A while back, my friend Ayaka asked me what was the strangest thing that had happened to me during my time in Tokyo. I had to think about it for a bit, as I had quite a collection of bizarre tales gathered by that point. I finally settled on the story of my sleepy train companion, a young woman who entered my life for a brief three-station ride, never to be forgotten. It started in Ikebukuro Station, in western Tokyo. As is always the case, the semi-express train car was crowded, standing room only, except for the seat next to me, because nobody in Japan will sit next to a foreign barbarian unless they absolutely have to. In any event, one brave soul took her place next to me just before the train doors closed, a young woman in her early twenties, I would guess. Basically, because talking on the train is frowned upon, there are only three time-passing options open to Tokyo train travelers: text-messaging, reading and sleeping; she opted for the third choice, her head nodding forward almost as soon as we left the station. I was engrossed in a Haruki Murakami novel, and I paid little attention to her until a lurch of the train caused her head to fall onto my shoulder, whereupon she snuggled up like a long lost girlfriend. I considered waking her up, but it seemed kind of impolite; she wasn’t bothering me, I could still read, and truth be told, she was very nice looking. And so we proceeded westward to our first stop, Nerima. As the train drew into the station, she awoke, glancing around in a mild panic. She realized that she had been sleeping on the shoulder of a gaijin, and began profusely apologizing in Japanese, her face flushing beet red. “Sumimasen, gomen nasai!” (Please excuse me, I am so sorry! Sorry, sorry sorry, sorry!) I smiled and said “no problem” in English, and went back to my Murakami. The doors closed and we started out again. Almost immediately, she slumped forward, sound asleep for the second time. And, when the train inevitably swayed while crossing a junction point, she fell again onto my shoulder, burrowing in once more for the duration. I wasn’t getting a lot of reading done, but I didn’t really mind; this was turning into quite an interesting train ride. We pulled into the second station, Shakujii Koen, and the scene from Nerima replayed, albeit ramped up a bit: disoriented wake-up, red face, sumimasens, gomen nasais, etc. The train let off a few passengers and took on a few more before rolling out, bound for my stop, Oizumi Gakuen, perhaps five minutes away. Needless to say, my new girlfriend nodded off yet again, and for one final time found solace (and presumably a comfortable pillow) in my shoulder. Shortly before we arrived at Oizumi Gakuen, I reached over and touched her cheek, awakening her. There was that moment of confusion preceding the inevitable expressions of embarrassment, but I put a shushing finger to her lips: “Please don’t make this harder than it already is,” I said in English. “It never would have worked out between us anyway. We come from different worlds, you and I, and then there is the age difference…” She looked at me a bit blankly, as you might expect, rather like the look you might give a barking loonie. So of course I continued: “I’ll never forget our time together. It was too short, I know, but it was lovely. No matter what, we’ll always share memories of Shakujii Koen.” I am relatively sure that the only words of the entire soliloquy that she understood were “Shakujii Koen”; the context would have eluded her completely. As I made my way onto the platform, I turned around for one last look, raising a hand in farewell. She looked everywhere but at me as the doors closed, risking one short glance just as the train pulled out. I guess she couldn’t resist my sad face, and she waved a tentative goodbye to me just before disappearing into the night. Sadly, there was not one other foreigner in the crowd to appreciate my Oscar-worthy performance.
“Wow,” said Ayaka, laughing politely, although not nearly so much as I felt the tale warranted. “That is quite a story.”
“Um,” I agreed.
A couple of days after Ayaka left Prince Edward Island for Japan, I was sitting around one evening talking with my friend Saki, who is also Japanese, and who has known Ayaka a fair bit longer than I have. I asked her how she thought Ayaka liked PEI. “I think she liked it a lot,” Saki replied. “She was very curious to know what it was like for me to spend the whole summer here with just a gaijin for company.”
“Really?” I asked. “What did you tell her?”
“Well,” she said, “I told her that one of the problems is that you have to hear the same stories over and over again.”
“Oh, dear,” I said, wincing inwardly.
“Um,” said Saki. “In fact, she asked me what the stories were like, so I told her the one that you told me about the girl on the train.”
“Oh, great,” I said. “I told Ayaka that story.”
“I know,” Saki said, giggling. “You told it to her like one hour after I told it to her, so she got to hear it twice in a very very short time. She told me all about it in Japanese at supper last night. You were right there.” As soon as she said it, I remembered the moment vividly. The instant replay would go something like this: a chattering of unintelligible (to me) Japanese, then my name (“Blah, blah, blah, blah, Bruce-san”), followed by peals of laughter. When I asked what they were talking about, they both grinned ingenuously and said in unison, “Nothing.” Then some more merry laughter.