of somnambulism, the same people who had filled the lessons with laughter and energy during the soporific summer heat. The cells know better. It is time to shut down, to conserve your calories, and hide in the shadows. And on the trains dour commuters pinch their frowns a little further.

So it was quite a delight when this elderly couple stepped on the train while I was on my way home tonight. The man wore an old, ill-fitting navy blue suit, and the woman an old grey flannel dress, probably their best clothes. The man’s skin was mahogany brown from a lifetime out in the sun, and his wife wore her hair tied back and had a smile full of flashing gold fillings. The moment they stepped on the train the man’s voice was too loud for the confines of Tokyo sensibilities and everyone turned to stare at them both. The old man had the temerity to turn to the business man reading the newspaper beside him, bow his head, and apologize in his hillside bred voice, “Sorry! Sorry! Just have to push my way into this sardine can and jostle all you folks. Please, don’t mind me. Pay no attention to me.”

His wife pressed her hand over her golden teeth and suppressed a giggle. “Look dear, you shouldn’t bother this nice Tokyo man like that!” The Tokyo man rustled his newspaper but kept his nose buried in the news.

Sitting down right beside the two newcomers was a young couple, probably in their late teens, dressed in the whimsical fashion of those who love trance music. The boy wore a loden green tunic with a hood, and had a leather satchel, studded with bolts, slung over his shoulder. The girl wore an onionskin series of Indian and Indonesian gauzy, printed fabrics, not unlike a moth with gossamer wings. Both of them were deeply involved with one another, faces pressed together, legs entwined, in a way that, here in Japan, definitely meets with clucking disapproval, even glares from the elderly.

The train stopped at one station to wait for the following express train to pass and the two lovers suddenly jumped up and stepped outside. As they stood up, some gum that had been left on the seat pulled in a long green string from the boy’s bottom, with a large green blob fixed to the seat.

The elderly couple, seeing the seats open up made to sit down, but the old man noticed the gum just in time. In a loud voice he called out, “Now who would do such an inconsiderate thing? This is really terrible.” he grabbed the boy’s arm as he made to step off the train. “Did you do this? Would you leave gum on a seat to trouble another person?”

The boy looked back, surprised, “Oh gosh, I’m sorry!” he blurted out at first, then corrected himself. “But I didn’t chew any gum. It wasn’t me.”

The old man frowned, then laughed. He pulled out a newspaper from his wife’s handbag, placed it over the gum on the seat, and announced to everyone in the car, “I’m going to sit down and just have a test to see if this gum will stick to my buttocks. Don’t worry about me!” He plopped down on the newspaper, wriggled his butt, and sighed. “My dear”, he said to his wife. “It’s safe.” She sat down beside him, both of them laughing. For about five minutes, as the train waited, the two of them discussed, in full-throated enthusiasm, the perils and effects of sitting down on wet gum.

After the express train had passed the boy and the girl stepped back into the train and stood in front of the elderly couple. The old man started talking with them, asking where they were from. The two were shy at first, because no one talks to each other on trains in Tokyo, but their demeanor changed as it became clear to the four of them that they all came from the countryside, all from up north in “backward” Tohoku, the boy from Iwate, the girl from Miyagi, and the old man and woman from Fukushima. The old man let out of roar of laughter, folding his arms and nodding. “I’m just an old country bumpkin (“inakappe”) and don’t know anything about living in the big city. Just came here to attend my brother’s funeral, that’s all. And today I went downtown to look at the big electronics stores. And what are you two young uns doing here, anyhow?”

“Studying,” replied the girl, smiling shyly, completely different from the lover making out on the seat just ten minutes earlier.

They talked until the train arrived at the young couple’s station and they both made to leave. “Wait,” said the old man. “How’s the chewing gum on your butt?”

“We got most of it off,” said the girl.

“Lemme have a look,” said the old man, and he made to grab the boy’s buttocks.

“Dear! You don’t go around grabbing strangers’ butts! What will people think?”

The girl hooted with laughter and the boy tried unsuccessfully batting the old man’s hand away while blushing red as a tomato. The old man’s wife managed to subdue her husband and let the young couple exit the train. They looked back, laughed, and waved good bye. I was sitting half a seat length away, barely able to keep from joining in the laughter. Everyone else peered down at their shoes or newspapers or cell phones, frowning, pretending they hadn’t witnessed a thing.

At the next station the elderly couple got off and fell behind as the train pulled away. The train fell silent again and I watched the rain hitting the window panes. But a warmth remained. A sense of a vital force having just passed through, like a fresh wind. I got off at my station and whistled as I walked home, in the dark.

4 Responses

  1. Reading your story of the old couple made me laugh. It certainly is not what you see on the trains in Tokyo, where each person tends to act like they are alone on the train. In my whole time in Japan, I have had very few chance conversations on trains. The few that I have had were wonderful, but probably would not have happened had I not been a foreigner, and therefor infinitely more approachable.
    The trains in Tokyo can be so depressing, crowded yet empty. No eye contact, no greetings, no smiles. The mood reminds me of the mood my high school detention teacher tried to impress on our group of delinquents. At least then we conspired together and shared in the oppression, in Tokyo there is no such bonding. Just that feeling of being alone in the dark.

  2. What a great story.

    I once heard that the reason people don’t make eye contact or speak on trains is because it’s the last thing they can do to keep a “personal space” bubble around them, a ludicrous idea when you’re jammed in like sardines. I suspect this bubble looks and feels quite different in different cultures.

    And smells different. If you get on the Tube in London at 8:00 am it smells of tea; everyone’s just finished their last cuppa. The Metro in Madrid smells of garlic and lingering black tobacco. I wonder what it smells like in Tokyo?

  3. Wonderful story — the details are great, and it is fun to imagine this scene. :)

  4. It is like a refreshing drink on a hot day. This ought to be compulsory reading for anybody in a bad mood. Anywhere in the world and at any time.

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