Perspectives of Jonathan Mendelsohn on a random Friday in Japan:
“A Friday in Japan–as to Why Japanese Might Drink and Smoke as Much as They Do”
According to a recent New Yorker article there is a direct link between one’s length of daily commute and level of personal happiness. Commonsensically, the longer the commute, the greater the unhappiness. The article estimated the average big city commute across North American cities at 40 minutes. The average commute time in Japan was estimated to be around 90 minutes.
Fridays you teach at Doshisha University in Kyoto. You teach 3 classes, rather than the usual 4. This qualifies as a sleep-in. Your cell phone alarm goes off at 6:50, vibrating against the plastic of your plastic box of a bedside table (the realities of transient living). Snooze twice before getting up. Shower, don’t shave, blow dry hair (men in Japan have beautiful hair; you do not have beautiful hair but you live in a place long enough and it gets to you—the need to make your hair as pretty as can be). After put small goop of gel in hand to then rub on opposite hand’s fingers to then brush over hair to keep what’s left in place.
Dress, retrieve Daily Yomiyuri from slot in brown metal front door. Go with newspaper to breakfast table. Enjoy long but not remotely miso soup or in any way fishy Japanese breakfast (cornflakes with raisins sprinkled on, a mandarin and a piece of toast with marmalade; the toast accompanied by a Fortnum and Mason Assam leaf tea) whilst checking front page, sports pages and, on Fridays, movie reviews, and, occasionally, even some actual news. Find the awful need to have CNN on in background while reading paper, while eating breakfast. Be thankful that it’s Andersoon Cooper and not Lou Dobbs. Hate Lou Dobbs.
Follow breakfast with last minute rush before leaving. Grossly underestimate amount of time needed for: peeing, toothbrushing not very penetratingly effectively, then spitting, brushing, spitting, rinsing, towel drying running back to kitchen to ensure that first and foremost novel and journal are safely slotted in knapsack, check also that teaching materials are there. And cellphone. Shit. Cell phone. Find cell phone. Throw in knapsack, front pocket. Unzip. Rezip. Get granola bar for later snack. Put in same front pocket as cell phone. Unzip. Rezip. Illogically leave knapsack on chair at breakfast table (make this mistake each and every morning for the two years of your job contract), rush to closet by front door, retrieve coat, scarf, return to kitchen as you dress in coat and knot scarf round neck to grab knapsack. Look at elementary school-style clock on wall across from kitchen table. Stress. Remember your need for water. Say shit. “Shit.” Retrieve plastic bottle from black-netted stretchy thingy on side of knapsack. Empty remains of bottle. Fill with water too fast. Spill. Swear. Feel no guilt at not cleaning up slight spill. Go. Go. Go.
Walk the 12 minutes to Hotarugaike station in 9. Be sweating under your scarf and bitter about it once there. Climb the 3 steep flights of steps two at a time. Feel older. Get to the top, make the left, time it just so that a trainful of passengers has exited the gates you’re gunning for, so you have to swim upstream through them who don’t give you love for obstructing their race to get to work on time in a land where getting to work on time is taken pretty German seriously. Slide train pass through gate, descend escalator, walking on left. Get angry with the old man not standing all the way to the right so that you have to slightly side-step by. Make a very Canadian point of saying excuse me (sumimasen) in such a way as to basically be telling the man to off himself for ruining your escalator descent. Find train just arriving at platform as you do. Run to get on the last—least busy—car.
This the 8:30 you’ve chosen to race to get is a local (25 minutes to Umeda), not an express (17 minutes to Umeda). The worst of rush hour over, and it being a local, and last—least busy—car, though all seats are taken, you can stand without being squooshed or even having to be in actual physical contact with the others standing around you, you Canadian boy from the suburbs and spacious shopping malls north of Lawrence Avenue.
Breath. Balance knapsack between legs. Retrieve novel from knapsack. Rezip. Grab rubber ring above seated passengers. Read for 25 minutes minus the odd lingering look at the rolling green mountains in the distance beyond the tetris mess of grey concrete buildings, houses, and shops that stretch on for the foreground immediate miles just outside the generous wide and long train windows. Despair at the crowded ugliness of all that concrete. Look to green tree covered mountains. Feel relief. Breath. Return to novel. Look up. Read. Up. Read. Ignore salaryman staring at you, the only white man in the car, and likely, on all eight cars of the Hankyu train. Try not looking at the girl in the white coat and black skirt with black stockings. Legs crossed. All that thigh. Read. Look at her thighs. Read. Again. Stop. The mountains. Umeda station.
Walk the 4 train cars worth to the middle staircase. Descend with crowd. Feel annoyed that it is not moving faster, that you can’t walk faster. Cross an open but low-ceilinged area of big train station busyness, crowdedness; have to navigate between and sometimes through commuters traveling perpendicular and thus at cross-purposes to you. Love them you do not.
Swipe train pass and exit Umeda station. With hundreds of others and against oncoming hundreds more, walk the 5 minutes indoor, then 3 minutes over bridge outdoor and down the stairs to JR Osaka station. See another foreigner. Manage a nod. Receive nod response. Rejoice in the camaraderie of the visible minority. Get tense preparing for walking through Osaka station. Cross through 6,000 people coming in and out of the station even then at that late, now 9 am, stage of rush hour. Swipe pass, take two escalators, walk 3 minutes. Wait in long line for long train. Take the Loop Line 3 stops— 6, 7 minutes—to Kyobashi station. Exit train, be very unfriendly to the passengers waiting to get on the train you just got off, who don’t move out your way enough when you try to exit. Take it personally, walk along platform to the staircase on the left. Descend. Relieve at the relative un-busyness of said staircase. Trot down stairs in relief. Sigh. Line up for express train. Wait 7 minutes and 2 local trains before the express. Get seat. Rejoice. Sigh. Wish it wasn’t a teenage boy beside you. Try ignoring his too wide spread legs, the bastard. Philosophize on the selfish nature of youth today. Acknowledge that you are part of said generation. Then immediately feel that you are somehow above it. Be Buddha good, avoiding conflict, keeping your knees Catholic school girl closed. Frustrate. Let simmer, how long 1, 2, 3 minutes? Spread your legs angry wide so your knee is now leaning on his. Assume this will send message. Curse a culture not nearly as afraid of touch as yours when said knee kissing message has no effect. Push harder against his knee. Feel great and awe-wonderful satisfaction when teenage wanker moves his knee—albeit passive-aggressive killer slowly, and just a little. Feel slight dent in satisfaction that he didn’t move his knee more.
A 40 minute ride to your final stop try reading but find you can’t concentrate. Spend some few minutes with book on lap trying to sleep. Tsuck your teeth in frustrated can’t sleepness. Open eyes. Scowl at salaryman across from you staring at you (probably for tsucking noise made against teeth). Read 5 minutes. Fall asleep for 7 minutes, book open in hand. Jerk head wake. Embarass and look round to check if others have seen you. Find most fellow passengers sleeping. Gaze braindead out window. Wish you never need work again so braindead gaze may continue ad infinitum. Feel thankful for rural Kyoto, for small squares of rice paddy land that have now replaced the concrete, and in the distance, but closer now, the ever present soft green mountains. Dream of being atop one of those mountains alone. Check watch. 20 minutes to go. Close eyes. Open eyes. Read. Window. Two stops, one stop. Sigh. Book in bag and up. Exit train. Exit station along with a couple hundred university students. Descend shallow set of stairs to roadside. Wait. Red light. Shniggle (yes, shniggle) your way through to the front of the crowd. Count seconds waiting for light to change. Remember the quote you read in the English style pub bathroom in Shinsaibashi (downtown Osaka) by Kipling, you think, something about only ever getting comfortable or sane in the East when you give up trying to change it. Stand waiting for set of lights that like all lights in Kansai, Japan take twice as long to change as lights in Canada do. Want desperately to change this.
Start walking pavement pounding before light has changed. Stride, delight in the fresh air of the Kyoto countryside. Having mentally prepared for it back on train, begin steep ten minute climb up tree lined street to Doshisha’s Kyotanabe campus. Pass high school tennis courts, look longingly at kids playing. Wish today, blue sky day, that you were coaching tennis outdoors, blue sky day, rather than ESL indoors, white walls, ceiling, every bloody day. Reach hill top more out of breath than you’d like. Hate this. Promise to find more time to exercise. Wait at another red light for just a little longer than forever. Cross fast, walk the five minutes through campus—check watch. 2 hours door-to-door. Teach a one and a half hour class, eat lunch, teach 2 more one and a half hour classes, cross campus, and repeat commute in reverse.