Tag Archives: crowds

Rush Hour

imagesMaking my way into the station, much too early in the morning, I descend the stairs, the sound of a thousand pairs of feet echoing around me, the thundering hooves of Tokyo’s workforce stampeding toward another day.

On the platform, the doors slide open and I shuffle into the car, a human zip file compressed among wool and down, beginning to sweat even before the train moves. Walls of jumbled body parts press against me from all sides, one to my left exuding a delicate camphor, one to my right reeking of old onions. Someone behind me sneezes and I feel his breath on the back of my neck.

A wave of sadness washes over me. I am a little mouse, caught in a trap, unable  to move, helpless and vulnerable.  A tiny moan escapes my lips. Tears fall. My reflection in the window wipes them away. Those around me pretend not to notice as we experience these unintended intimacies.

I remind myself that every soul sharing this violation must hate it as much as I do, but that thought does not comfort me. Comfort is home, my bed, my cat, my fuzzy socks, my favorite sweater, cold wine and warm cheese, not this oversized sardine can circulating around the city less elegantly than blood circulates through our veins.

Station after station streams past. People get on, people get off, a faceless blur like sand on a beach, roiling, eddying, always changing yet always the same. We grains of sand all look alike, bundled in our winter wear, but in the end are isolated individuals with nothing in common but misery.

I cannot fathom how some people do this every day. I suppose you can get used to anything if you have to, but I want to get used to this morning agony almost as much as I want to stick toothpicks under my fingernails.


I just learned a new word: Gun-Tama-Chi-Bara-Gi. It refers to Gunma, Saitama, Chiba, Ibaragi and Tochigi Prefectures, and infers that while those areas are included in the Great Kanto Plain, they are Japan’s unsophisticated outback and the people who come from there are yokels and hayseeds. The cool kids all come from Tokyo; a few from Yokohama are also acceptable.

FYI, I have lived in Tokyo for all of my many years in Japan, but of course, that goes without saying.

MapofkantoThe irony here is that when I was small, I lived in a big old farmhouse five miles from a tiny town in Pennsylvania. When I was nine, we moved to Pittsburgh, which for me was a big step up in the world. In case you don’t know, as image and reputation go, the only thing worse than Pittsburgh is New Jersey.

On top of that, I hate crowds and am slightly claustrophobic. You can’t begin to grasp the concept of crowded until you’ve ridden a Tokyo morning commuter train or attended the annual Tamagawa fireworks. And everything is smaller here, the houses, the food, the people. There’s an elevator at a studio I work in that I can’t ride because it’s only slightly larger than a pair of coffins. I’d rather climb the four flights of stairs, even when my knees are hurting.

There was an elevator that small in my hotel in Venice, where my room was on the sixth floor, but after getting crammed into it with an over-sized German couple, I took the stairs. And I nearly had a panic attack when I went into the tomb chamber in the great pyramid at Giza.  The chamber itself is big enough, but the passage to get to it is terribly narrow and one has to maneuver past over-sized tourists both coming and going.

So how did a Pennsylvania yokel end up in Tokyo? Or Italy, or Egypt? Or any of the dozens of other countries I’ve been to?  I guess I just decided to go. I think I’m part cat; I always have to see what’s around the next corner.

What really baffles me is people who don’t–and don’t want to–go anywhere.

Too Close

One of my blog bunnies suggested that my recent reference to briefcases on a crowded train was a euphemism. It wasn’t. While groping and other misdemeanors are common enough, I have never been groped. Not once.

One of my Japanese friends said that it doesn’t happen to me because I’m scary. I just laughed, but then realized she wasn’t joking. “Fair enough,” I said. “I guess I am kind of scary, but you can’t know that just by looking at me, can you?” And she said, “Yes. You have an air about you. You’re not the kind of woman who would put up with that.” Again, fair enough.

I’ve seen it happen, though, and am always astonished to see the poor women just stand there and take it. Maybe that’s what my friend meant; it wouldn’t occur to me not to fight back. I’ve always had a strong sense of personal space and don’t hesitate to use my elbows if someone gets too close. I have had greasy salarymen try to nap on my shoulder, but that is easily sidestepped by suddenly leaning forward or a quick elbow jab to the ribs.

It’s hard to imagine just how crowded a Tokyo commuter train can be if you’ve never experienced one. The laid-back American might say, “Why not just wait for the next train?” Well, the next one isn’t going to be any better. Nor the one after that. And I have to get to work.

It’s dehumanizing, being crammed up against the bodies of strangers, smelling their breaths, feeling their body heat. These are intimacies I would not otherwise take except with the closest of friends. And this is not a culture of touch. Japanese people on the whole do not know how to hug; even handshakes can be awkward.

So I remind myself that as hard as it is for me, it must be twice as hard for everyone else. But even so, if I have to take a morning train, I will stick with the women only car. And gropers beware.