Train manners

Being polite is practically the national pastime in Japan. Along with baseball, being considerate of others at all times is deeply ingrained within every Japanese person. This is one of the many many beautiful things about this country. You never have to endure listening to loud private conversations on public transport, road rage is pretty much non-existent (at least from what I’ve seen) and people are constantly apologising and thanking one another.

It’s all very nice and civilised. It has to be, considering that the population density in Tokyo is like a gabillion percent. It doesn’t pay to piss off your neighbours and fellow Tokyoites.

Public transport is a classic example of where all eschelons of society converge and have to live with each other. The impeccable manners of the Japanese people ensures that the trains are always pristine, punctual and polite. If a train is more than five minutes late you can receive a special note with an apology from JR that you can give to your punctual and polite boss. Amazing.

You are constantly reminded when you are on the train, that you cannot speak on your mobile phone. If you are standing in the general section of the train you must turn your phone to silent, and if you are near the priority seating (the haven of the elderly, the disabled and the pregnant) you must turn it off entirely. In most of the commuter trains in Tokyo you can hear a pin drop. It’s bliss.

It might then surprise you all to learn that the Japanese still believe, however, that everyone must be constantly reminded of the rules of politeness on the train. Even though they are drummed into even the tiniest of Japanese kids. Therefore, you can frequently see helpful and instructive posters on how to behave on the trains. Oddly (or not so oddly) they seem to be centred around the train stations in the foreigner districts. I can’t imagine why.

Here is a very special gem that Tamago and I found the other day on our local train platform…

Zooming in to take a closer look at my personal favourite. I particularly like that the writer has gone for a tricky idiom but somehow pulled it off:

And finally; when riding the train in Japan, always ensure that your seat is only as wide as your bottom. No room for self-esteem issues here…

Lost at Fuji

In Tokyo, it had been raining all night. Foolishly, I’d decided to hold a Wayne’s World 1 and 2 marathon into the early hours of the morning (“party on, Garth!”), so I was not a happy camper when my alarm went off at 6:20. I had a bus to catch, though, so there could be no snoozing.

The bus was headed for Yamanakako, a lake at the base of Mt Fuji. One of my mates from work has a cabin up there, and he was hanging out with his kids and had invited me up for the day. Booking the bus was a serious test of my Japanese reading skills. There was no English help available on the bus company web site, and all of the bus routes and booking forms were rendered in kanji (Chinese characters). I was 85% sure that I’d booked a ticket on the correct bus, and that’s about as good as it gets for travel arrangements concluded in Japanese. Apparently it was the last weekend before the end of school holidays, and it seemed everyone in Tokyo was keen to get out of the city. I got one of the last available tickets departing from Tokyo on Sunday (Saturday was completely booked out), but couldn’t get a return ticket back to Tokyo at the end of the day. No problem, my friend assured me — we could catch a train back into the city.

The day before, I’d spent a fair bit of time wondering what you’re meant to bring when you visit a friend’s house in Japan. I thought about a bottle of wine, but that’s not a universally enjoyed beverage over here. Some chocolate? What if the kids aren’t allowed to eat chocolate? Eventually I went shopping and settled on a rockmelon/honeydew-looking thing. Everybody loves melon in Japan. It’s luxury food. Sorted!

At the bus terminal, I wandered around for a while trying to find my bus. I still had plenty of time, so I wasn’t too worried, but I must have looked lost, because an elderly man came bounding up to me and, in pretty excellent English, asked where I was going. He snatched my ticket out of my hand, studied it for a second, and then marched off to a service counter, where he badgered a hapless employee until she told us which bay my bus was leaving from. This all makes my intervener sound rude; he wasn’t, he was just… enthusiastic, and I was grateful for the help, even if I probably could have managed by myself.

After guiding my to my bus, my new friend explained that he was a minister of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- Day Saints, and would I like some material to read on the bus? I couldn’t refuse after he’d gone to so much trouble, and he wasn’t too pushy about it, unlike some evangelists living near our house. (The pushy ones camp out at the only exit to our local train station on a Saturday night, and want us to come to church with them the next morning. They only very reluctantly take no for an answer.)

Armed with literature and a can of coffee, the bus ride was pleasant enough, and once outside Tokyo the countryside was, as always, stunningly beautiful. It was raining and foggy, and the tops of the forested hills were obscured by clouds. In the valleys, small shrines were dotted amongst the rice paddies. I closed my window blind so that I could play my Playstation Vita.

I’d never been out this way before, so I kept (I thought) half an ear out for the stops as they were announced. I had to get off about 4 stops before the end of the line, at Yamanakako-something-something-iriguchi (I couldn’t read the kanji for the “something-something”, and therefore couldn’t pronounce it). The stops immediately before and after the one I wanted were named, respectively, “Something-Yamanakako-something” and “Something-yamanakako-mura- something”. At some point, I noticed that the road we were on skirted a lake. Then I heard that the next stop would be “Something-yamanakako-mura-something”. That’s funny, I thought to myself. I thought that was the stop after the one I wanted. I decided to stay on the bus for a while longer, to see if they’d announce my stop. Eventually, we reached the end of the line.

Lost! I rang my mate to explain that I was not where I was meant to be; and that my phone had a low battery; and did he have any idea what I should do? He told me to walk alongside the lake until I found a restaurant called “Mameson”, then turn down a road alongside a stream, and to call him again when I saw “the orange house”. “Oh,” he added, “But you’re probably about an hour and a half or so from where you need to be, and we were thinking about heading to the onsen [hot springs]. So maybe we’ll meet you halfway, or something.” My phone was complaining so I had to hang up, but the directions I’d been given weren’t all that encouraging. Walk along the lake — in which direction? Would the signs for Mameson restaurant be in a language I could read? In Japan, getting lost is generally no problem as long as you know where the nearest train station is. A train station is civilization and, during the day at least, a sure-fire way of getting back home, no matter where you are. For the first time in a long time, I had absolutely no idea where the nearest train station was. Busses were booked solid, so they were no help. It was a long walk back to the city, so I really needed to track down my friend.

With trepidation, I decided to walk along the lake back in the direction the bus had come from. It drizzling and there was hardly anyone around. From my backpack, my melon was emitting a faint, sickly-sweet odour, reminding me of the passing of time and my own mortality.

On the shore of the lake, families with campervans were having barbeques in spite of the rain, girls in bikinis were giggling, and absolutely no one was hiring the 100 or so swan-shaped paddle boats parked by the jetty. There was a wall of cloud behind the lake where Fuji was supposed to be.

After half an hour of trudging I finally spotted Mameson restaurant, which had a sign in English characters! After that, it wasn’t too hard to track down the orange house (which was more of an apricot colour in my opinion) and meet my friend and his kids. We had a lovely day at yamanakako visiting the hot springs and buying gormet sausages and real bacon (which is hard to get in Japan), before catching the train home in the evening. All in all, a great day.

P.S: On the way to Yamanakako, I passed the Fuji Q amusement park, and now it is my mission to go there. There are 4 giant roller coasters, plus an Evangelion attraction, plus what is apparently one of the biggest haunted houses in the world! The picture below was taken from the train station our way home. I’ll be back, Fuji Q…