Heading towards the Japanese Alps

I’m sitting on a train, my head leaning back against the headrest, my body being rocked gently from side to side as the glisteningly clean train slices its way through the Japanese countryside. The bright sun is streaming in through the large window to my left. We’re reaching the end of the day, and heading south from Nagoya into rural Japan, into the Japanese Alps. I have finally managed to create some distance between myself and the group and am feeling quite alone. They’re bonding; enthusiastically sharing tidbits about themselves. I needed some quiet time. Andy has handed out clear plastic containers of food, which I have piled up on the fold-down food tray in front of me.

I don’t really feel like eating. There’s so much of it and even though I hadn’t eaten since the dry, disappointing breakfast at the hotel, the sheer volume of food makes me feel full and nauseous. I also feel too awkward to eat this unfamiliar food in public. I just know I’m going to dribble and spill and the polite Japanese people are going to have to pretend to not have seen, not to notice the greasy smear on the polished floor. I also have a can of disgusting tasting sake, which has a plastic lid, so that I can seal it between careful sips.

A youngish Japanese man sits next to me, staring out the window and neatly eating what looks like the Japanese version of Pringles crisps from a small can. He turns to look at me and sees the sun shining in my eyes. He gestures towards the curtain, indicating that he can close them if the sun is bothering me. I shake my head and smile, quite urgently – I don’t want to miss out on a thing. It will soon be dark and then I won’t be able to see the countryside anyway. He turns back towards the window and we continue to sit in silence. He has finished his can of crisps and is sitting very quietly, just staring out the window, deep in thought. I still have the containers of food quivering in front of me, glaring at me.

I don’t know what comes over me, but suddenly I tap him on the arm. He spins his head towards me, lifting off his seat in shock, his eyes wide, mouth open. I hold the open container towards him and offer him some of my food. He nods vigorously, smiles and takes a piece of whatever it is. Thank goodness! I would have wanted to fling myself from the moving train in embarassment had he refused!

And so, as it grows dark outside, we start talking. Him with minimal English, me with no Japanese. We gesticulate, we enunciate carefully, slowly, clearly, and we finish the one container of food. I ask Nina for her Japanese-English dictionary, and we continue to talk, drawing pictures on a sheet of paper and pointing to words in the dictionary. I learn that friendship, companionship and conversation are not dependent on a large vocabulary.

He points to the can of sake and says ‘You like Japanese sake?’. ‘Yes!’ I say. Well, I wasn’t going to tell this nice man that the contents of this can was ‘Ee-eugh!’ and that the warm sake I had had in Nagoya had left me cold, now was I? He proceeds to tell me that they make sake in the area where he lives. ‘Good sake?’ I ask. ‘Yes, yes, good sake.’

‘Better than this?’ I ask, pointing at the can.

‘Oh …’ he laughs, shakes his head. ‘I don’t know.’

‘Bottles or cans?’ I ask.

‘Bottles,’ he says.

‘Then it must be better,’ I decide.

Suddenly he looks at his watch, jumps up, and rushes from the compartment. Geez. What have I said? I figure he must be close to his stop, or something, and then notice that he had left his wallet lying on the windowsill. I quickly grab it and hurry after him, only to find him talking quite urgently on his cellphone, leaning against the wall at the door. I give him his wallet, wave goodbye and head back to my seat, a bit sorry that he was leaving.

And then he’s back. Smiling, talking, as if the whole incident hadn’t happened at all. We settle down and resume our conversation. He tells me about a castle in the area, draws a picture, tells me he is married, has a small child, loves soccer. I ask if he will have more children. ‘That is up to god,’ he tells me, pointing upwards. I give him my details and tell him he must come to Cape Town for the 2010 World Cup.

Suddenly, he jumps up again. ‘One moment,’ he says, putting his hands up, pushing both palms towards me, showing that I must wait. ‘One moment!’ Out he rushes again. My word, the fellow must be in trouble at home, or something, I think. The train comes to a halt, and I see him get off and talk to an elderly couple on the platform. They both look at me and smile. Well, they kind of stare at me actually, looking quite curious, but they’re friendly, keep smiling, looking at me. ‘Oooh’ I think. ‘I hope they don’t think he’s up to no good with this westerner with the crazy red and black hair!’ They exchange parcels, and he gets back onto the train.

Down the aisle he comes, beaming, carrying a paper bag with string handles in front of him. He sits down again, puts the carrier on the floor, peers inside, looks sideways at me, then picks it up again, and presents me with it. ‘For you,’ he says, his smile luminous. I’m taken aback, don’t know how to react. I want to cry. I look inside the bag … it is a gift pack of six glass bottles of different kinds of sake. ‘From here,’ he says, pointing out the window, indicating that it was sake from the region.

I worked out only much later that he must have gone to phone his parents when he dashed off the first time. Called to tell them that he had met a tourist on the train, someone who likes sake. And so they had taken the trouble to come out in the cold and dark to deliver a gift of sake to the next stop.

He had given me such a large gift already: our conversation, the time we had shared, this small pocket of real Japan that I had experienced. I was overwhelmed. And I had nothing to give him in return.

My movements wherever I travelled through Japan for the next two weeks would be heralded by the chink-clink-chink of little glass bottles dancing against each other. I couldn’t bring myself to break open the pack and put the bottles individually in my suitcase, which would have made more sense than dragging my red suitcase behind me with the one hand, carrying my heavy black camera bag over my shoulder and schlepping the white carrier bag of sake in other hand. But schlepp it I would, all the way back to Cape Town.

Once home, the sake did, eventually, get drunk. The little bottles were recycled. But the memory still makes me smile. And it reminds me that simple random niceness, for the sake of niceness, does exist, and that little gestures can alter someone, possibly forever.


~ by ReluctantRunner on June 1, 2008.

2 Responses to “Heading towards the Japanese Alps”

  1. The Japanese are quite gracious, aren’t they? A very intriguing story.

  2. Ah, man… what a wonderful story!

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